COVID-19 costing IVF patients precious time

When COVID-19 struck, fertility clinics in Ontario were deemed non-essential and forced to close their doors. That's left thousands of clients of the Ottawa Fertility Centre wondering if they're ever going to get started on their families.

Ottawa Fertility Clinic deemed non-essential, leaving hopeful parents in the lurch

Renée, left, and Valerie Thouin, right, are unable to access the frozen embryos they have waiting at the Ottawa Fertility Centre, currently closed due to COVID-19. (Submitted by Renee and Valerie Thouin)

Ottawa's Valerie and Renée Thouin have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant.

COVID-19 struck just as they were about to attempt their fourth round of an expensive, invasive, in vitro fertilization treatment, or IVF.

It's a window that's closing. It's not an opportunity that … we are ever going to get back.- Valerie Thouin

"I always knew I wanted kids. I just thought ... things would be easier," said Renée Thouin, 38. Valerie Thouin has two children from a previous relationship, ages 24 and 17. 

After three failed IVF attempts at the Ottawa Fertility Centre, the Thouins had sought a second opinion — and possibly a parallel strategy to double their chances — at a fertility clinic in Toronto.

"I pushed and pushed and pushed to get through the wait list, and we had our consultation March 12. And then the very next day … the world shut down," said Valerie Thouin, 42.

Clinics deemed non-essential

Deemed non-essential, the clinic on Green Valley Crescent shut down most of its operations March 20, laying off some 80 employees. Renée Thouin's four frozen embryos from an earlier IVF attempt are safely stored there, but can't be accessed or transferred.

As a same-sex couple, the Thouins feel IVF is their best route to a biological birth. Unlike heterosexual couples, they can't "keep trying" at home, waiting for COVID-19 to subside. 

"When you're gay … you can't really do that," Valerie Thouin said. "So the clinic is our only chance to get pregnant..... It's a window that's closing. It's not an opportunity that ... we are ever going to get back." 

An embryologist works at the Ottawa Fertility Centre before COVID-19 forced the clinic to close. (Ottawa Fertility Centre/Dave Chan)

Beset by fruitless intrauterine insemination (IUI) treatments, an ectopic pregnancy, three failed IVF cycles and one miscarriage each, it was starting to feel like "the universe is spitting in your face," Valerie Thouin said.

"When the clinics started closing there was a … definite sense of, are you f--king kidding me?"

"You can't help but think, is this actually going to work out for me? I'm getting older. Maybe I should just start thinking about moving on. I don't have a bad life," Renée Thouin added. "With all of the things that have happened including this pandemic, it doesn't feel very hopeful."

Months-long delays

They're not the only ones whose pregnancy plans have been put on hold. The Ottawa Fertility Centre has 9,000 active clients including an estimated 400 who would have just been starting the process were it not for COVID-19, according to Tim Skelly, the clinic's business operations director.

Fertility clinics are among the businesses and services allowed to resume during the first stage of the province's reopening plan. That could mean a return to work by late next week, according to Skelly, who said the Ottawa Fertility Centre is starting to re-book appointments.

Tim Skelly is the business operations director at the Ottawa Fertility Centre. (Dave Chan)

But even if the clinic opened up tomorrow, "everybody else for the remainder of this year and into next is going to face at least another three-month delay," Skelly said. That doesn't include the one-year waiting period just to get into the queue.

They want to get going. They want to have their families.- Tim Skelly, Ottawa Fertility Centre

"This is the real frustration for our patients," Skelly said. "They want to get going. They want to have their families."

Clients who have already paid for procedures that had to be halted won't lose their money, Skelly said.

"Where some patients may have challenges is if they started taking drugs which they had to pay for, and then we had to shut down. In that instance, there would be some financial loss for the patient."

It's been hard on families desperate to conceive, and hard on the clinic's bottom line, too.

"We're talking about a quarter of the year in which there is zero revenue coming in," Skelly said. "It's a huge hit. It's horribly affected our employees, most of [whom] have been laid off … because there are simply no patients and no revenue." 

Reassessing their plans

Ottawa's Amanda May, 32, has been trying to conceive with her husband for more than three years. Hormone therapy helped them get pregnant in 2018, but May miscarried at 19 weeks. After another year of unsuccessful "medicated cycles," they decided to try IVF.

A one-egg transfer on Valentine's Day 2020 did not work, but May was scheduled for another transfer March 24. Then COVID-19 happened.

"We got cancelled the week before. I'd already been taking medication for two and half weeks," May said. "I was really upset. Just … not knowing when we'll be able to start again."

May said she feels like her life's been on pause for three years, and said it doesn't help when people point out she's only 32.

"I hate it, because it downplays the fact that I've been wanting a child for a very long time," May said.

The Ottawa Fertility Centre is offering its clients virtual psychological counselling during the shutdown. According to Skelly, the psychologist has been "extremely busy."

Renée Thouin works as a firefighter in Gatineau. (Submitted by Renée Thouin)

The Thouins said they're now reassessing their plans.

"The goal was to have that fourth IVF before [Renée] turned 39. Now that's not going to happen," Valerie Thouin said. "So now we're at the point where we're like, do we even do that? That's another $23,000 for a 39-year-old woman."

"It's definitely taken the wind out of my sails for sure," Renée Thouin admitted. "I'm not as motivated … as I was before."

So has COVID-19 cost the couple a baby?

"It's quite possible that it's changed the trajectory of [our] ability to have a child, yes," Valerie Thouin said.

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