As I celebrate my 49th birthday (it was yesterday), I've been thinking about just what an incredible journey I have been gifted with for the past 49 years. Much of my early childhood memories and the tragic loss of my mother to breast cancer when I was 9 is detailed in my first book, A Healthier Wei. After immigrating to Los Angeles, I learned English, worked extremely hard in school, attended Cornell, then New York Medical College, and won the “lottery” by getting a training spot for ENT at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Then, during my 2-year fellowship to become a dedicated ENT for children in Chicago, I met my husband, Dave. Being almost 5 years older than Dave, I did not expect but how lucky am I that he wanted to get married and was willing to move with me to Kansas City for my first job out of training.
We were married in January 2004. I was already 34 and fully aware of my advanced maternal age when it came to pregnancy and trying to have a child. I have always wanted to be a mother, perhaps because I lost mine at such a young age and the traumatic impact it had on me. Devoting my career to caring for children has always been an attempt to fill the unfillable void as a result of traumatic experiences we don’t choose for ourselves, like mine.
By late 2004, we were consciously trying to get pregnant. One would think it would be easy: simply avoid birth control and “voila”. However, what I didn’t know then, that I wish I did, was the abuse my body endured as a surgeon and physician impacted my ability to conceive. I never ate breakfast, worked under intense stress, was dehydrated most of the time, exercised minimally, and while eating pretty healthy, my body probably thought there is no way “we” are bringing a new life into this world. My body moved at a 100-mile per hour pace and never really seemed to rest.
After many months, as I became increasingly aware of the fact that my age and window for fertility was closing rapidly, I tried Clomid. No success. I faintly remember buying hundreds of ovulation detection paper strips from Canada and sleeping with a thermometer next to my nightstand. For me, I thought fertility was like getting a high grade on an exam: one simply worked “hard” and did whatever it took and it should happen. I remember ridiculously laying in bed (post attempt) with legs propped up against the wall behind the headboard of the bed, visualizing fertilization occurring, like in a high school biology lesson and in videos.
Day by day, that’s all I could think about. A month seemed like an eternity to find out if all that we were trying “worked”, meanwhile I was caring for babies and children every day, holding them and wishing badly for one of my own.
Then I got a hysterosalpingogram. What a painful experience! Convincing your husband to get tested for sperm count and quality is not a marriage builder, but Dave did it without complaint. Then we tried IUI (intrauterine insemination), and that didn’t work despite my forcing myself to be laid up for the weekend. As we began to consider IVF, the costs, and what that would mean, we hesitated, given that rumor has it my own mother developed breast cancer after trying to have a second child unsuccessfully, by going to doctors who gave her high doses of estrogen shots (back in Taiwan in the 70’s). I have been faithfully screened and radiated since my mid 20s due to my maternal history of breast cancer.
During this time, I went to an acupuncturist that specialized in fertility and received many treatments. She boasted such great success rates, but not for me. I also went to an integrative medicine doctor, and revamped my entire diet. I ate sprouted whole grain bread, sweet potatoes almost daily to increase progesterone, blueberries, oatmeal, and many other highly nutritious foods that were supposed to help me get pregnant. It didn’t work for me.
I remember sharing my struggle of infertility with my father, which is not really something that occurs naturally in our culture as it’s an intimate and personal subject. He said he would consult his 4 sisters who are my loving aunts that all live in Taipei.
I was starting to feel helpless and become discouraged. In June 2015, my parents came to visit us in Kansas City. My father and stepmother proudly showed me something they bought for me in Chinatown in Los Angeles, where they lived. I held the porcelain Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (Guanyin) who was holding an infant, like the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, and gently placed her on our table of worship in our home. The loving aunties told him about this statue, and my parents looked all over Chinatown in San Francisco and Los Angeles to find this one, in the back of the final store they went to.
I was raised and still identify with the Buddhist faith, although I embrace faith in others of all religions, having spent 3 years during college deeply involved in the Christian faith and was baptized during my Junior year.
Three weeks after daily prayer to the Fertility Guanyin, I remember having a conversation with our dog Zeus, asking him whether I should waste the money by peeing on another “stick”. He looked at me in silence. Well, this was the day and I will never forget seeing the “+” sign and screaming from the second floor over our railing down to Dave who was in the first floor office and showing him the positive result!
My daughter Claire just turned 13, and being a parent for the past 13 years has been the greatest gift. Not only has it increased my capacity to love, have empathy and compassion beyond what I thought possible, it has allowed me to appreciate and love Dave for who he has become as an incredible father, not just my husband and life partner.
After having Claire, holding her in my arms, rushing home to see her every night after long days at the hospital, I wanted even more children.
Then came another year of desperation and trying. I naively thought hey, just keep praying to the Guanyin, and since I am capable of getting pregnant I should be able to again. Unfortunately I was already 37 and my ovaries must have been 10-15 years older! We went to the “top” fertility specialist in Kansas City. I will never forget rushing to his office during the lunch hour between morning and afternoon clinics, to get results after much testing. He said to me, “There is nothing we can do, your options are to find an egg donor or adopt.” And walked out.
Had I taken better care of myself, exercised, drank more water, rested, and eaten meals regularly, perhaps my insulin levels would have been more regular. I read then that ovaries are incredibly sensitive to insulin and blood sugar as a way to ensure pregnancies would be viable, but who knows.
Dave and I looked into egg donors, but in the Kansas City and Missouri area, there were only a handful, and the idea that we would have a child that would be genetically similar to others in the region was not comfortable for us. Of course the donors were Caucasian in the Midwest, and at the time we thought why not find one of Taiwanese or Chinese descent so perhaps Claire’s sibling would look like her.
I won’t elaborate, but we explored a “higher end” egg donor agency in Los Angeles, but looking for an egg donor, reading their profiles, and understanding that the “industry” allows women to “super-ovulate” up to 7 times per year, really upset me. I am certain thinking about how hormones may have caused my mother’s breast cancer, I know that while egg donors are making possible for many families the dream of having a child, it was not for us.
We found another fertility specialist in town, who agreed to let us try IVF with guarded optimism. More tests, but now I had hope. I thought if we just spend the money, I should be able to have the second baby that I wanted so desperately. I still remember going to a national meeting somewhere with all my syringes and medications, and rushing home after my presentation for the egg harvest. The sonographer said, “I can’t find your right ovary.” Needless to say, no eggs were found and the harvest did not occur.
For the next couple of years, we thought about adoption. Even today, I still think about what if, always admiring my patient families that have multiple children. But I am forever grateful for our one “egg”. Claire will tell others that she is my “one egg”. It was the most perfect egg and embryo.
If you are on this journey, love yourself, even if you are not pregnant yet. Believe and pray, whatever your faith. Take care of yourself by eating healthy, drinking water, exercising regularly and doing things that bring you joy with the people you love.