Against all odds: ‘At 35, I had the fertility blood profile of a 60-year-old woman’
06th Mar 2023
When Sheilagh Foley was given a one per cent success rate of having a child of her own, she harnessed her last remaining reserve – hope. Sometimes, just sometimes, blind faith pays off, as she discovered.
Covid may have been forcing us to examine our health, but it also pushed us to look for hope. I am alive because of hope. When people threatened to take my hope away, I found new hope. Don’t be afraid to dream. If there were no hopes, no dreams, there would be no inventions, no cures, no progress. Here’s my story…
At 22, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At 30, I had developed mouth cancer. At 37, a tumour was found in my pancreas. Chemo, radiation and operations were my salvation and curse. My heart was badly damaged by the treatment I received in my twenties; this led to sudden and severe heart failure last year – a full 20 years later. The other casualty of the chemo was my fertility. In amongst the excellent care, a mistake was made. I had been given 16 times the amount of chemo I should have received. The devastation to my fertility was immediate. Through blinking tears, I persuaded a doctor to give me some hope, a one per cent chance – at least, that’s how I decided to interpret her 99 per cent certainty that I would never have a child of my own.
I took my one per cent chance and I held on to it with all my might. I told myself, “I am particularly unlucky, but within that misfortune I’m kicking ass, I’m doing okay.” I moved to London in my mid-twenties, and soon after I got married and we tried for a child. We tried through failed IVFs, nightly brews of Chinese herbal tea that smelt like a dragon’s breath (normally that dragon was me), and weekly acupuncture sessions. I went home one evening on the London Underground with a forgotten acupuncture needle stuck in the top of my head. That was the night I decided to knock the alternative medicine on the head (after removing the needle), and move to America.
I didn’t care if they were selling snake oil – they were dreaming big and they had me hopped up on hope
We set up home in San Francisco, and travelled across all 50 states, I journalled every strange and sensible encounter we had in my blog (lettersfrombeyondthepale.com), a legacy for children I thought I’d never have. America is brimful of possibilities (not all delightful), but it is the kind of place that makes you believe the impossible is just a “possible” with “I am” in front of it! So despite my severely diminished ovarian reserve, we tried our sixth and decidedly final attempt at IVF. I tracked down a clinic in New York that was showing unprecedented success with a new wonder drug, DHEA. I didn’t care if they were selling snake oil – they were dreaming big and they had me hopped up on hope, so off to New York we went.
Despite maximum stimulation medications, I only managed to produce one egg (at 35, I had the fertility blood profile of a 60-year-old woman). I was disappointed. I had been doing thrice daily injections for weeks, I was taking steroids for conditions I mightn’t even have, I was popping progesterone, eating oestrogen, washing down wonder drugs. I was turning into a tablet. I needed FDA approval to go to the toilet. All that effort, all those attempts, flying in from California, for this… for one egg!
But I gripped my one per cent of hope even tighter, and rang the lab every day for updates. Every day, the lab would say the embryo was ahead of schedule, it was a freaking super egg, the rockstar of eggs! They transferred the embryo back into me. I was somewhat fearful my tragic body would let me down again. Couldn’t the ball of cells just keep growing in the test tube for nine months? But the famous quote from Jaws entered my head: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
A week later, in San Francisco, I did a blood test, and the results were sent to New York. I had started to spot. My hope was still there, but it was slipping below one per cent. I began a conversation with my husband about other ways to start a family. I’d even seen a therapist on how to move on. My phone rang. A 212 number…
“Congratulations, you’re pregnant!” I nearly collapsed. It was the best day of my life. That egg is now a happy and wild six-year-old girl called Róisín, who said to me recently, “Mom, you carried me a lot when I was younger. I think I’m ready to carry you.” She has no idea how much she has carried me already.
Róisín’s middle name is Creideamh, which is the Irish word for “belief/faith”. We kept the belief that one day we’d meet the child of our dreams. Róisín, when you read this, know that you are the one per cent; you’re the super egg that defied the odds. Never give up on your dreams, and definitely never let anybody take them away from you.
ILLUSTRATION BY AOIBHNE HOGAN.
This article originally appeared in the IMAGE Annual.