IBD and motherhood can be beautiful, but it can also be extremely complex and complicated. Especially for those who deal with infertility on top of their Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. As someone who did not have any struggles getting pregnant, I feel it’s extremely important to shed light on the fact that my story, my experience is just that—there are SO many other journeys that need to be shared and heard when it comes to infertility as it relates to IBD.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from several women with IBD who juggled their chronic illness while enduring In vitro fertilization (IVF).
Ashley Miller was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2013 when she was 26 years old. As part of her family planning, she discussed her desire to be a mother with her OBGYN. Her doctor told her to give it a go for 6 months and if she didn’t get pregnant, they would start additional testing. Six months passed without a positive pregnancy test. Ashley followed up with her doctor and was diagnosed with bilateral hydrosalpinx (blocked fallopian tubes), because of her Crohn’s.
“Although this diagnosis was upsetting, I was happy to hear that the doctor found a cause for my infertility and that IVF would be a good option for me. I was so lucky to have success with my egg retrieval and subsequent embryo transfers.”
Ashley says IBD prepared her for infertility.
“I’m the type of person who does not like to dwell on issues, I like to take action right away. I am grateful that my IBD was in remission during this time, otherwise, I would not have been able to pursue IVF immediately. I needed clearance from my GI, maternal fetal medicine (MFM) physician, and the reproductive endocrinologist (RE) before starting IVF.”
Ashley is on Stelara and had bowel resection surgery in August 2021. She has a 3-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter. She intentionally had her children close together thanks to IVF to capitalize on her IBD being in remission.
Jenn Carmichael was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006 when she was 21 years old. She got married in 2016 but was forced to wait to have kids because she was flaring. She manages her IBD with Stelara and azathioprine. Since her diagnosis she’s underwent an ileocolic resection, a revision, and several incision and drainage procedures (I&D) with setons for perirectal abscesses. Fast forward a few years and she was finally in remission.
Jenn and her husband started trying to conceive. After 6 months she followed up with her GI and consulted with a MFM doctor who specialized in IBD pregnancies.
“My MFM doctor was well versed on all the medications and complications of Crohn’s. He told me that due to my past surgeries if I were to get pregnant, I would need to have it confirmed via ultrasound right away. He explained that due to all the surgeries I’ve had in the abdominal region, that I was at a higher risk of having my fallopian tubes blocked and having an ectopic pregnancy. He also recommended I have a consultation with an RE since we had been trying with no success.”
Jenn underwent a full workup to investigate her hormone levels and had an ultrasound to look at her fallopian tubes. At this point, she was 36 years old. And while her tubes weren’t blocked, she had diminished ovarian reserve. She was told by her care team this was most likely a direct result of all the Crohn’s-related inflammation she had endured.
“Our infertility doctor recommended we start IVF right away. It was a difficult ovary stimulation that lasted much longer than normal (I was on stims for about 28 days vs. the normal 12 days). I wasn’t responding to the stim medications, but I was finally able to make it to the egg retrieval. Unfortunately, when I went in for my egg retrieval, I woke up to devastating news. They were not able to retrieve any eggs. I was heartbroken to say the least. We regrouped with our IVF doctor a week or so later and came up with a new plan.”
Jenn was put on a different medication protocol for the egg stimulation and was even told she should consider donor eggs. She started her second IVF cycle shortly after.
“Just as we started the stimulation phase of the cycle, I got sick with pneumonia and had to cancel the cycle. Then COVID hit about a month later, so all IVF cycles were canceled in my state for the time being. Around July 2020, we were able to try that IVF cycle again, but had to cancel once again due to no response to the stimulation medications.”
At this point Jenn told her RE that she would start to explore the egg donor option, but she wasn’t ready to give up with her own eggs just yet. She tried one last IVF cycle with yet another protocol. One egg was retrieved. The next morning her phone rang, and her heart dropped. Her doctor called to let them know the egg did not fertilize overnight and was abnormal.
Jenn once again re-grouped with her care team. Donor eggs were discussed. A specialized ultrasound showed her fallopian tubes were blocked. She left that appointment with information about an egg donor program, but she wanted to try another cycle with yet another protocol.
“Around the same time, I started to experience pain in my lower right abdominal area. I was admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with bilateral tubo-ovarian abscesses. The one on the right started to tunnel (create a fistula) towards my sigmoid colon. I was brought to the OR shortly after not knowing if I was going to wake up with one or both fallopian tubes, either ovary or my sigmoid colon. Luckily, I have an amazing colorectal surgeon who’s been part of my team since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s. They did have to remove both fallopian tubes and my right ovary, but my left ovary and sigmoid colon were spared.”
The surgery took a toll on Jenn. Losing both her fallopian tubes, she knew without IVF, she would never be able to get pregnant on her own. During that time, she did a lot of thinking and research about IVF, Crohn’s, and what their future looked like. She also met with a social worker who specialized in infertility to help work through everything she was feeling.
“Once I was healed from surgery and mentally ready, my husband and I decided to pursue IVF using donor eggs. We worked with an egg donor agency to find an egg donor that we liked. After going through the process with all the administrative/legal paperwork and having our donor medically worked up, our donor was able to start the IVF cycle for egg retrieval. The egg retrieval was successful, and we had our first embryo transfer in August 2021. Our first transfer was successful, and I am currently 25 weeks pregnant expecting our first child, our sweet baby boy in May 2022.”
Christina LaDue was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010 when she was 20. She had a bowel resection at age 23 to remove a fistula and her mom had the foresight to ask that an OB/GYN surgeon be present to ensure there was no damage to her reproductive organs.
“The OB/GYN noted that the inflammation in my pelvis was so great that he could not make a determination about my fertility at that time. When I shared the post-op reports with my PCP, he indicated that because of the noted inflammation I should only wait 6 months (as opposed to the one year that you’re supposed to wait) before pursuing assistance. After getting married and trying for six months I sought a referral to a RE who ran tests and concluded that my tubes were blocked due to scarring from my abdominal surgeries. She had us go right to IVF (as opposed to IUI first).”
Christina started her first round of IVF in November 2018. None of the fertilized embryos made it. She did another round in February 2019 and did a fresh transfer on Day 3, which was also unsuccessful. She did her first frozen embryo transfer (FET) in April 2019 and her son was born in December 2019. When he was 18 months old, she returned to the RE and did another FET in November 2020, which was unsuccessful. With one embryo left, they did an FET in February 2021 and recently welcomed a son to the world in October.
“The most triggering for me is during the initial routine testing via ultrasound my RE found fluid in my abdomen. This was extremely upsetting to me having undergone multiple treatments for recurrent abscesses because of a fistula. I freaked out and paged my GI who ordered a stat MRI. The MRI showed I have endometriosis and hydrosphix (fluid in my tubes) but nothing was wrong with my Crohn’s disease. That said, I was a huge emotional mess waiting for the MRI results and I thought for sure I was rocking another fistula.”
Christina recently started Inflectra (a biosimilar), she was previously on Remicade from September 2013-October 2021.
Megan Picucci was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in April 2017 when she was 30 years old. After being cleared by her GI and MFM she started trying and got pregnant. Unfortunately, shortly after finding out the news she started bleeding and had an ectopic pregnancy.
“Once I finally got my period in February 2020, I had an hysterosalpingogram (HSG) to check if my tubes were being blocked. It was inconclusive. Luckily, because of my prior abdominal surgery with my IBD and the ectopic pregnancy, I could switch right to IVF. All the bloodwork, shots, etc. was rough but I felt like my Crohn’s journey helped prepare me. I was used to bloodwork, I was used to injections, I had a PICC line at one point, so I was used to mixing meds.”
The first round was promising for Megan and her husband. There were several embryos and her first FET stuck.
“I waited with bated breath. I was sure it was another ectopic for no reason other than I’m not lucky when it comes to health issues. Well, she (though we didn’t know that until delivery) stuck and though I had moments of panic of something bad happening, it didn’t.”
The emotional toll of IBD weighed heavily on her as she prepared to bring a life into this world. She is on Remicade and had emergency bowel resection surgery in April 2017 and the reconnection surgery in July 2017.
“I had a lot of… ‘should I being doing this?’ thoughts. Even though my IBD was under control prior to trying I also knew that could change at any moment. How could I raise a kid with a flare or surgeries and what if I pass my IBD on? But having a great support system made me confident I’d have help if those things occurre. Happy to say my daughter is now 11 months old.”
Jade Fiedler was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 at age 22. Jade is on Humira and had an ileocolic resection in July 2015. Her and her husband tried for a baby for one year, but around 7-8 months in she felt something wasn’t right.
“We saw an OB who specialized in RE. We took an aggressive route for treatment. I had an HSG (right tube was blocked and could not flush), Hysteroscopy (which found polyps) and an ultrasound which found a heart shaped uterus. We immediately jumped into 3 back-to-back IUI cycles due to those findings and my husband’s sperm sample being mostly normal with a tiny morphology issue. After those failed, we did a laparoscopy which found more polyps in my uterus (endometriosis), and they found the tube was blocked and covered in scar tissue due to Crohn’s surgery in 2015.”
Jade then had two more failed IUIs but didn’t stop there.
“I advocated for insurance coverage at work, and they covered our first cycle of IVF three months later. We got two genetically normal embryos and one was transferred on October 4th. I am currently 19 weeks pregnant!!!”
She is happy to share what she sent to her employer for a reference if you need it.
Jade says living with IBD and going through IVF is “terrifying” since you must be in remission with your Crohn’s to even try IVF.
“I was going through an emotional toll of finding out that not only are we not able to get pregnant right now, but there’s a very good chance we never will, and most signs point to me as the problem. It’s all encompassing and overwhelming.”
Much like IBD, Infertility is a full-time job.
“Balancing appointments and results and medications and insurance coverage and time off work — all while trying to stay NOT stressed to cause a flare. It’s an added issue when you have scar tissue and scars, which creates more of a puzzle for doctors. It’s really hard to have two diagnoses that are totally out of your control and leave you hating your own body.”
Even though Jade is due with a baby boy in June she still experiences a gamut of emotions. Everything from joy and anxiety to guilt, happiness, and fear. Her and her husband are leaning into their faith and praying their son will continue to grow at a healthy rate and arrive safely.
Katie Ferriss was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 when she was 26 years old. After six months with no luck and a series of tests, she learned her right fallopian tube was a hydrosalpinx (Dilated fallopian tube). Unfortunately, the tube needed to be removed, which put her at another disadvantage for getting pregnant.
“We moved forward with 3 medicated IUIs back-to-back-to-back since I had a dominant follicle on the left side each time. Unfortunately, all the IUIs failed. Our next step was IVF. I was so hopeful; I just knew this would work for us. My first retrieval only yielded 4 eggs, 3 of which were mature, 2 fertilized, and 1 made it to the blastocyst stage. We tried a fresh transfer, but ultimately did not end with a pregnancy.”
Katie and her husband were devastated. They had gone through IVF and had nothing to show for it—not even additional embryos to try again. Through the process, Katie learned she was a ‘poor responder’ to medication and had poor egg quality, which is common with autoimmune disease.
“After a couple of months, we moved forward with another retrieval. This time our RE changed to a much more aggressive protocol with higher doses of stims right out of the gate. I responded much better overall and produced several more mature follicles.
During our second retrieval, the RE was able to retrieve 10 eggs with 9 being mature, and at the end we were able to freeze 2 high grade embryos. We thought we would be able to move right into a frozen transfer cycle, but Crohn’s had other plans for us.”
Because of the massive amounts of infertility medication and the unbelievable stress levels, her body almost forced her to rest—she had a Crohn’s flare.
“My GI was adamant I stop fertility treatments until my Crohn’s was in remission. I would do a colonoscopy in 6 months to learn where I was at. Again, completely devastated that our plans for a baby were put on hold due to my body not cooperating. My GI doctor started me on a different medication, Cimzia, that was very pregnancy friendly as it does not cross through the placenta to the baby if I was finally able to get pregnant. Thankfully 6 months later during my follow-up colonoscopy, my Crohn’s had been put in remission, and I was able to be put back in fertility treatments.”
Katie and her husband were hopeful that the stars were finally aligning for their family. But shortly thereafter they had a failed transfer. They only had one frozen embryo left.
“My RE then tried another test called an Endometrial Receptivity Analysis (ERA) to make sure we were transferring at the optimal time. That test led to another discovery that we were transferring too soon, and I needed 24 more hours of progesterone. We started another transfer cycle using a different medication protocol and transfer timing and found out 10 days later it worked. I went on to have a very uneventful pregnancy, and our miracle baby was born 9 months later in March 2019.”
Katie now manages her Crohn’s with Stelara. She developed a stricture and had bowel resection surgery in August 2020. She credits the surgery as giving her life-changing relief. Her and her husband now have two children—their biological son is two. They are in the process of adopting their 3-year-old daughter from foster care.
COVID and IVF
On top of these challenges, going through infertility and oftentimes being immunocompromised from IBD medications through the pandemic has added extra challenges for everyone involved.
“Every procedure, appointment, surgery, getting sad news, even “getting knocked up” was alone. Alone in a cold room, where you are undressed in front of strangers and probed and in pain. I did it all alone. I found a strength in myself that I never knew existed and for that, I have changed. In some ways I am stronger; in others I am damaged. Trauma and infertility go hand in hand. This is something I will have to work through, which I will, but this chapter of my life will never be just a dull memory,” said Jade.
Advice for IBD mamas in waiting from those who have lived it
- Allow yourself time to grieve your infertility diagnosis and find support with friends and family. Try to stay positive and keep your “end goal” of having a baby in mind.
- Be patient, sometimes your expectations of procedures and embryo transfers may change due to situations out of your control.
- Stay hopeful. It may seem like there is no end in sight at times, but always have hope.
- You are strong and will get through this.
- This is true for any woman struggling to get pregnant: it sucks. Just acknowledging how painful it is to want something so badly and feel like it is unobtainable. It’s OK to feel those big feelings.
- Use your knowledge, expertise, and experience as an IBD patient to your advantage. You know how to navigate medical coverage and insurance, don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself. You’re in a much better place to deal with all this medical stuff than someone who does not have a chronic illness.
- The IVF process is long. The first appointment for the first positive pregnancy test took 10 months. And the second time, from the time we resumed working with our RE to the positive pregnancy test took 5 months.
- Trust your medical team. And if you don’t trust your medical team, it’s OK to find a different doctor or a different clinic. There are no guarantees in IVF and it’s hard for folks, especially after going through all the treatment to have a failed cycle or failed transfer.
- Give yourself grace you did nothing to cause your IBD and you also did nothing to cause your infertility. However, it is also ok to be mad, have low moments, and be sad. All those emotions are valid, allow to yourself to have them.
- Get the colonoscopy and upper endoscopy done before you start actively trying. Make sure you have records shared for BOTH clinics. Don’t let people pressure you into taking medication for fertility that may offset or flare up your IBD. Don’t forget to remind your providers every time – they may forget.
- Find support groups. There are more women than you think going through this. My Facebook community that is an IVF/IUI due date group for women who were due winter/spring of 2021 was the best community I could ask for.
- Talk about it. if you feel comfortable. Share your story, share your pain, more people go through this than we realize.
- You are more capable than you think. You are stronger than you will ever know. This is going to suck and it’s going to challenge your mental health, friendships, relationship with your husband, your connection to family, you work life, etc. it’s going to change you in ways you could ever imagine and it’s going to rip your heart out of your chest because you can’t know this pain unless you’ve lived it. But I promise you will come out stronger and you will be changed in the most incredible ways. Hang in there.
- I can see your fear and it’s big. But I can see your courage and it’s bigger.
- Don’t give up hope. You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for; IVF is incredibly difficult, but you CAN DO IT!!
- Do your own research. Find your tribe – IBD and IVF warriors are incredible and there are plenty of us out there in both camps. Get a therapist. Get a support group. Read books. Bake. Find your coping skills and don’t give up. You’re a badass. Having IBD is hard. Going through infertility is hard. But you can do hard things.