The True Story Behind The Friends From College IVF Episode

Photo: Barbara Nitke/Netflix.
More people are using in vitro fertilization to get pregnant than ever before; celebrities have openly discussed their experiences with IVF, and yet pop culture seems to glaze over the more demanding and clinical realities of trying to get pregnant.
The new Netflix show Friends From College broke new ground, then, when it brought that experience to the forefront in its first season this summer. The ensemble dramedy — starring Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, and Fred Savage, as, well, friends from college — follows a friend group's shenanigans when they reunite in their 30s in NYC. A couple at the center of the action, Ethan and Lisa, played by Key and Smulders, goes through a round of IVF as one of the difficult life milestones the show takes on (others include a decades-long affair; a proposal gone wrong; and really, really messing up at work).
In one of the more emotional moments of the season, there's a montage of Ethan meticulously administering hormone shots into his wife Lisa's abdomen, over and over, day after day, until her belly is mottled with bruises.
Then, it's time for the grand finale: the pivotal trigger shot that contains human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG — the pregnancy hormone. They have to do it exactly at the right time, to set them up for an appointment the next day, or all their efforts will have been futile. They decide to get a hotel room to set the mood (and momentarily escape their couch-surfing situation) — but they grabbed the wrong paper bag when packing up. When the big moment comes, they don't have the shot. They bolt home and into the bathroom, and in an edge-of-your-seat slapstick scene, Ethan drops the glass vial on the tile floor, shattering it.
If this sounds like the type of story that you can't make up, that's because it's true, and based on the real experiences of show creators Francesca Delbanco and Nick Stoller (who, also like their fictional counterparts, went to Harvard and are now married). We talked to Delbanco and Stoller about the story that inspired that hilarious if heart-wrenching episode.
How much of this episode is based on real events?
Francesca Delbanco: "A lot of it is based on things that actually happened. We had our first child very easily, without any kind of fertility issues. Then we kind of got mired in just terrible, terrible luck. We had a really tough time having a second child, which was something we really wanted to do. I had three miscarriages; we had to terminate a pregnancy in the second trimester, because we had done genetic testing that came back with bad news. We had every manner of problems, so we decided to do IVF. We did IVF, and it was an ordeal in and of itself, as it is for anyone who has to do it. It was ultimately successful — we have three children now. But when we were doing IVF, we had what happens on episode 104, which is that Nick —"
Nick Stoller: "I broke the vial."
FD: "He broke the vial of hCG, which is the trigger shot, which is basically what the entire thing is leading up to. And it was such an insane thing to have happen to us, and we can't believe that we found a way to put it in something."

When you're dealing with infertility, like any devastating issue in your life, you don't stop being you. So, if you're a person who has a sense of humor and laughs, you're still doing it all the way through this incredibly trying and draining experience.

Francesca Delbanco
What did you do in that moment — assuming you didn't break into a pharmacy, like Lisa and Ethan do in the show?
FD: "On a prior round of IVF, our doctor had prescribed a different kind of trigger shot, Ovidrel, but then decided at the last minute to use hCG. We were in a different round this time, with hCG again, but we still had the Ovidrel sitting in the refrigerator from the last time. If that hadn't by random luck happened to us, what would have happened? We would've gotten divorced.
"I remember very clearly: We were in our bathroom totally freezing, just the way it is on the show. Being like, Okay, thinking rationally here, what do we do? You've invested so much time and so much money — it was just a totally bleak and desperate time for us. When that shot dropped I was like, You've got to be kidding me. We just panicked and called the page operator. We had our nurse's cell phone number, which we had never used before, because we knew that was like pushing the red button. She was at the gym, and nothing was open, so she was like, 'This is what you do!'"
NS: "The conversation they had in the bathroom was very similar to what we had: a weirdly calm but panicked conversation. We were looking at the vial, and I was like, How much glass is in there? I was like, 'I can't inject you with glass.' Besides not being hygienic, it was literally full of glass. When I was scouting this episode at a clinic in New York City, and was talking to doctors and nurses, they were like, 'Oh this happens all the time.' It's like there's too much riding on this moment."
Somehow you're able to make a horribly sad moment hilarious. Was it important to you to make it funny?
FD: "When you're dealing with infertility, like any devastating issue in your life, you don't stop being you. So, if you're a person who has a sense of humor and laughs, you're still doing it all the way through this incredibly trying and draining experience. We had a joke all the way through that we had a slow-motion procedure going on, where Nick was very good at doing all the things, but you had to have an hour."
NS: "I could open an ER for emergencies that don't require immediate attention."
Why did you choose to tell this IVF story on TV now?
FD: "It was very cathartic and therapeutic to take this gigantic shit sandwich and turn it into something that could be a piece of entertainment for people. I was just so conscious the whole time, sitting in all those doctors' offices, that my life was being wasted. And it was so nice to be like, it wasn't wasted; we made something out of it — in addition to our children, they're great, too."
"I do have a lot of friends who went through IVF, but when we were in the writers' room like, Let's do this episode, no one in the writers' room had. Everyone knows what IVF is, but if you haven't experienced it, you have no idea what it entails. You just know it's IVF, and people do it when they have infertility, and they come out with a baby — but you don't know what it means. It's knowledge that you acquire if it happens to you, and otherwise you don't really think about it. [We thought] it would be kind of amazing to show what an ordeal it is for people, because a lot of people go through it."
NS: "It's also one of the few specific things that happened to us that can happen in real life. It's almost contrived how it turned into a good half-hour of TV. There's literally a ticking clock, and if you don't get the shot in time, you're screwed. From a plot perspective, we were like, That would make a funny, tense, suspenseful episode of TV."
FD: "In reviews of the show, a lot of people were like, 'This is a tired infertility plot that we've seen so many times.' I was thinking, Are there a million things about infertility that I missed when I was experiencing it? I felt so alone and isolated, and was like, This isn't something that people are talking about, or that I feel is represented in my world of books, TV, and movies. If there is a huge world of infertility, I would love to watch and see it. It would've made me feel like I have company and wasn't a freak."
Friends From College Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.

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