This is the story of Amber and Mark, a loving couple who travelled down the road of infertility, and after years of suffering, loss, anxiety, hope, hope dashed, hope renewed many times over... they now have their sweet little baby girl named Ruby, snuggled up in their arms. What a hard road they have travelled. They hired me to document their journey, through photography (maternity & birth photography and newborn photography), but also, through its telling in words. Amber has given me the story in her own words. I have included it here to accompany the following powerful images from her maternity & milkbath session.
Amber's hope is that the story of her and Mark's arduous and inspiring journey will serve to shed some light on the process, show those of you who may be on a similar path, that you are not alone, and that there is reason to keep hope alive. There is much to be inspired by. There is much to be thankful for. And, also, the story provides a valuable context for when their birth story will be shared on the blog (coming very soon). I know that for me, as their birth photographer and doula, I had a heightened appreciation for the work Amber did in that hospital room, to see her baby Ruby out safe and sound. And I had a deeper understanding of all the tears that fell down her cheeks, when Ruby was placed on her chest. They were not just tears of joy, and relief. They were tears, like punctuation marks, chronicling their vast and epic journey, detailed below.
Readers, please be warned that this story includes details of miscarriage, in-depth fertility treatments, and the death of a loved one to cancer. If you would like to skip the story, simply scroll down to find the images from her beautiful, heartfelt session. Thank you for taking a look. It means a great deal to Amber and me.
Amber's Story, in her own words:
Where do I begin... On June 29th, 2000, our second son came into this world. Sadly, his birth was not as expected: the cord was wrapped around his neck, which wasn't caught in time and he was born with an Apgar of zero and had to be resuscitated - the scariest moment of our lives. Thankfully they were able to get him breathing and crying within a short while and all checked out fine with him. Today he's a thriving, smart, handsome young man. But due to his traumatic birth we became afraid to have more and I sat on the fence until June 2004 when my husband Mark underwent a vasectomy. I just needed to try and move on since after all, "it had been so long since our last child, why would we have more?", so many said this to us, so it happened.
Fast forward to Feb of 2010 and feelings had changed. I found myself wanting more; more love, more family, but still with a sense of fear of what happened but more at peace. So I approached Mark about it who was not open to the idea at first but I asked him to hear me out and left it at that. A little while later I approached him again and asked him if we could at the very least get the referral to the surgeon in Winnipeg to chat about possibly reversing the vasectomy, to which he reluctantly agreed. Little did we know it would take until Nov 2010 to get that appointment and Mark was more than on-board by the time that date rolled around.
November 2010 we met with the surgeon, put down our first payment to secure a spot and waited.......we waited for what felt like forever. It turned out Mark needed to have a sleep apnea test done which turned into a gong show. When I finally got a hold of the hospital about it we were told it would be a 2 year wait. Yeah, I don't think so, then they mentioned that we could go private, so we went that route, had the test done, got the results all within one week and he was cleared for surgery. We finally got a surgery date for April 29th, 2011.
During the month of November 2010 our family was hit hard with the news that our beloved (step) dad, Guy, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given 6 months to live so I felt a sense of urgency to get all of this in place in the hopes of at least getting pregnant while he was still alive. Sadly that did not happen, he passed May 26th, 2011. I had him write a list of names down for us to use when/if the time came. Little did we know how much time would pass..........
Time ticked by, no positive pregnancy tests, nothing. Every month I felt a little less hopeful. Mark's semen analysis were coming back less and less which eventually led us to Heartland Fertility clinic in the summer of 2012. We had one final analysis done, were told to bank sperm while we have it. We didn't ever think we'd go the route of IVF (in vitro fertilization) so we didn't follow this advice and we did not have enough for IUI (intrauterine insemination)~ so we felt that our journey was coming to an end. Well as luck would have it, we came across the funds to move forward with one cycle of IVF. We called up Heartland and told them and did all the tests, paid our deposit and waited for our spot. Were told that I'll begin my meds for suppression Dec 10th, 2013 with retrieval in the New Year. My biggest fear was that out of the 40,000 sperm they had found in July 2012 we'd have none on retrieval day, but they assured us all would be fine and we did not need to bank anything prior ~ so we forged ahead.
On Jan 3rd 2013 all was nicely suppressed so I started my gonal-f and roughly 12 days later 11 eggs were retrieved. We were a bit disappointed, given my age and everything we should have had a bit more but hey, there were 11. I asked about Mark's sample and was told it's not great but they'll make it work. Next day was fertilization report day and anyone who's been down this road knows just how nerve-wracking that day is. Well we got the call and the first words were, "I wish I was calling with better news". Turned out Mark's sample was so poor there were no live sperm, they did what they say is a host test on the mere 10 sperm they found and inject them into our eggs, the result was apparently 2 fertilized. (we'd later find out after receiving our files that actually none had fertilized)
So we carried on thinking and hoping that one of these 2 was our future child, because after all, this was our one and only chance to make this work. Day 2 rolled around, we were told there's still one very fragmented poor quality 5 cell embryo but one is better than none and to prep for transfer the next day. On Jan 19th, 2013 we started making the drive out, but as soon as we hit the #1 Highway my phone rang and I knew why: our embryo had fragmented overnight and we had nothing. We agreed to still come in to speak with the doctor. That day sucked. We watched others go down the hall, happy for their transfers while I sobbed over what could have been. The doctor said it was the sperm and that we needed to do TESE (testicular sperm extraction) for the next round and to try again. But........how?! This was our one and only chance.
Well, because we had paid all our fees and medication costs in the previous year I was able to claim it all on that tax return and we manage to scrape together enough to afford the TESE for sperm (a very invasive surgical procedure where they actually take a piece of the testicle and extract the sperm from there. I was in charge of driving said tissue samples from the surgical site to Heartland) and one more cycle.
On Feb 5th 2014 we had the consult for the TESE, and we had the actual procedure done on Feb 28th, 2014. We were told it all looks great. Heartland felt badly for what happened and helped us get things in the fast lane for another cycle. So we embarked on IVF cycle #2 on April 18th, 2014 on a different medication for various reasons. Well, on the Friday I had a scan done and all looked good but my bloodwork, I was told, did not come in, so I'd need to come back Sunday. I felt something was off because my ovaries went from very painful to nothing over the weekend. Well low and behold Sunday's scan showed 3 follicles. 3!!! I had 16 on the Friday ~ turned out my E2 had dropped on Friday and they didn't want to tell me........I was livid. We had to cancel. Add to that, we had to put my cat Baby to sleep that same day which was just the straw... So, the current doctor we were dealing with told us we're changing things completely for the 3rd try. Thankfully almost all funds were transferred over to the next cycle except for the cost of meds. But we felt we deserved a good shot at this.
The 3rd try was to commence in August but I came down with a bacterial throat infection, and it got cancelled again! We stopped birth control for another try and Sept 15th, 2014 all was suppressed and we were given the green light to start the stim meds again. On Sept 23th, 2014 things had gone so well that I was ready to trigger with a whopping 17 follicles. Egg retrieval was booked for Sept 25th, 2014, and 23 eggs were retrieved!!! We were beyond thrilled!! Then came the next day, fertilization report day.....I was biting my nails and full of anxiety I felt like I might puke. They called and said that out of the 23 eggs, 15 were injected with our TESE sperm, 6 were immature and 2 were missing zona's so they couldn't be used and out of those 15 only 6 had fertilized. I knew right then and there something was wrong and the cycle was a bust. I went to the bedroom after hanging up and sobbed. On day 2 we only had 3 left, 2 at 3 cells, 1 at 4 cells. Day 3 we had 1 at 4 cells, 1 at 5 cells both a D grade, the lowest it can be and 1-6 cell grade C. My world was literally shaken and take out from underneath me. I was devastated. They wanted to do a transfer but we said no as the odds are not favorable with such poor embryos, so we told them to go to Day 5. They called on Day 5 and told us there was nothing viable. At this point we learned that there are many couples with the same story as our's, poor quality to no embryos, and they keep blaming the sperm. At this point we were tapped out but decided to book a consult with another clinic. (We did find out there was one embryo still around, a grade C 6 cell as per our files)
2015 rolled around and we had a consult with Dr Hudson at Victoria Fertility Centre. We had heard so many great things about this clinic - that this just had to be our golden ticket, or egg. He told us there's no reason why things shouldn't work for us and gave us some hope again. This clinic does a procedure called PESA for sperm extraction which is a simple needle aspiration and they get whole mature sperm the same day as egg retrieval and all included in the price!
We managed yet again to scrape together the funds to do this and this really was our last shot. I started stims on April 26th, 2015 and we flew out May 1st, 2015. The first scan showed 16 good sized follicles and an extra friend......a freaking polyp. Dr Graham, the other RE there, stated that we would likely have to do a freeze all cycle due to this. I broke down right then and there because it seemed nothing could ever go smoothly for us. Well the second scan showed over 20 follicles and boy was I feeling it, third scan showed over 30 follicles!!!! I triggered the next evening with Suprefact instead of HCG to help reduce the chances of OHSS, Over Hyper Stimulation Syndrome - something you do not want. I was also put on Dostinex to help reduce the chances as well. Egg retrieval came around and 30 eggs were retrieved; 28 mature and injected. Mark's PESA went very well and they got 10 vials of amazing sperm to use. Well the next day as you know, fertilization day.....I could not sleep, my heart was beating out of my chest. The phone rang and before Tracy could say a word I begged her for good news... she assured me it was and I started sobbing before even hearing what it was. Drum roll please, 21 fertilized!!! Day 3 showed 20 still going and Dr Hudson agreed to do a transfer despite the small polyp - just maybe it wouldn't be an issue. We were just thrilled. On day 5 we got to the clinic and we had 4 high quality embryos ready to be transferred or frozen and would likely have a few more on day 6. We transferred one beautiful high quality embryo, and I sobbed through the whole thing. Never had we gotten this far, it felt like a dream. Day 6 we were called and told we had 3 more beauties frozen!! We got 7 embryos from this cycle, something I never thought would ever happen. We flew back home a couple days later and waited to see if things had worked. Due to my obsessive early testing I soon realized that it did not and the BETA test proved that.
Now I had to deal with this polyp as it was likely to blame which means going to Heartland yet again. I had a hysteroscopy done July 28th, by then it had grown quite a bit and was definitely an issue but thankfully we could schedule a frozen embryo transfer with the hysteroscopy so Aug 5th I started Estrace to build my lining. After a Scan on Aug 18th, 2015 all looked good so we flew out for transfer on Aug 26th, 2015. Transferred one beautiful blast and we felt so hopeful. Aug 31th, 2015 for the first time ever we could see two beautiful lines, something we'd waited a LIFETIME for.
Seeing those 2 lines was the most amazing thing ever. I'd watch those lines progress and my hcg levels followed the chart but were always at the bottom end. I knew something wasn't right and at 6 weeks I started bleeding. I put myself on couch rest and we waited for the ultrasound. At 7 weeks we went in and there was the tiny flicker of a heart beat, I sobbed. I had hope again but that hope was crushed when our Doctor called to tell us that the baby measured smaller than it should. I knew 3 days later that the embryo had passed and sure enough at 8 weeks there had been no growth and the heart had stopped. Our world was crushed. After all we'd been through this felt so incredibly unfair. Unfortunately this loss triggered PTSD from our loss in 1999. There was no way I could miscarry naturally, so I begged my Doctor and the surgeon for a D&C and once that was done I knew I could "move on".
January 2016 we tried again and transferred 2 embryos, which ended in nothing. I was really beginning to wonder if this would ever work. We then tried a bunch of different protocols to get my lining thicker all resulting in cancellations. We finally just gave in and tried yet one more protocol and didn't look back. We had to wait a few extra days before starting progesterone and I believe this was the key to getting a slightly thicker lining - it was my thickest yet! I was now feeling a bit excited about things. While we were out in Victoria my dad became quite sick again and was hospitalized. I knew his time was limited. We transferred 2 hatching embryos at the end of Aug. This was the first time we'd had embryos eager to break out. (Find picture attached)
We flew home on September 2nd and went straight to my dad, he did not look well at all. Three days after our transfer, late in the evening, I saw 2 lines again. I shed a few tears and then fear set in. At 3w6d I started bleeding again, and of course, I felt a sense of doom. My beta levels continued to rise quite quickly which offered some comfort but I was still on edge. I shared the good news with my dad the next day. Sadly it was not a good day for him but I have it recorded that he was thrilled, even through his intense pain. He smiled. He ended up crashing later that day, and had to be resuscitated and transferred to ICU where he was put on life support. Our world crumbled yet again. Sadly, on September 16th my dad passed away. He remembered what we talked about the day he crashed, he was so in love with this little baby already and was so excited to meet her. I wish he was here.
At just over 7 weeks an ultrasound showed one healthy baby growing and on track and one small subchorionic hemmorhage, which is what I had with our previous loss so I felt very guarded. After another fairly good bleed at 9 weeks another ultrasound showed that baby was doing well, growing on track and that the bleed was no longer visible. By our NT scan at just before 14 weeks all looked good. No bleed, baby was on track and happy as can be. And so... we made our announcement despite my reservations.
We found out in December that we were expecting a girl! My heart broke knowing my dad would never meet her. He always knew that I'd have a daughter one day. We continued to feel a bit disconnected, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The weeks went by quickly which we were thankful for. Around the end of March I started swelling and gaining weight quickly. It turned out I'd developed pre-eclampsia and hypertension but it would go untreated for too long and things took a turn for the worse. I ended up being induced early and on April 27th at 11:54 am our sweet miss Ruby Anne Ellen would come into this world.
The sense of relief I felt was like no other. I felt a peace, a calming wash over me. I sobbed, for all the pain and trauma we experienced, for all the years gone by. I sobbed from relief and disbelief that she was here, safe. That she was ours. I still sob when I look at her and think about it all. Not sure I will ever stop. Ruby is our greatest journey and I'm glad we didn't stop even though everything in us screamed to stop.
A few notes about these precious personal items...
Saint Thérèse pendant and bracelet: the pendant was given along with a prayer card from my granny to my (step) dad Guy before they left for his liver transplant in Edmonton. While there, he purchased the bracelet it's now on.
My Novena Rose Prayer
O Little Thérèse of the Child Jesus
Please pick for me a rose
from the heavenly garden
and send it to me
as a message of love.
O Little Flower of Jesus,
ask God to grant the favors
I now place with confidence
in you hands
(mention your special prayer request here)
St. Thérèse, help me to always believe
as you did, in God's great love for me,
so that I may imitate your "Little Way" each day.
Guy's transplant went so well that what was supposed to be a 3 month recovery was 6 weeks, he came home so healthy and full of life. My mom passed down the prayer card and bracelet when we were struggling in the hopes it would offer some comfort. It absolutely did.
The rose quartz bracelet came from a very good friend, Lisa Siefert, it's actually a fertility bracelet. I wore it for months until it started unraveling so I hung it up instead.
The heart pendant contains my dad Guy's and biological dad Clyde's ashes. I had always intended to put my mom on the other side because Guy was on the one side but when my bio dad passed it just seemed fitting to have both my dads in one place.
Now all three traveled with us on our last trip out to Victoria BC for our transfer. Although obviously my bio dad was still alive at the time, but I felt I needed Guy there. So many times over the course of the years I clutched those 3 pendants and begged, bartered and pleaded.
My bio dad helped fund the initial IVF cycle in BC. Had he not helped us, Ruby wouldn't be here today. It made his death that much harder, knowing it was because of him that she was on her way and he'd never get a chance to meet her. I still struggle with this.
So that's where all the emotion came from. The fact that 2 very special people won't get to meet her, all the pain and trauma we went through, the disbelief she was going to be ours, I lived in fear of losing her. You just wait for the other shoe to drop. We're still in shock she's here and ours. I only hope we can keep her.......
Florals provided by Oak & Lily
There isn't much that can be said, to comfort those who know this struggle first hand. And not everyone's journey ends in a living, breathing, healthy baby. I will spare you fluffy words that would only sting the hearts of those of you suffering. All I will say is... life is a mysterious, puzzling thing. For all of us. Some of us cope with its dilemmas better than others. But the important thing is... we are not alone in our struggles. Every single pain, every single ache, longing, hurt and heartbreak that each of us holds in our hearts... is, in some way, ~relatable~ to someone else out there. And when we share our trials with one another, we learn. When we learn, we grow. When we grow, we find meaning. A deeper meaning. A purpose. I think that's the important thing here.
Amber and Mark want to share their story, because they have grown from it. And sharing it with others helps them carry their burden. And give it meaning. Their story is their gift to the world. Just like their little Ruby is life's gift to them. I pass on this gift to you, the Reader, and hope that you, in turn, take your own struggles and share them with someone you know. The world will be better for it. I promise.
(If you read this story, and would like to reach out to the Klassens with questions or to share your own journey, please contact me and I will direct you to them through the appropriate channels.)
Elliana Gilbert is a full-time Birth Photographer & storytelling art photographer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. To contact Elliana for inquiries, booking, pricing or just to chat about your story, please send a message, or contact her by email or phone (found on the same page).
Find Elliana on instagram and facebook for more of her birth and birth-related work.