Helen Browne first felt the indescribable pain of a failed IVF treatment in 1996. She would have to go through this heartbreak six more times and each time mourn the loss of the babies she could not have.
A landmark Government report on how to best fund fertility treatment is due by the end of this year, spurring strong support from Corkwoman Helen, who underwent IVF treatment for more than a decade.
Last February, then minister for health Leo Varadkar announced plans to provide public funding for assisted human reproduction (AHR) treatment, including IVF.
Presently, treatments are only available privately through clinics and can cost up to €5,000 per course. One in six couples has fertility issues Additionally, by the end of 2017, the Department of Health are drafting a general scheme of legislative provisions , which will be submitted to the Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Helen, co-founder of the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG), underwent seven failed IVF treatments over a period of 12 years. She estimates that the treatments cost her and her husband €60,000.
In 1996, NISIG was set up in Cork after Helen’s first failed IVF treatment. She discovered that there was no support available for people suffering with infertility. Now there is a 24-hour telephone line manned by Helen, and regular support meetings are held throughout the country.
Diagnosed with endometriosis in her 20s, Helen had always yearned for children. She married at the age of 31 and began IVF treatment a year later. Helen, a nurse, and her husband, who is self-employed, saved hard to fund the treatments.
She says: “We had to sell one car to pay for a treatment. A loan was taken out from the credit union.”
For more than a decade, they sacrificed holidays in a bid to get what they wanted more than anything — a baby.
”I ate, slept, and drank fertility treatment,” says Helen. She recalled how, at the time, IVF was still a ‘strange’ word, under the radar. The first Irish IVF baby was born at St. James’s Hospital, Dublin, on January 14, 1986. Helen admits that, during the 12 years of IVF treatment, she was unhappy.
“I felt that I was left out, friends getting pregnant, I felt socially excluded. I had always two to five children around the house. I cried an awful lot. If I saw women breastfeeding, I would get upset. I would think will I go to that christening, what if I get upset? It is a heartbreaking time. Mothers’ Day, I would find it horrendous. My husband did not know what to do, he was more upset for me. I feel that he regrets not being a dad. We would have been very good parents.”
Adoption was not an option for the Brownes at the time, costing anything from €30,000.
After 12 years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Helen decided to stop.
She says: “We had to stop IVF as we could no longer afford it. Having a family seemed to be the natural progression of love. We met, got married, it was just that we took it for granted that we would have a family. People would say hurtful things like ‘you can have my teenagers anytime’ or ‘just relax’.”
Helen underwent two years of counselling in a bid to come to the terms with the realisation that she would not be a mother.
“Counselling helped me to looked at the positive rather than the negative. It gives you tools to cope with stressful situations. I learned that I have to appreciate what I have. A lot of people would love to have the opportunity to have someone to love them. I have a great husband. “
Recalling those 12 years of IVF treatment, Helen says: “I did not think my life would survive without children. I would see articles about children being abused and I would get very angry with God. I didn’t understand why those people had children and we didn’t. I went into work and I switched off, did my work, but I was grieving.”
She hopes that two to three IVF treatments will be available publicly in Ireland and that aftercare support will be available.
“After forking out so much money on IVF, people then have to pay €60 an hour for counselling.”
NISIG offers support to almost 200 couples around Ireland. Helen has seen a changed dynamic over the years of more couples undergoing egg and sperm donation and others who are going the surrogacy route.
Although NISIG receives some state funding, Helen would like to see more resources being put into the group. Helen is the only person operating the 24/hour contact number.
“I have reduced hours in nursing. I could get a call at anytime. People who call at the weekends and late at night are always so apologetic. They are upset, something has triggered, it is grief. Everybody deals with it differently, some deal with in a very practical way, some people need to talk and some need counselling.”
Both male and female infertility are equally as common.
Most people should consult a doctor after a year of trying to conceive unsuccessfully. This is the main sign of infertility. If the woman is over the age of 35 and hasn’t conceived after trying for six months or has an irregular menstrual cycle, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible.
The man should be evaluated, too, as male infertility is just as common as female infertility.
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