Made in Aldridge

Made in Aldridge’ is a regular e-news feature which tells the story of a woman’s or couple’s experience at MFS and the impact of the result on their lives.

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Zach Omar Howley

Zach Omar Howley with parents Shareena & Fred

Every MFS patient has a different ‘fertility story’ to tell and MFS devises each treatment plan based on these individual circumstances.  When a woman or couple first learns that they need fertility treatment to conceive, many believe they face only an up-hill struggle.  But for some, less than a year after their first appointment and following just a single treatment cycle at MFS, their longed-for baby is safely delivered into their arms.  Others may have to have a two or more cycles – but even those for whom the odds seem to be stacked against ever having a baby of their own, sometimes there is still a way for a couple to become a family . . .

Shareena and Fred Howley knew that having a baby was going to be difficult after a roofing accident in 1993 left Fred with injuries to his lower spine and unable to walk.  They always knew that they would need fertility treatment to help them conceive but didn’t know that it would take nine years of heartache and the gift of a couple whom they don’t know before they would have the baby they long for.

This was made even more complicated in 1999 when Shareena was diagnosed with mild polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a complex hormone disorder which makes it difficult to conceive and increases the risk of early miscarriage.

Shareena (36) and Fred (37) of Cannock first visited MFS in 2001.  After an initial consultation  and treatment assessment, clinical staff recommended ICSI treatment using Fred’s sperm which would be surgically recovered under sedation and then frozen to be used at a later date to fertilise Shareena’s eggs.

PCOS makes it difficult to predict how a woman will respond to fertility drugs and so Shareena was monitored very closely to reduce the risk of her ovaries over-stimulating.  She produced 11 eggs and embryologists at MFS used the ICSI procedure to inject a single sperm of Fred’s into each of Shareena’s eggs, via a glass needle 1/10th the width of a human hair.  Three of these fertilised to become embryos and two days later Shareena returned to MFS to have the best two transferred back into her uterus.  However, after her embryo transfer she felt unwell and staff at MFS treated her for mild ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome.

“We really tried to hope for the best, but the PCOS and my body’s reaction to the fertility drugs meant that the embryos weren’t of the best quality,” said Shareena.  “But we were both still devastated when my period started because it meant I wasn’t pregnant.”

But the want to have a baby was greater than the heartache they had experienced and Shareena and Fred returned to MFS a few months later and began a second treatment cycle using Fred’s surgically recovered frozen sperm and the ICSI procedure.  The clinical team also changed Shareena’s fertility drugs to further reduce the risk of OHSS and to improve the quality of her eggs.

Again the treatment ended with the disappointment of a negative pregnancy test.

Two more treatment cycles included modifications to Shareena’s drug protocols, daily scanning and using Fred’s fresh, rather than frozen, surgically retrieved sperm, but both ended with more disappointment.

Heidi Birch, director of nursing services at MFS, who had been their primary contact at the clinic during treatment, met Shareena and Fred to review their treatment and advised that the combination of poor quality sperm and PCOS meant that success with IVF using their own sperm and eggs would be unlikely and that they might instead consider intrauterine insemination (IUI) using high quality donor sperm.  It would also be less invasive than surgical sperm recovery and ICSI for both Shareena and Fred.

But when this treatment ended with a negative pregnancy test, Shareena and Fred decided to take some time out and think about what they wanted from life.

Fred had achieved success in the 2004 Athens Paralympics winning a bronze medal with the British wheelchair basketball team but had since retired from competitive sport and his and Shareena’s plans to have a baby had not yet been realised and so in 2005 they took an 18 month break travelling around the world, including working at a school and at an orphanage in Thailand.

When they returned to the UK they tried to ‘get on with life’; Shareena completed her Masters degree and they both started new jobs, but they still felt the need for a baby in their lives.

“Working with the children in Thailand had been both fulfilling and heartbreaking and getting my Masters was a real achievement, but we both knew that we couldn’t bear to consider a future without a baby,” said Shareena.  “We thought about adoption, but were sure that we hadn’t yet considered all the options available from fertility treatment and that one of them may just be right for us.”

So in early 2008 they returned to MFS and again met Heidi.  “Heidi knew our case so well, she was there every step of the way and really cared about helping us make our dream a reality,” said Shareena.

This time Heidi suggested they consider using donor embryos.  Some couples who have IVF are lucky enough to have enough good quality embryos to freeze for possible future use, after they have their own embryo transfers.  Sometimes they use these to attempt a pregnancy after a negative pregnancy test or even to have a sibling following successful fertility treatment.  When their families are complete, some couples, with huge generosity, agree to donate any unused embryos to another woman or couple who are not able to use their own eggs and sperm to conceive.

“We’d not thought about using donor embryos before and couldn’t quite believe that some people would be generous enough to donate their embryos to couples who had no other way of having a baby,” said Shareena.

“It didn’t matter to us that the baby wouldn’t be genetically related to me or Fred, just as we’d have loved any baby we’d adopted, as our own.  And using donor embryos meant that the baby would grow inside me and that I would give birth, so it seemed to be the answer we’d been looking for.”

Just four months later MFS contacted Shareena and Fred to let them know that donor embryos would soon be available for them.  Shareena was prescribed a course of drugs to prepare her uterus, and they returned to MFS for the two best quality embryos to be transferred into her.

“The following two week wait was awful and I was terrified it hadn’t worked.  I woke at 3am on the test day and made Fred watch the test-stick for the result and when it showed ‘pregnant’ we couldn’t stop crying and just sat and looked at the result for the next couple of hours.  We couldn’t believe we now really had a chance of becoming parents!”

Despite some early bleeding and developing gestational diabetes during her pregnancy, their son Zach Omar was born at Walsall Manor Hospital on 9 January 2009 weighing 6lb 5oz.

“We both have nieces and nephews and have watched as our brothers’ families have grown over the years and wondered if we would ever have the chance of being parents,” said Shareena.  “And despite the heartbreak of the failed treatment, we knew we just had to keep trying and considering the different approaches that the experts suggested.  But it was all worth it, because now we have our beautiful son.

“The couple who donated their embryos to us gave us the most amazing gift anyone could give – the chance to have the baby we wanted so much.  Though we don’t know who they are, they really are two of the most important people in our lives and we can never thank them enough.

“It’s true that IVF miracles can happen – even the seemingly ‘impossible’ ones – they may just ‘take a little longer’!”

For more information on giving or receiving donor eggs or embryos email Donna Rea-Gardner, MFS donor co-ordinator, or phone her on 01922 455911.