Nfld. & Labrador

Family plans on hold: N.L. couples with fertility issues facing uncertainty during pandemic

Couples in Newfoundland and Labrador who were exploring options and undergoing fertility treatments to expand their families have had to put their plans on hold due to COVID-19.

Appointments deemed non-urgent cancelled by Eastern Health, including at St. John’s fertility clinic

Terri Green, left, and her husband, Stephen, are anxiously waiting for the St. John's fertility clinic to reopen. All non-urgent appointments were cancelled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Terri Green)

Couples in Newfoundland and Labrador who were exploring options and undergoing fertility treatments to expand their families have had to put their plans on hold due to COVID-19.

The fertility clinic in St. John's — like in-vitro fertilization clinics in other parts of the country — have shut their doors in light of the ongoing pandemic.

"It's very frustrating.… You spend your whole life dreaming of growing up, getting married, and having children," said Terri Green, 26, of Western Bay.

"You get this doctor who is willing to help you, and you're making your appointments, you're doing what you're supposed to do, and then you get this virus [appearing] out of nowhere — and it's like, 'Oh my god, my world is turned upside down.'"

Green and her husband, Stephen, got married in June 2018, and started trying to conceive right away. But as time crept by with no pregnancy, they knew they needed help.

The couple was referred to the St. John's clinic last year. After some testing, Green said her specialist gave her a prescription for an underlying condition that could affect her fertility.

"I started taking the medication and she said, 'At the end of three months, if it doesn't work, come back and see us, and we'll talk about the next step,'" Green said.

That would have been around the end of March. But then, the global pandemic struck.

"I can't get in to get my blood work done that I need to get done, I can't get in to see [my doctor]. So at this point, we're just kind of left like … what do we do?" Green said.

Stephen and Terri Green started trying to get pregnant after they got married in June 2018. (Submitted by Terri Green)

She said her family's future is in limbo. June is fast approaching, marking two years since they started trying to have a baby — and there's no indication when life might get back to normal.

All the while, Green said the people around her seem to be progressing with their life plans.

"You see your friends all getting married, and they're all having their own children, and it's hard," she said. 

"I'm so happy for my friends that do get pregnant and have their children, but there's … a knot in my stomach, like, 'Why can't that be me?'"

Green said, through it all, she and her husband are trying to stay positive.

"We're trying to keep our hopes up, that hopefully if everybody starts to listen and they do the self-isolation and they do the social distancing, that everything can go back to normal, and we can get in and we can see [our fertility doctor] and we can figure everything out," she said.

Appointments cancelled due to COVID-19

In a statement, Eastern Health said all appointments that are not deemed urgent or an emergency were cancelled to limit traffic at its facilities. That includes appointments at the fertility clinic.

The health authority cited public safety, and said the decision is part of its efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The health authority said elective surgeries and procedures will be rebooked at a later date.

"We would like to reassure the public that we are continuing to work on a recovery plan, so that appointments can be resumed efficiently once we are in a position to do so," the statement reads.

Travel plans for IVF on hold

While Green is in the beginning stages of her fertility journey, Jessica Penney has been undergoing treatments for about a year.

The 29-year-old St. John's resident had just decided to take the next step, when the pandemic shut everything down.

Penney and her husband started trying to have kids after they got married in 2017.

A year went by. Penney said she knew something wasn't right.

Her family doctor did some preliminary testing, and the couple was referred to the local fertility clinic in May 2018. They got an appointment there about eight months later.

Jessica and Neil Penney started trying to get pregnant after they got married in 2017. (Submitted by Jessica Penney)

"We found out that we actually didn't have anything wrong with us. So what we suffer from is called 'unexplained secondary infertility,'" she said, noting it's known as secondary because she already had a child from a previous relationship.

"There's no reason why we can't get pregnant. We just can't." 

The couple did 10 rounds of intrauterine insemination, in which a woman's cycle is tracked and often controlled by medication up to ovulation, and a thin catheter carrying sperm is then placed directly into her uterus to increase the likelihood that an egg will be fertilized.

"After discussing it with our [fertility] doctor, we obviously found that that wasn't working. It was causing so much strain. I was very sick, gaining weight, I'm tired from all the hormones," she said. 

"Then we decided that our only option was IVF."

Last resort

In-vitro is the last resort for fertility treatments, which can be both physically and mentally taxing.

It's a multistep process that involves hormone drugs to help a woman's ovaries produce more eggs, surgery to remove those eggs from her body, and then fertilizing the eggs with sperm in a laboratory dish. After a few days, if embryos are produced, one or two are transferred to the woman's uterus, in hopes of resulting in pregnancy.

Because there is no IVF clinic in Newfoundland and Labrador, the couple had to look elsewhere. In January, they decided they would go to the Regional Fertility Program in Calgary.

The Penneys are trying to conceive a sibling for Izabelle Petten, Jessica's daughter from a previous relationship. (Submitted by Jessica Penney)

The plan to go to Alberta for IVF wasn't made lightly, Penney said. On top of the stress of leaving your home, your support system, and your job for two weeks for treatment, there's also the financial strain.

According to its website, the base cost of one round of IVF at the Regional Fertility Program is about $8,000, not including other factors, like freezing eggs, sperm or embryos, or further treatments to aid in the process — which can push the cost over $10,000.

Penney said the financial strain is further complicated by COVID-19.

"You spend all of the time working, saving, cutting corners, not taking vacations, putting renos on hold — to make this baby, and then you know your job's taken away on top of all this," she said.

Since she was laid off, Penney said she now finds herself cutting into those IVF savings.

The couple was planning to go to the Calgary clinic in August.

"Now we are being told that is not happening any time soon," Penney said.

Calgary clinic closed

The Regional Fertility Program has currently cancelled in-person appointments until the end of May, when the situation will be reassessed.

Dr. Joseph O'Keane, who works at the clinic, said they're following guidelines set out by the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society. The clinic is finishing ongoing IVF cycles, and some emergency cycles for cancer patients — but it won't start new fertility treatments until it reopens.

"We are doing telephone consults and followups with [current] patients, but not in person unless it's an urgent, emergency issue," he said.

"Unfortunately, it's very hard on our patients. But this is to preserve the medical resources and for social distancing and to prevent [the] spread of COVID-19."

Dr. Joseph O'Keane, seen here in 2018, said the Regional Fertility Program in Calgary will work hard to clear the backlog of patients waiting for IVF once the clinic is cleared to reopen. (Jennifer Lee/CBC )

O'Keane said, once it gets the go-ahead from the CFAS and Alberta Health Services, the clinic will reopen and deal with the backlog "as expeditiously as we can."

"Many years ago, we had a backlog and we worked very, very hard, and cleared it. So really, there is minimal delay of generally one to two months," he said.

"The IVF lab will have certain constraints just in how many of the cycles we can do concurrently, but otherwise we'll all be working full out once we restart."

'Still hopeful for the quarantine baby'

Penney said she feels her own biological clock ticking while she waits to hear when the Calgary clinic will reopen.

"I started this process in 2017, and it's 2020 now. So obviously you know it's taking more and more time to get things figured out … [and I'm] approaching that 30-35 [age] range really, really fast," she said.

As difficult as it is, Penney said she's trying to be positive through this uncertain time.

"I'm still hopeful for the quarantine baby," she said.

"The 'best thing' about [having] unexplained fertility is that you can still get pregnant at any time.… I like to hold out hope and to know that eventually, once this all calms down, there will be answers."

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