What the IVF Process is Really Like
I remember meeting with a reproductive specialist for the very first time. She explained to my husband and me what the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) would be like, using complicated charts and diagrams. It was shocking. Up until that meeting, I had no idea how little I actually knew about what it takes to get pregnant. I'd never really had to think about it since I had previously conceived without medical treatment. Keyword: had.
Now that we were trying to have another child "later in life," suddenly all those aspects of human reproduction I'd never given a second thought to post middle school sex-ed were my whole world.
I was 38 years old and, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Treatments (SART), I had about a 16.9 percent chance of having a live birth after undergoing IVF. The percentage didn't seem too high to me, given everything I was about to go through. In fact, the IVF journey I was about to embark upon would push me beyond what I thought I was capable of.
How Long Does the IVF Process Take?
In the movies, an entire IVF cycle seems like no time. You inject yourself with a few hormones, and then—pouf—you're pregnant! In reality, our doctor talked us through all the steps involved, including the egg fertilization cycle and the transfer cycle.
If everything went perfectly, I would start my egg fertilization cycle that July, and hope to be pregnant that October. That time frame felt especially brutal to me since we'd just suffered a pregnancy loss at almost six months along. So, it would take almost a year to get back to where I was. That felt impossible.
The IVF Process Start to Finish
I showed up at my fertility clinic with $8,000 in cash. Talk about a leap of faith. That day, we fully committed to the IVF journey. It felt exciting, yes, because you hope so darn much it'll work. But more than that, I felt overwhelmed. Was I really going to go through with all of this? Just a few days later, I had my answer.
The beginning of an IVF cycle
Upon using oral meds to induce my period, which marks the beginning of a cycle, we were suddenly deep into hormones and monitoring. Something else that seemed insurmountable was all the injections I'd need to take to do this. Let's just say if you have a fear of shots, you'll need to get over it real quick to do IVF. I was in disbelief when my first shipment from the specialty pharmacy arrived at our home. The instructions were incredibly detailed, and geez, we thought, we aren't doctors! Yet, there we were, mixing up meds and drawing up syringes each night.
Yup, the stomach is where you start with the shots. The hormones you inject at this stage are administered via fairly small needles. Nonetheless, I would grow terribly black and blue, and get very bloated—a side effect of the egg stimulation hormones. There were other side effects too, like extreme moodiness. That, coupled with the depression over our loss and my anxiety about whether all these injections would even succeed in getting me pregnant—well, it was a lot.
Another shocking aspect of this part of the IVF process is how many times I needed blood work and ultrasounds. My hormone levels were being closely followed, as were the size of the follicles being stimulated by the drugs. Some weeks, I had blood drawn and a wand inserted in me just once. Other weeks, it was almost every day. Since our IVF clinic was 45 minutes from our house, this was a lot, especially with my husband's and my job, and given that we had older kids, ages 9, 6, and 3.
I remember one specific time I went for morning monitoring at 5 a.m. These appointments always felt really heavy. I would look around at the others who were having their blood drawn in the cubicles around mine. They were as beat up as I was from the meds, the monitoring, and the worry. There was just this sense that every one of them had been through something—maybe a loss like me, or previous failed IVF cycles. Disappointment, shame, and grief hung in the air like a fog.
To make this process seem less intense, the phlebotomists would always play music, and one time, the song "Spirit in the Sky" came on. A phlebotomist practically tripped over patients in a rush to turn it off. That's how fragile some of us were. A lyric like, "Goin' up to the spirit in the sky / That's where I'm gonna go when I die," could do us in.
The egg retrieval process
After weeks of injections and monitoring, I was ready for my egg retrieval. This is done under sedation, which felt like a really big deal. But the procedure was fine. It was waiting for the results that ended up nearly giving me a panic attack. You see, I was told odds were, I would get one or two healthy eggs. Of those, perhaps only one would make it to the embryo stage after fertilization using my husband's sperm. "If we were lucky," was a phrase I heard a lot. Luck? Yup, it seemed in addition to science, we'd need that, too.
The transfer cycle
I don't know why, but luck was on our side. I got several healthy embryos. Nonetheless, I felt acutely aware of how many people weren't as "lucky" as I moved on to the next phase: the transfer cycle. Again, my doctor waited until I got my period to begin my next round of meds. These shots were no joke, with needles big enough to make me sweat. They would go in my rear end now. What a treat, right? I also needed help to psych myself out each night. I held a baby hat and played Led Zeppelin while I bent over the sink and my husband plunged a needle into my butt. Some spots hurt worse than others. I cried every time.
About four weeks later, my transfer was scheduled. Again, I felt so lucky to get here. This time, you are awake for the procedure. It's strange—the whole thing feels super clinical, even though you are about to—hopefully—get pregnant. There are several people in the room, including a doctor, a nurse, and a person who brings in your teeny, tiny embryo in an incubator. The weirdest thing about it is how they verify it's your embryo via a series of numbers. I hope that's really mine, I remember thinking. But here we go!
The transfer itself is quick, but kind of painful. Your legs are spread with the speculum inserted, like you're about to get a Pap smear, as the doctor inserts this tube inside of you. I watched that embryo float up into my uterus on a screen—all my hopes and dreams were encapsulated in that microscopic dot. Would it become the child we'd been yearning for?
The waiting period
We'd have to wait 10 excruciating days to find out. During that time, I cried a lot, fearing the worst. Had I done all of this for nothing? It was tough not to go there.
Finally, the day came that I went in for my blood test to determine if I was pregnant. My nurse said I could take a home pregnancy test too if I wanted, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I decided to wait for that all-important phone call. When it came, I froze, and didn't answer. In fact, I didn't listen to the voicemail for about an hour. When I'd built up the courage, I listened to the message. And I was pregnant! I couldn't believe it.
After a positive pregnancy test
This was the best possible news, of course. But I was about to learn my IVF journey wasn't over. To continue to support the pregnancy, I would inject myself with progesterone for the next eight weeks. I'd like to tell you these shots were easier since I was pregnant, but they weren't. At this point, I'd be getting jabbed with needles for six months. I was exhausted and I still had an entire pregnancy to go through! I think that's one of the hardest things about the IVF process. You have already been through so much by the time you get to the pregnancy test—it's daunting, no matter what happens next.
Case in point: Although I was blessed to give birth to my healthy son after that IVF cycle, we tried again a year and a half later, using an embryo we'd frozen. Amazingly, I got pregnant again. But at seven weeks, I miscarried. The loss killed me emotionally—I'd done all those injections, and put my family through all that stress, plus spent thousands of dollars, and ended up with nothing. It hurt. A lot. The most painful moment came when my doctor said I could just stop the injections. There was no reason to take them anymore. Suddenly, not needing those needles I so dreaded felt beyond sad. In fact, I'll confess that years later, I haven't been able to bring myself to throw them away since they are my only real connection to the baby we lost.
Find Support for Your IVF Process
The good news is there are tons of resources for IVF patients—specifically, I was pointed to videos that walked us through every step of how to prepare and administer the injections. My fertility clinic also had an emergency line that, ahem, we might have called a few times in a panic that we'd timed or mixed something wrong.
Luckily, I also had a great partner, who huddled in the bathroom with me each night and encouraged me to take deep breaths while he plunged needle after needle into my tummy. I always felt supported and seen—although no one can truly understand what the IVF process is like unless they themselves are going through it. Unfortunately, I didn't know anyone else who had done IVF, so I felt incredibly isolated. I looked online for IVF support groups, but if I'm being honest, I didn't linger too long there. It's hard not to read what others are going through and apply it to your own experience, good or bad. I found it best to focus on my own journey and used yoga and meditation to find calm amid the storm of emotions and fears I was navigating.
The Bottom Line
I'd tell anyone considering IVF that firstly, you should know beyond a shadow of a doubt you want to get pregnant, and secondly, it'll test you physically and emotionally, and financially.
It was almost a blessing that I didn't know what my IVF journey would entail, or else I'm not sure I could have done it. But even though it was difficult, and even though it drained my bank account, and taxed my emotions and my body in ways I will never fully recover from, I am so, so grateful IVF exists, because we wouldn't have our son without it.