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Treatment, support sustain couple through infertility struggles

Posted May 23
Updated May 24

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— For many young couples, becoming parents is a basic life goal.

But some find the winding path to parenthood frustrating, challenging and heartbreaking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infertility issues affect about 10 percent of the reproductive-age population, or about one in every eight couples. The stress of trying to become pregnant and carry a child to full term weighs on the hearts and minds of millions of people, often turning into a revolving door of tests, trips to the doctor and treatments – waiting and hoping.

Michael and Jean Marie Whaley waited five years to welcome their daughter, Bess, into the world. Along the way, they suffered through three miscarriages.

"I worked on my health really hard for that year," Jean Marie Whaley said of the initial attempts at getting pregnant. "After a year, I got pregnant for the first time and miscarried early. It wasn't until the third loss that I, we decided to get help and more testing done."

The tests came back normal, but the couple had a diagnosis – infertility, or not being able to get pregnant within a year of trying nor being able to carry a pregnancy to birth.

"On the one hand, it's good news because there's no reason that we can't have a child. On the other hand, there was nothing to be fixed," Jean Marie Whaley said of the diagnosis. "If there had been a clear-cut reason and we had said, 'This is the thing that needs to be fixed. This is the thing we need to do.,' that would have been great, too."

The couple says, in their half-decade struggle of starting a family, being happy for others who were having children was a struggle.

"One of the worst things going through this is not being able to celebrate other people's joy. And I had always, and Michael too, we've always enjoyed being around kids, enjoyed our nieces and nephews and our friends' children and children at church, "Jean Marie Whaley said. "When that became a source of pain, that was a loss on top of a loss. Then to hear a friend gets pregnant, too, it made that loss fresh for me."

Michael Whaley said he struggled to find much information on how men should help deal with miscarriages. The one thing he did see was the importance of supporting his wife.

"How? What am I supposed to do with this grief and guilt and rage and watching her become a shell of who she really is because of the pain? Support her how?" Michael Whaley said. "So, I tried my best to be as supportive as I could, and hopefully I was."

As they continued to struggle, the Whaleys said they slowly met others, including people in their own family, who had struggled to get and stay pregnant.

"I was surprised at how many women we knew, even in our families, who when this started to happen, they said, 'It happened to me, too,'" Michael Whaley said.

"It's like there is this strange little secret society, and then it happens to you, and you find out that it was much more common than I thought," Jean Marie Whaley said. "I had no idea it was so common."

Jean Marie Whaley said some of her friends allowed her to grieve through the struggle.

"The other thing that helped was having some friends who didn't ask me to change the way I felt. That was something that was really difficult for me. Not only do I have to deal with my feelings, I have to deal with your feelings about my feelings," she said. "Knowing there were some people that I didn't have to edit myself at all to enjoy their company was such a gift."

The couple found hope and support at Atlantic Reproductive Medicine, a Raleigh-based medical services company that provides fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization and more.

"I've been doing this for 28 years, and over the last 28 years, what's improved is our ability to help couples get pregnant more so than our ability to understand why they are not getting pregnant," Dr. David Walmer, a physician at Atlantic Reproductive Medicine, said.

Walmer says age is certainly one factor that affects fertility. Studies have debated how much stress plays a role. About one-third of all infertile couples fall in the "unexplained" category.

"Extreme stress can cause women to stop cycling. Extreme stress and disease can cause low sperm counts. But in the normal daily aspects of stress, it's harder to prove that one way or another," Walmer said.

Dr. Susannah Copland said the experts at Atlantic Reproductive Medicine believe wellness plays a huge role in how people get through the process of treatments and the stress and sadness infertility brings.

"That includes how they eat, how they still enjoy interactions with their partner if they're partnered," Copland said. "Acupuncturists, meditation is helpful, we encourage (couples) to journal. Everyone knows for themselves what works for them in wellness. There's not a cookie cutter approach."

Copland said about 15 percent of couples will get to a point where they feel pregnancy is not coming as easily as it should.

"There are options at every stage, and there are people who will partner with them on the journey to find the right way for them," Copland said of different infertility treatment approaches. "There is no one right way, and we need to find the right way to get them their ultimate family vision."

For Jean Marie Whaley, the right answer started when she began taking fertility medication after visiting Atlantic Reproductive Medicine. It was designed to increase her chances of producing a better quality egg. After three cycles of treatment, she was pregnant for the fourth time. The first ultrasound is a memory she says she'll never forget.

"That was a big day. But to see that little flicker, that was magic," Jean Marie Whaley said. "Because we had never gotten to see that with any of our previous pregnancies."

Before the couple knew it, Dec. 30, 2015, had arrived, and so had their baby.

"That first smile. I think my heart will never recover from this," Jean Marie Whaley said of her daughter. "Now she laughs, and there's a new person there that wasn't there before."

The Whaleys say leaning on each other – and the experts who helped them get the right type of treatment – helped them make it through the long road to becoming parents.

"Try to have fun together, even if you don't feel like that, maintain that connection," Jean Marie Whaley said. "When you're in pain, it's very easy for that connection to get frayed. And I think we did a good job of that, and it helped a lot."

"Be as happy as you can be, and don't stop loving each other," Michael Whaley added.

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