If you’ve been reading this series for the past couple of weeks, you will know my story by now. But for those of you who are new to the Infertility Diaries, here is a very short summary of what you’ve missed so far. In October 2019, my partner and I were diagnosed with unexplained infertility. Then in our late twenties, the consultant who diagnosed us talked us out of doing IVF treatment straight away, advising us to keep trying naturally.
What happened next? Well, in March 2020 – the same month the consultant told us we could have started our first round of NHS-funded fertility treatment – the world was plunged into chaos.
In the troubled days of lockdown one, my partner and I got into cocktail-making. Sipping negronis as parents around the world juggled home schooling with the mental load of parenting through a pandemic, we started to feel grateful we didn’t have a child to worry about after all.
But couples who had already started fertility treatment were fighting a battle of their own. With the announcement of the first lockdown, all fertility treatments at NHS and private clinics were put on immediate standby.
Jenny* was just one week away from her embryo transfer in March 2020 when she got the call to say it was cancelled. “I was completely devastated,” she says. By that point Jenny had been trying to conceive for three years and had gone through two failed IVF cycles already. “I’d started taking all the medication to prepare myself for the transfer, so to have it cancelled at such short notice was heartbreaking. I was left in limbo.”
Infertility forums and Facebook groups are full of similar stories. Many patients who had their cycles cancelled in the early days of the pandemic were not given a timeframe for when they could resume treatment. The delay left some outside the age bracket for qualifying for NHS-funded treatment, while those who had planned to go abroad for cheaper IVF treatment found their plans to start a family had to be put on hold due to travel restrictions.
In her book Covid Babies, Amy Brown, professor of maternal and child public health at Swansea University, cites a study that examined the symptoms of anxiety and depression among fertility patients during the pandemic. Brown reports that 21 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men exhibited clinically significant levels of depression, and 24 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men exhibited clinically significant levels of anxiety.
With the UK in lockdown, couples hoping for fertility treatment could do nothing but wait. Private clinics resumed treatment after just a few weeks, but like thousands of patients waiting for procedures on the NHS, those waiting for funded IVF treatment were pushed into the backlog while all efforts were directed to fighting Covid.
In our case, we decided to wait the whole thing out. When we saw the fertility consultant in October 2019, she advised us to get in touch whenever we were ready to start treatment. So while the pandemic raged on, we mastered cocktail making. We landscaped the garden. We read piles of books and completed Netflix.
In autumn 2021, when the vaccine programme had given us back some form of normality, we decided to get back in touch with the NHS hospital to ask to be put on the waiting list.
It took me five attempts to get through to the reception. And when I did, the receptionist sounded perplexed. “You’ve been discharged,” she said, explaining that because the clinic hadn’t heard from me, they’d assumed we’d got pregnant naturally. The receptionist advised me to make a GP appointment to ask for a new referral.
Scarred by the ongoing impact of the pandemic, my GP surgery only took calls before 8:30am. So I called every morning, only to be met by a dialling tone that indicated the number was engaged. On the day I finally got through, I’d called more than 40 times. I explained my situation and said I didn’t really need to see a doctor, I just needed to be referred back to the fertility clinic.
The following week, a letter was posted through my door.
“I’m sure you will understand that the NHS needs to use its staff and resources away from routine care,” the letter read. “Please do not contact us. We will be in contact with you in due course.”
And so, like thousands of other couples, our wait continued…
* Not her real name