To stay pregnant, my friend travels to Mexico on foot.
They implanted her eggs on Sunday. Now all Caroline has to do is fly to Arizona from New Jersey, then drive three hours to the border town of Nogales to meet the doctor’s assistant at McDonald’s. The assistant will then escort Caroline, her husband Guy and their ten-month-old son across the border into Mexico, by foot. Once there, Dr. Flores will withdraw blood from Guy and inject it under the skin of Caroline’s forearm. After this procedure, called Lymphocyte Immune Therapy (LIT), they will walk across the Mexico/U.S. border again, drive back to Phoenix, fly back to Newark airport, and get home to Hoboken, N.J., around midnight – door to door (to door), twenty-two hours.
Over a Caesar salad the next afternoon, Caroline, junkie-style, pulls up her sleeves and shows me the weird quarter-sized welts all over the inside of her arms. I am fascinated and horrified and hoping to God that this IVF three-ring circus will work. I find myself in the position of trying to be very supportive of a treatment that really makes me flinch. One could even say I’m against it. But I never had to consider fertility treatment, and that’s a big difference between Caroline and me.
Let me quickly state how I went about having a baby: I had intercourse. Once. November 5th, Sunday, around 3:00 p.m., 2005. My ten-month-old baby boy is the product of that copulation. I only wanted one; I’m done. Bully for me.
Caroline tried that same method of reproduction many times with her husband of fourteen years. “First of all, I thought I had all the time in the world,” she says, “so we didn’t start that early. It’s not like I was trying to have a baby at twenty-eight, but I wasn’t forty-five and trying either. I just couldn’t get pregnant.”
Finally, at the age of thirty-eight, she got pregnant. She miscarried. Then she got pregnant again, and miscarried. Then, at the age of forty, she went to a fertility doctor, Dr. Rosen. Right before treatment, she got pregnant again, naturally, but miscarried again. “We were like, oh shit, this baby may never happen!” she says. “It was time for us to do whatever it took.”
After three rounds of IVF, none of which worked, Dr. Rosen sent her to Dr. Gary, a cutting-edge research doctor on the other side of New Jersey, who is aggressive and enthusiastic. At their first meeting, Dr. Gary listened to her story, and hinted at something about Caroline’s immune system failing to recognize the fetus.
The first IVF treatment, a fresh transfer (retrieve eggs, sperm, fertilize in dish, implant three days later) works; she is pregnant! She miscarries. Dr. Gary wonders why – the conditions were ideal. The subject of Caroline’s immune system comes up again. What Dr. Gary is talking about is LIT: a broad-based, controversial treatment that is believed to help prevent maternal intolerance of the fetus. This intolerance is suspected when there are three or more consecutive miscarriages with the same partner, as in Caroline’s case. It appears that her immune system has failed to recognize and protect the fetus created by Guy’s sperm, so her body instead produces antibodies to attack it.
“How crazy is that?” Caroline says. “I’m allergic to Guy!” I ask her if she believes that diagnosis. “Hey, why not?” she says. “We keep losing these babies. There has to be some reason. I’m healthy as a horse!”
It’s true. Caroline looks a good ten years younger than she is. When we first met I asked her if she was a dancer, with that perfect posture, ripped body, great rear end. “No,” she says. “Everyone asks me that. I’m big on the veggies and yoga, and a good glass of wine every night.”
Okay, Caroline gets pregnant again from a frozen embryo transfer, “a popsicle,” their fifth IVF try, and Dr. Gary alludes to the non-FDA-approved LIT. “Let’s do it,” they say. Mission Almost Impossible begins.
Somewhere in N.J., by cover of darkness, Caroline and Guy meet Dr. Gary in a parking lot. “It was so nuts! It totally felt like a drug deal,” says Caroline. Guy then sneaks into the lab through the service door, where a discreet nurse withdraws some of his blood. There they “spin it,” separating white from red blood cells. Hours later, around midnight, the nurse comes out into the parking lot with a syringe full of Guy’s white blood cells, enters the couple’s vehicle and gives Guy the syringe, the hope being that this will prompt Caroline’s immune system to recognize the pregnancy. “He had to inject it under my skin himself!” she says. “It was so sci-fi.”
As wacky as it all seems to me, I admire such persistence.Eight-ish months later, Caroline delivers Ike by C-section. And today, there he is, like the mayor of the neighborhood, waving both arms from his stroller to all passers-by on his way to the park every day. When he spots me and my son, he laughs and points to us. He always makes my heart explode a little. This “popsicle” became a spectacular kid.
It took Dr. Rosen, Dr. Gary, IVF, LIT, blood transfusion in a parking lot and $80,000, but now he’s here, playing with my son in the park. Ike’s middle name starts with a V, and their last name starts with an F – I.V.F. You can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor in the midst of high drama.
Now, sooner than she would like, but out of time because of her age, forty-three, Caroline is trying again, this time with unfrozen embryos. They were fertilized on a Thursday, and put into her womb on Sunday. They put in three embryos; the sonogram now shows two have implanted.
“Oh, Christ, twins!” I say, when she tells me. What a nightmare, I’m thinking. I don’t even like to take aspirin, so the thought of a daily shot in the butt cheek with Progesterone, taking Estrace, having eggs removed, fertilized in a lab somewhere and then running the risk of twins or triplets, running back and forth across the Mexican border – no way, Jose!
But Caroline just shrugs, “Twins are great. Then we are done.”
Only this time, Dr. Gary, because of some rigorous scrutiny from an insurance company, can’t take any chances by performing his black market LIT. Thus, Caroline and Guy must walk across the Mexican border with their toddler at the height of summer.
As wacky as it all seems to me, I admire such persistence. And, as of today, it’s paying off: there are still two heartbeats and morning sickness has begun. Caroline’s begun preparing herself for having three children in diapers. “It’s gonna be crazy,” she says. “If it works.” And if it doesn’t work, it’s also gonna be crazy.