Infertility: The Toughest Battle Ever Fought

“When we entered the Los Angeles terminal, I immediately kissed the ground, overjoyed to be back in the USA at last. My husband, Bob, and I were just back from an incredibly challenging two-and-a-half-year Navy tour in the Philippines. The images were already beginning to fade: thatched roofed nipa huts dotting the countryside, water-soaked rice fields juxtaposed against the rugged mountains, and small-framed men in cone hats commandeering massive water buffalo. Although the Filipinos were friendly and their country visually beautiful, our years there were some of the most difficult I endured during our infertility treatment.

 Typical Philippine man in harvesting rice with carabao.

Typical Philippine man in harvesting rice with carabao.

“When we entered the Los Angeles terminal, I immediately kissed the ground, overjoyed to be back in the USA at last. My husband, Bob, and I were just back from an incredibly challenging two-and-a-half-year Navy tour in the Philippines. The images were already beginning to fade: thatched roofed nipa huts dotting the countryside, water-soaked rice fields juxtaposed against the rugged mountains, and small-framed men in cone hats commandeering massive water buffalo. Although the Filipinos were friendly and their country visually beautiful, our years there were some of the most difficult I endured during our infertility treatment.

These two paragraphs are the opening of the book Detours: Unexpected Journeys of Hope Conceived from Infertility, of which I am the Anthologist and Co-author. I compiled this book along with my husband and nine other women whom I met through the RESOLVE infertility support group of San Diego during the most difficult years of our infertility journey.

My husband, a surface warfare officer, and I were stationed in San Diego off and on throughout his 26 years of serving in the U.S. Navy. We endured 14 moves during the first 12 years of our marriage. It was hard to move so many times. Being plucked away from friends, family, and my teaching position was difficult. But what was even harder than leaving my loved ones and my career was leaving my Reproductive Endocrinologist (RE). Every time we moved, I had to start treatment all over again. Every new RE wanted to do another diagnostic laparoscopy. I had so many laparoscopic surgeries performed by so many different doctors that my belly button looks like a wagon wheel.

 In-Fertility & Friendship Cards: Imagined by Sue Johnston www.theinfertilityadvocate Illustrated by Madeleine Kimble www.ByMadeleineKimble.com

In-Fertility & Friendship Cards: Imagined by Sue Johnston www.theinfertilityadvocate Illustrated by Madeleine Kimble www.ByMadeleineKimble.com

Throughout my husband’s naval career, we were separated for months at a time. He was gone so much that I actually forgot what he looked like. This was before Skype and email. Communication between Navy couples was so limited back then. There is an inside joke among Navy couples. “The Navy guarantees a happy marriage at least HALF the time.”  If you love your spouse and want them home, they are home about HALF the time. If you’re not getting along and want them gone, they are gone about HALF the time.  So… “A guaranteed happy marriage at least half the time.” We endured 7 deployments as well as all the days, weeks, and months of separation leading up to those seven deployments. In the first 14 years of our marriage, he was gone over 7 years total.

Yet… the time separated from my husband pales by the comparison to not being able to have a baby.  All I had was his frozen sperm and our frozen embryos to keep me company while trying to conceive.

We survived an extremely difficult overseas tour in the Philippines. During our time in the PI, I experienced one crisis after another. I was diagnosed with a rare hip disease in my early 30’s and had to have numerous surgeries to save my hip. The orthopedic doctor at the base hospital, incredibly named “Jungle General,” had to perform two surgeries to help me manage the pain until I could return to the United States and have a hip replacement. To this day, I walk with a slight limp and I have a handicapped placard for my car.

My beloved mother was stricken with breast cancer about a year into our tour of duty in the Philippines. I was so close to my mom and longed to be by her side. The distance was too great and the Navy wouldn’t fly us home for a cancer diagnosis. This was the first time anyone in our family has suffered from cancer. Oh how I wished I could be there for her in her time of need. She eventually passed away from cancer about 6 years later.

But by far, the worst tragedy while living in the PI was the day my parents called me to tell me that I had lost my older brother. Don was a rugged outdoorsman and had been hunting for mountain goat in British Columbia when he accidentally slipped and fell off a rocky mountain ledge. My world stood still. Before I knew it, the Navy whisked us back to the United States so I could attend my brother’s funeral.

During the two-and-a-half-years in the Philippines, I felt like my family and I were under siege as one tragedy after another befell upon us, but the final heartbreak was… I never did get pregnant.

 My brother Don.

My brother Don.

Fast forward… to the present. Obviously, I am a bit older now… 59 years old to be exact. My husband retired from the Navy at the rank of Captain on August 1, 2000. He always jokes that if he retired as a Captain, then I retired as an Admiral because I always out-rank him. That always gives me a chuckle. 

But truly, the ups and downs in my life have seasoned me.  When faced with adversity, I’ve learned to turn my trials into triumphs. When I look back on our infertility journey and our military life together, I can honestly say that it takes the strength and courage of a warrior to combat infertility. Of all the challenges I’ve described and the numerous others I’ve endured in nearly 6 decades of life, infertility was by far the most difficult. Infertility is balancing scale I use to measure all my trials in life… none of which compare.

In retrospect, I’m really not sure where I found the strength to continue trying to conceive, but I never gave up on my dream to become a mother. It must have been God that helped carry me through.  After 10 surgeries, 15 IUI’s, 4 IVFs, 2 IVF/ZIFT combination transfers, and over 40 embryos, I finally overcame my unexplained infertility and delivered my “miracle baby” on May 1, 1994.

Even though it still affects me to this day, my perspective on infertility, now that it is behind me, has changed. I can look at it through a different lens. I have embraced the blessings of having an only child, although I wanted to have several children. My son and I are so close and we talk about everything. He is soon to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in Earth and Environmental Science. He often quips that the reason he loves science so much is because his life began as a “science experiment” in a petri dish.

 In-Fertility & Friendship Cards: Imagined by Sue Johnston www.theinfertilityadvocate.com Illustrated by Madeleine Kimble: www.ByMadeleineKimble.com

In-Fertility & Friendship Cards: Imagined by Sue Johnston www.theinfertilityadvocate.com Illustrated by Madeleine Kimble: www.ByMadeleineKimble.com

Infertility used to frighten me, but now it empowers me! This is why I wanted to share my story… and the stories of my RESOLVE sisters in our book.  It was our decade-long battle that motivated me to publish Detours so that we could inspire hope for those who are in the thick of their battles today. And it is most appropriate that I titled my chapter, “Never Tell a Navy Wife to Abandon Ship,” because I never gave up on trying to have a baby.

My son is one week shy of 23 as I write this blog post. I still pinch myself whenever I see him and I will never take motherhood for granted. It was indeed the toughest battle of our lives to date, but having him as our son was truly worth the fight.

Read more about my husband’s and peers’ perspectives… order Detours.

Please click on this link to order Detours:  www.detoursofhope.com.

A portion of the profits from Detours will be donated to RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association.

In-Fertility and Friendship,

Sue