Tauranga couple on grief and mental toll of 'painful' IVF journey

Pilates studio owner Alyssa and L.A.B frontman Joel put up a tough front to face their responsibilities - but together they've been on a challenging IVF journey.

IVF is all too often thought as a saving grace for couples who have difficulty conceiving a baby. Alyssa Stringfellow and her fiance Joel Shadbolt know better.

At a glance, you might not have ever known it. Alyssa puts on a strong front at her Pilates studio, her fiancé Joel entertains thousands at shows around the country as the lead singer of L.A.B.

But from inside their Papamoa home, they have faced tough times.

It is there the couple have held each other through miscarriages, cried over failed egg collections and mourned the embryos that didn't make it.

For the past two years, Alyssa and Joel have been on a roller coaster of emotions.

They've fought feelings of sadness, shame and anger while trying to put up a tough front to face their responsibilities but never distancing themselves entirely from the overarching worry 'what if we can't have a baby?'

"It's hard," Alyssa tells 1News. "You think 'what is wrong with me?' There's such a stigma on women who can't have kids. It hurts."

Alyssa has described the devastation of seeing a positive pregnancy test and then losing the baby

Their journey has been "excruciating" at times.

She said: "It's been a horrific experience but it's been a positive experience with Joel in regards to us learning and growing."

They know they are not alone; one in four New Zealanders are affected by infertility.

Ahead of their wedding, Ally is opening up about their struggle in a hope that just one person might feel less alone.

Growing up, Alyssa didn't really have an opinion one way or another about children.

She said: "I never really looked to the future and thought I was going to have kids, then I met Joel."

With a five-year head start on her partner, the couple knew it was important that - as with any relationship - they started out on the same page.

And from the get-go, they knew their connection had a depth that would be hard to beat - and with that came an urge to want to start a family.

The thought of having "a little ginger" running around their home quickly became something they both wanted.

But they knew it was going to be tough.

When Alyssa was 20 years old, she was told she has stage four endometriosis.

She explained: "That is when I knew my ovary was fused between my bowel and my uterus by scar tissues. I was told I had a clubbed ovary and that it potentially wasn't going to be functional."

Then a surgery four years ago revealed a complication with her fallopian tubes would hinder her ability to conceive.

Alyssa said: "There's a risk of ectopic pregnancy but not a super high possibility of actually getting pregnant.

"The doctor basically described my fallopian tubes as a rusty pipe in a car that you can't replace, you've just got to get rid of it."

They remained optimistic that their chances weren't completely off the table and played "Russian roulette" with a hope to conceive naturally.

Tests following her IVF consultation indicated Alyssa's egg count was low and they would need to take collections quickly.

While they were unsure if it was even possible, Alyssa experienced unexpected bleeding while she was at her pilates studio and rushed home.

It continued during Joel's 30th birthday, and a few days later, the couple were devastated to learn Alyssa had experienced her first miscarriage.

She said: "At that time I just thought I was having some kind of period, and I was also feeling really sick."

Alyssa was told by a doctor a couple of days later she had glandular fever, which would have stopped the growth of the baby.

Soon after, she realised they still hadn't been referred for IVF, so Alyssa contacted Fertility Associates herself and put her name down.

It took two years but Alyssa and Joel were seen for a consultation and a series of tests were run to "basically confirm who had the problem".

She says with a weary laughter: "We knew it was me."

But the test did reveal one thing they didn't know - Alyssa's egg count was low.

Alyssa said: "They basically said 'we can put you on a wait-list, but you'll be two years older, you're going to have less eggs, you should go and do something now'."

In New Zealand, funding is granted for three rounds of egg collections. But to try and make the most of Alyssa's current egg count, they had no choice but to go down the IVF track privately which can cost couples in New Zealand tens of thousands of dollars.

During IVF, eggs are collected from ovaries and fertilised by sperm in a lab. Once they are embryos, they're transferred to a uterus.

Alyssa went straight into egg collection which she says was "pretty terrible", getting four eggs out which all turned into embryos but didn't survive.

Her second attempt was more successful with 10 eggs taken out, eight which turned into embryos.

She said: "You've got eight chances of having a baby."

Through negative pregnancy tests and disappointment, Alyssa would have to take fertility shots to encourage multiple eggs to grow to a mature size.

Alyssa and Joel attempted three transfers from that collection.

The first transfer was unsuccessful but the second gave them hope. A test revealed she was pregnant, prompting a huge rush of excitement.

But two days later, she was told her HCG levels were low and to expect to lose the pregnancy. A few days later, she found out she was going to miscarry for a second time.

Alyssa said: "To be so excited, within the period of six days, and to finally see the positive pregnancy test, it was so amazing.

"I burst into tears and called Joel, and then to be told it wasn't going to last was pretty hurtful. Then to go through the process of losing it was even worse again. It was pretty heart-wrenching. I lost a part of my future that we were starting to plan.

"I think people think miscarriages go pretty quick. But you're lying on the couch and you're in pain and your heart is in pain.

"There's a reminder every time you go to the toilet, you are triggered into being upset again."

Joel and Alyssa have encountered a series of complications while trying for a baby through IVF.

While dealing with the loss of the child they would never hold, Alyssa was advised that it would be good to try again sooner rather than later.

She said: "They said my uterus was in a good position right now, and I should start taking the drugs again."

With an eager heart, she listened to doctors and started the medication to help the process.

The next embryo didn't take - but horrifically, the prescribed pills and injections stopped her miscarriage in its tracks.

Alyssa explained: "When I got told I wasn't pregnant, I stopped taking the medication and that's when my miscarriage finished.

She said: "Realistically I should have been advised to take a month off, but I think it's one of those things where for some people it works.

"In my case, it just took longer to get out of my system, because we chose to try another embryo.

"We were advised and we took it and made the decision, so nobody was at fault. Except, maybe I'm at fault because I should have given myself some space to relax in between but that one didn't work and my miscarriage ended up lasting for two cycles instead of one."

The couple finally got public funding last year which they used in November.

Alyssa said: "That was a wild ride."

It was her third egg collection, which took 10 eggs, seven of which turned into embryos - but none of them took.

She said: "I don't even know how to describe it. It sucks."

With the wedding planned for this year, the pair have decided to halt embryo transfers to give Alyssa some time to process the mental and physical toll.

"The drugs, they affect you so much. I can't speak for everybody, but it was like there was a logical part of who I was and then there was in the part that was in control of my body."

"I felt like I lost the ability to control my emotions, all the hormones took me out of my body and I felt like for the last two years I've been a bystander in my own life.

"The only goal has been to make a baby and the drugs are part of how you make the baby. It's like you're numb but you're so emotional. Everything makes you emotional so you're numb to everything.

"I didn't see friends, I barely went to Joel's gigs."

The couple have been together for six years.

Difficulties conceiving a child can be caused by a range of issues such as ovulation problems, endometriosis, tubal damage or male infertility. In some cases, there is no explanation, forcing couples to look for another option without ever really understanding why.

At first Alyssa and Joel dodged questions from loved ones about when they are going to start a family before realising how much they needed a support system.

She said: "The first egg collection we did, we kept it really private, it was hard and I almost felt ashamed.

"As we went on, we realised we needed our friend group and our families to be there with us."

She hopes by sharing her story, others who have been through similar won't feel as isolated or alone, and those who are unfamiliar with the process are able to understand the grief that can be linked to IVF.

Alyssa said; "It's hard, people don't share, it's everybody's independent journey, I can't speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself.

“They say a burden shared is a burden halved, and I truly believe that's true. If you give people an opportunity to be with you they will be, sometimes you just need to give them an education on how."

After their wedding, Joel and Alyssa will decide how to approach trying the five embryos which still connect them to the possibility of a baby.

She said: "If we decide to go down that track again, there's still hope there. We're not hopeless, we're hopeful."


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