The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is being felt in every corner of society, including by those undergoing fertility treatment. For all the jokes about a baby boom in nine months' time, there are many whose dreams of having a child have been put on hold indefinitely. Whether that is because of fertility issues within a couple or because the couple is unable to conceive naturally (as in the case of same sex couples), negotiating this loss at a time of crisis is difficult at best.
On 18th March the British Fertility Society and the Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists released a joint statement for fertility staff, advising clinics to stop fertility treatments over the coming weeks in order to comply with social distancing measures and to alleviate the burden on the NHS. As noted in a statement from the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) on the same day:
"[The closures] may be for several reasons: redeployment of staff, reduced anaesthetist cover, or staff being unable to work due to self-isolation or illness. The guidance also carries a call to cease treatments to minimise the spread of the virus and reduce the impact on the NHS due to the common complications of IVF such as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome."
"I recognise that this is very distressing for many of you as it means you have already or will have your treatment stopped or delayed. While this is unwanted news, I hope that you understand that this is the only responsible course of action for the fertility sector and patients at this tough time."
While the cancellations are understandable, there is frustration that the impact this will have on people struggling with infertility hasn’t necessarily been acknowledged, especially as delays can negatively impact the likelihood of conception and will be considered low priority when services resume.
Refinery29 spoke to an anonymous front-line healthcare worker who was among the first to have her IVF cancelled about managing her frustration while caring for coronavirus patients. Despite the huge disappointment caused by the cancellation, she has found strength in community and being able to help others at a time when hope can be hard to find.
I was just about to start a down-regulation cycle of my IVF (the process of using medication to shut down your natural menstrual cycle) when it was cancelled. They had apparently discussed it on quite a senior level at the clinic and decided I should be one of the first people to have it cancelled – they didn't want me coming into the clinic from a work environment where there were coronavirus patients. I can understand why they're doing it but then they're basically taking away our hope of ever having a family.
My husband and I had been trying to conceive since February 2018, with very little success. We did some tests in September 2019 and found out that my husband has male factor infertility. While there hasn't been a problem with my fertility so far, I have a low ovarian reserve, which means that I am at risk of having an early menopause.
We started exploring the IVF route once we were told that was the only way that we would have a chance of conceiving a child. Initially we pursued the NHS route but because of my body mass index we were denied NHS funding and so started exploring the private route, which we were self-funding. In January 2020 we started our first consultations and then in March, I was going to start the down-regulation of my menstrual cycle. All my drugs are now just sitting on the side or still in the fridge.
It's not even disappointing, it's devastating that we can't have IVF now. There's been so much build-up – I've been preparing my body for a year for this to be cancelled. Since April last year I have lost two and a half stone for the BMI criteria. I put so much effort into this and we were so psychologically prepared. We knew that it was going to be challenging but we've done everything we can: changing our diet, changing our lifestyle, having regular counselling, being in touch with the clinic, getting all our financial affairs sorted, reorganising my work schedule. It feels completely ridiculous that it's just gone.
Time passing while we wait is a massive worry, especially for women like me with low AMH (anti-Müllerian hormone) levels. I'm actually on my period today, so that's another month passed where I have not been pregnant. I can't even describe the way it feels – every single month that goes past where you're not pregnant and you get your period is another reminder that you have no time left. Every month your eggs are just disappearing.
I think it needs to be acknowledged that the loss of an IVF cycle is devastating for couples. Even before the cycle was cancelled it was already starting to have a toll on our marriage. We were seeking private couples therapy, meditating, doing yoga, doing regular exercise and trying to look after our mental health and be together as much as we could. It's not really understood that taking that away from couples and not giving them any other option as to how they can proceed is completely devastating.
I can't fault the clinic – everyone has been amazing. I'm sure that at NHS clinics they're working really hard too. But we feel like the silver lining in all this is that we know our treatment will restart as soon as possible. It must be awful for people who are having NHS treatment, because they are going to be even more uncertain as to when they're really going to restart any treatment – it will be such a low priority. At least because we were paying for it ourselves, we were able to have that reassurance that our treatment will not be as affected as NHS services. That's given us a lot of hope.
What's been really good throughout this whole situation has been speaking to other people like us. There's an app called Peanut which is really supportive for people trying to conceive; I'm using that every day to speak to other women, and on Instagram there's a big infertility community. Despite everything that’s going on, I've actually found so much hope and positivity being at work in the hospital at the moment. I've really benefited from being away the last few weeks: it's taking my mind off everything and it's been really positive to be in such a wonderful team who support me. It has been such a privilege to be able to work at this point where I just know that I'm helping people.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don’t get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.