Expectations: By the Numbers

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I manage to calm down and even come up with a short-term plan to deal with the “my computer is dying and my book is due” disaster. Charlie manages to take a short nap, and we return to our planned day of relaxing and recuperating. Later, we spend our last night in Tucson watching 10 Things I Hate About You with Kelsey and Mickey, because Mickey has somehow never seen this movie despite having grown up on planet Earth.

Right now, at the clinic, the doctor (or someone else? A nurse? Some kind of… sperm technician? This seems like something I should know but I actually totally don’t) is performing intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, or ICSI, wherein a single sperm cell from our donor is being injected into each one of Charlie’s retrieved eggs. This is a somewhat more effective alternative to standard IVF, which would entail putting each egg in a petri dish with a whole bunch of sperm and letting the best gamete win.

Over the next few days, they’ll keep careful track of which eggs fertilize and which are developing into normal blastocysts. The ones that look good after five days will be frozen so they can be transferred back into Charlie’s uterus at a later date. Charlie says he hopes we get six frozen embryos, but I’m secretly hoping for ten.

In the morning, we’re on our way back to Denver, cheerful despite the fact that Charlie is sore and bloated and generally feeling run-down. We got 19 eggs! This seems like a huge victory. As we’re leaving Kelsey and Jared’s house, we hug and thank them profusely, and they make us promise to keep them updated on any and all baby developments.

Getting through airport security is breezy now that we don’t have to explain why we’re carrying a cooler full of ice packs, medication, and needles, so within a few minutes we’re sitting at our gate, struggling to stay awake after our late night and early morning. Charlie’s phone rings.

“It’s the clinic!” he says. We smile at each other hopefully. This is going to be good news, I think, and squeeze Charlie’s free hand as he answers the phone.

The conversation is short. I stare at his face as he talks, trying to absorb whatever information the clinic is giving him via osmosis. I don’t like what I’m seeing.

He hangs up, looking heartbroken. “Only 10 of the eggs fertilized.”

The disappointment hits me harder than I expected; I really thought I was doing a decent job of not getting my hopes up. Part of my brain is like, “We still have ten chances! That’s great!” And it’s certainly more than some people get–in fact, some have fewer than 10 eggs retrieved and still end up with a pregnancy. But all that logic doesn’t counter the bare emotional fact: yesterday we had 19 potential pregnancies; today only half of them remain.

I can see in Charlie’s face that he’s devastated. He drops his head back onto my shoulder and I run my fingers through his hair, trying to think of what to say. “I’m so sorry,” I say finally. “I know this is a huge disappointment and I’m upset about it too. But we still have lots of chances. We’re still going to come out of this with a baby, and it’s going to be wonderful.”

Charlie is silent for a minute, then says, “I don’t need you to try and make me feel better right now. I just need you to let me be sad. And maybe be sad with me.”

We sit in silence for a while. On the plane back home, I read and Charlie sleeps. I’m trying hard not to think about what we’ll do if it turns out all this has been for nothing.

Two days later, we get our next phone call from the clinic, this one reporting how many of the fertilized eggs are developing normally at three days post-insemination. Seven of them look perfect, and two more are slightly behind but otherwise look great and might catch up. After spending two days depressed about the drop in numbers from retrieval to fertilization, this feels like great news. “Maybe all nine will make it to five days,” says Charlie. We’re back to feeling hopeful. True, we won’t get the ten blastocysts I was hoping for, but we might still get the six Charlie wanted. Come on, little guys, I think, trying to send good vibes in the direction of the multiplying clusters of cells that could one day be our children. You can do this.

On Thursday, Charlie gets the five-day blastocyst report while he’s at work. Only one of the blastocysts is developed enough to freeze. But there are at least four more that are just about there, so the clinic is going to give them an extra day to catch up. It’s back to the downhill stretch of the emotional rollercoaster.

Charlie emails me with a link to this chart and says, “Does looking at this make you feel proud of our embryos, or is that just my hormones?” I agree with him–I already feel attached to them and I want them all to make it. Come on. You can do it. Come on.

The clinic is supposed to call Charlie back on Friday and tell him how many blastocysts will be frozen. He waits and waits and waits, both of us growing ever more tense and impatient. Finally, Charlie calls the clinic. They apologize for not calling him sooner and inform him that three of our eggs developed into full five-day blastocysts suitable for freezing. We have two 5AA blastocysts and one 5BB–the number represents the size on a scale from one to six, and the letters stand the quality of, respectively, the inner cell mass and the trophectoderm (which will develop into the placenta). An AA blastocyst is the most likely to result in a successful pregnancy, a CC the least likely.

“Well, no wonder I haven’t gotten pregnant yet,” says Charlie, “if for every nineteen eggs I produce I’m only going to get three embryos, never mind whether they’ll actually implant and grow.”

From 19 to three in the course of just under a week, we’ve watched our chances of pregnancy shrink from “plenty” to “maybe not enough”–especially considering that some blastocysts don’t survive the freezing process. I’ve been hoping so hard I’m physically tired, and now it’s come down to this: our three tiny chances at parenthood, on ice and waiting for their chance to grow.

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