IVF Blog

Trailblazing with Andrea Syrtash



Photo of Andrea Syrtash by    Alexis Mera   .

Photo of Andrea Syrtash by Alexis Mera.

During National Infertility Week, Alexis Mera and I had the opportunity to meet with six fertility warriors who have been bold enough to share their stories publicly. Please meet Andrea Syrtash a fertility force and trailblazer. Although I have known Andrea for years, our first in person meeting was only very recently when our group of fertility warriors got together for this NAIW project.

Andrea has been a trailblazer in the fertility space and has been actively supporting fertility warriors since she founded pregnantish, the first online lifestyle magazine dedicated to helping singles, couples and LGBT navigate (in)fertility treatments. Andrea’s background as a relationship expert and coach regularly featured on national TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show, and as the author of He's Just Not Your Type (And That's A Good Thing) and Cheat On Your Husband (With Your Husband), combined with her compassion for the fertility journey, has made her an unwavering authority in the world of fertility.

I had the privilege to connect with Andrea on some of the aspects of her personal journey that I am so pleased to share in our recent interview here:

Andrea, what is your story?

How much time do you have?! Approximately 18 fertility treatments, one open-stomach surgery to remove a large fibroid, eight years of trying to get and stay pregnant, and eight reproductive doctors. I always knew it might take a while to get pregnant because I was diagnosed with endometriosis as a teenager, but I never imagined that it would take as long as it did to meet our baby (in December 2018)! 

After IVF transfer after transfer, and after learning we miscarried a 'heatlhy' baby in 2013 after a D&C, a doctor told me not to do anymore embryo transfers until we genetically tested our embryos. In 2016, I did many more retrievals to try to create enough Day 5 embryos to send away for PGS (now called PGT-A) genetic testing. Once we had healthy embryos, we knew we should try to find a gestational carrier (a surrogate who would use my embryo) to carry our baby to term.

This was another big chapter! Two surrogates dropped out on us and I had no idea how we were going to afford to keep going through this. In January 2018, my first cousin Elana stepped up and offered to carry our embryo. I was so emotional I couldn't respond! We transferred one into her in April 2018, during National Infertility Awareness Week. I remember telling my audience at pregnantish that I had no idea if I'd meet our baby this way, but I was hopeful. In December of 2018 of my cousin delivered our baby girl Arielle (into the world). I'm so grateful and in shock that I'm her mom!

Your High?

I created and launched pregnantish.com to help others navigate this incredibly stressful process right in the middle of my own treatment/IVF. At the time, I was not sure if or how I'd have a baby. Finding a deeper purpose during an experience I was really struggling with was a high for me.I was not only able to use my voice to help others, but I learned so much from others in the community. So often when you're dealing with infertility, you feel alone.

Your Low? 

I had many lows over almost a decade of trying to make a baby! One happened in public at a department store after an appointment where the doctor told me my embryos were growing unevenly. (I later learned it's because I needed estrogen priming, but that's another story!)  A tourist came up to me and asked if she could pray for me. I felt awkward about it, right there in the middle of the shoe racks; we held hands and she prayed while I cried. Another low was learning that I would miscarry again in 2014. By this point, I had been trying for about 4 years and I was so depleted. December 2015 was another low because my doctor told me that I had a 'beautiful perfect looking embryo', that didn’t take. I had done everything (diet, vitamins, taking care of myself) to let it implant. When it didn't work, I felt hopeless. I called the doctor and he told me to stop treatment and suggested more testing.

What was a low then turned out to be a high because more possibilities opened for us once we got more information (as a result of the testing).

Do you have a silver lining?

I got 2 babies out of this! One is my baby Arielle, who I'm so grateful for and who is a joy. The other is pregnantish which is fulfilling because I often hear it helps others who are struggling.

Do you have any words of wisdom?

I used to tell myself and often tell our readers that so much is out of our control when it comes to goals like parenthood, and if you want to be a parent, there will be a path. You don't need to know the how, the when, the where, you just need to know the what which is that you will be a parent. There are so many paths...

Learn more about Andrea, her story and the wealth of fertility resources available through her site pregnatish.

Redefining the Conversation about Infertility

Fertility Warriors from L to R:    Andrea Syrtash, Anthea King–Pascual, Jane Jolis, Nathalie Carpenter, Jennie Monness, Rebekah Rosler, Stephanie Rapp. Photo credit: Alexis Mera.

Fertility Warriors from L to R: Andrea Syrtash, Anthea King–Pascual, Jane Jolis, Nathalie Carpenter, Jennie Monness, Rebekah Rosler, Stephanie Rapp. Photo credit: Alexis Mera.

I have thought a lot about the word infertility. It sounds like such an ugly word because there is so much judgement (including self) and lack of awareness around the subject. Even for those embarking on the “journey” there is so much that is unknown. Although the science around it has come a long way, there is still not a guarantee that it will find the underlying cause, let alone solve it to produce a child. 

The word infertile goes against our very basic function as humans to reproduce. And if we can’t do that, we may admonish ourselves for not being “normal” or having tried hard enough, or perhaps not trying the right way (whatever that means). There may be shame, embarrassment, guilt, fear, frustration, jealousy, and, and, and… Societally, we have been taught that all of these emotions are bad/negative and since there is no pride in them, we naturally try to hide them, making the depths of despair associated with (in)fertility even greater. 

I am speaking about all of the above from experience because I have lived it. Do you know how liberating it is to share that publicly? The first time I announced my experience through this blog, I held my breath when I hit publish. I didn’t know what the reaction would be and whether it would be met with public disparagement or disgust, or whether I might even be let go at my corporate job for airing my so-called dirty laundry so publicly. Instead, I was met with responses from people that I knew and didn’t know; that they, their sister, cousin, friend, or colleague was going through it, and would I talk to them about it. In those moments, I understood that I was so far from being alone. I realized that I had been shouldering a greater burden than I had to; and had created more stress for myself by not talking about my (in)fertility story. I will purposely refer to (in)fertility like so moving forward because infertility and fertility are often interchangeable, however I believe that being in the community of fertility is powerful.

By being vulnerable by sharing my own story, I have come to learn that that there are other women who have been voicing their experience and encouraging others to do the same. These fertility warriors are trailblazers, and I recently had the honor and privilege of being in the same room with six incredible women who also see the possibility of change. Alexis Mera was there to capture it all on camera.

To say that it was magical being in the room with these other women is an understatement. We all “knew” each other without actually ever meeting, because although the journey was different for all of us, the end goal of becoming a mother was the same.  Our common bond was cemented in the interest of redefining the conversation around (in)fertility by breaking the silence to get it started.

The silence for all of us at one point or another was deafening. At times the path had been hell both mentally and/or physically, but I believe that we all realized that we could use our strength to give voices and faces to (in)fertility. When. the seven of us met, it was clear that we had found community through authenticity, transparency and vulnerability by sharingand as a result, the ability to pay it forward by supporting others going through the fire.

This is just the start, by creating community, we discover resources, are empowered by options, and elevate the conversation for support publicly and in the workplace. We have the power to make infertility a safe discussion and promoting its importance for financial support consideration and workplace benefits for both women and men.

Be a trailblazer. Over the course of this week during National Infertility Awareness Week, six fertility warriors will be featured on Fertilust. Each will share their story and their reflections on their experience. Some of the themes expressed by our trailblazers included empowerment, community, perseverance, resilience, options, strength, and advocacy.

We welcome you to join the conversation by sharing your constructive voice in the comments, and/or by reaching out to find out how to tap into the community. 

In collaboration with Alexis Mera who photographed each fertility warrior and provided graphic tees from her collections, you can get a sneak peek into each woman’s story here as shared on Alexis’ blog. Please also be sure to check back each day this week as we highlight each fertility warrior in detail here on Fertilust.

Together we can take the conversation about (in)fertility out of the shadows to normalize it. We can make it inclusive by building awareness and community. By giving it so many voices, we can drown out the judgement, misconceptions and silence around the topic.

Rather than focus on the negative aspects of (in)fertility, we have the opportunity to get IN to the community of FERTILITY. Please join us.

 

 

 

The Nurse we all Need

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I am so excited to share the discussion that I had with Fertility Nurse and Consultant, Leyla Bilali of Fertility Together.  Leyla bridges the gap between doctor visits, the waiting, the results and so much more.

It is no secret that (in)fertility is a lot to navigate both mentally and physically. Leyla’s services combine emotional support with the medicine that's within her scope of practice. It’s also a huge bonus that Leyla helps her patients with the administration of their medicine in the comfort of their own home and is also a constant sounding board. The result is that Leyla’s patients are much more than just that, they are individuals who receive support tailored to their needs during their fertility journey. 

Read on to find out more about the discussion that I had with Leyla, the Fertility Nurse that we all need.  I have come to think of Leyla is a fertility fairy godmother. Everyone going through fertility treatments needs a Leyla!

What is a fertility consultant and what inspired you to become one?

 A fertility consultant holds your hand during your fertility journey. This doesn’t necessarily have to just be for IVF but for all fertility related treatments including egg freezing. I work with some women that aren’t in a secured relationship or ready to have a child yet, but would like the option to potentially have a child in the future. From egg freezing to IVF, I help women navigate the whole process from who to see and what tests to take for baseline testing.

Sometimes an OB will suggest that a patient should see a reproductive endocrinologist, especially if a couple has been trying without success for over a year. I can guide that person on who to see based on their personalized medical history rather than just send them to a clinic where there is a relationship (between the OB and the clinic). A lot of this (fertility) world is not personalized. There is such a high volume at the large clinics which has its pros, but it makes it difficult to personalize care for people. My role is to help guide through all of the results and keep my patients sane.

I believe that a nurturing, knowledgeable partner like me can make all the difference as someone discovers their unique path to fertility. In my 11 years as a registered nurse, six of them in pediatrics, and five of the most recent in fertility, I have learned how to make healthcare more comfortable and human by inserting my compassion, humor and reliability.

 The medical world can feel very stiff and scary and we often need a shoulder to lean on to get through it. This is especially true for fertility patients as they are usually in a vulnerable state to begin with. Whether you are simply curious about your reproductive health, ready to take action via egg freezing or struggling with infertility, it doesn't get much more emotional, raw or intimate than this. And because of this intimacy, it's often hard for people to talk about it. As a society, we are beginning to lift the taboo of fertility but we still have a ways to go!

I have been fortunate enough to recognize my calling as a fertility consultant at the suggestion of some of my most dear patients. I thought I was supporting them medically and emotionally, and instead I was the one that was rewarded ten-fold with a great business idea. It actually occurred to me while I was at the home of one of my patients assisting her with injections. Sometimes the patient or the partner has a hard time administering or doesn’t feel comfortable.

I realized what was missing in fertility care when my patient said “I don’t know how people do this without a Leyla. You should start your own business.” No one else was doing this in the Tri-State area so I officially launched Fertility Together in August of 2017.

You mentioned personalization for each patient. Can you please elaborate?

 After looking at a patient’s medical history and understanding their personality, I make recommendations on who that patient would work well with and provide A – Z assistance from injections to on-call support. Even if it isn’t the full IVF, egg freezing is still the first full part of IVF by way of egg retrieval. I can assist the patient on what to expect from the medications and help administer it, if needed. 

What is your view on the correlation between stress and conceiving?

 Stress wreaks havoc on your body so there is no reason that it wouldn’t wreak havoc on your reproductive system and egg quality. 

 Cortisol (stress) hormones compete with progesterone hormones. Progesterone is crucial to pregnancy, specifically to conceiving and holding a pregnancy. There are a lot of indications that stress plays a role in infertility.

 One method that I like to combat stress is acupuncture. There may not be any direct studies that acupuncture increases egg quality but it does affect your nervous system, which can suppress your stress levels. JAMA recently released a report on an acupuncture study where some patients received traditional acupuncture and others received a placebo of randomly placing needles. The result showed no difference between the traditional and the placebo. However, because the participants felt that they were proactively doing something to alleviate their stress, the positive IVF outcomes were increased. 

What do you most regularly hear your patients “stress” about leading up to and during IVF treatment?

The anxiety from the medication and injections. The partner relationship also plays a huge role (of importance) because that is your support system and any potential lack of it, can also be a source of stress.

What are your top tips for patients to optimize positive outcomes and reduce stress?

  1. Taking care of your body is huge. If you have an eating disorder, are under or overweight, you are damaging your reproductive system. You can improve egg quality and support it with good whole foods, decreasing alcohol consumption, and not smoking.

  2. It is important to work with a doctor that you vibe and feel comfortable with. The doctor and the facility should be available to answer questions. You should not ever feel like a bother for asking.

  3. Communication between you and your partner is crucial. We often forget that our partner is going through this too and that they have (support) needs as well. Maybe you need a third party like me or an IVF therapist to help.

  4. Do what makes you feel sane; that could be acupuncture, exercise, or another healthy activity.

Are there any myths about stress that you would like to debunk?

 Prior to transferring an embryo, I have a lot of a patients who ask if the timing is right and if stressful life events will alter their results. For example they have a stressful work week coming up or life just happened. The answer is no. If the embryo is going to take and it’s going to be a viable pregnancy, it’s going to sustain despite your everyday level of stress and anxiety. 

There is nothing wrong with being stressed and anxious about this process. That is why it is annoying when people say “don’t stress or just relax”. I think that it would be abnormal if someone didn’t stress or have anxiety during the process. Letting yourself feel these emotions is where my services come in. I am a sounding board. You get to tell me that you are stressed out and just talking about it will make you feel better. 

Are there any resources that you think are a must for anyone going through or considering IVF?

  • Acupuncture, Liz Carlson at Common Point. I go to her myself!

  • IVF therapists

  • Resolve.org offers a resource list for consultants, therapists, support groups

I would love to get to the point where people don’t feel ashamed that they had to undergo any fertility treatment to have their baby. Ideally it would be normalized and not a taboo topic.

What moment in your career has inspired you more than you could have imagined?

I was chatting with my husband’s colleague at a holiday party who knew that I am a fertility nurse, and upon meeting me shared that he was an IVF baby. He told me that he was so appreciative of what his mom went through to have him. It brought tears to my eyes.

 

Leyla Bilali, BS, BSN, RN is an experienced fertility nurse and fertility consultant. Leyla received her Bachelor of Science in Biology at Emory University, and her BSN at the Columbia University School of Nursing. 

To learn more about Leyla and Fertility Together, please visit: fertilitytogether.com or @fertilitytogether on IG.

 

 

Get Happy

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There could be a slew of reasons that might derail a day; the too-good-for-his-job guy/girl at the local coffee shop who was rude and got your order wrong to boot. Maybe you’re running late to an important meeting and a careless taxi driver just drenched you in toxic city sludge on your way to said meeting… 

Life isn’t perfect. We should allow ourselves the opportunity to mourn the big things and let go of the small things. We may not be able to control outcomes of situations but we can control how we react to them. In those moments we are presented with a choice and an opportunity.

There is something to be said about the power of optimism to combat stress and empower a positive mind-body connection crucial for any medical challenge including infertility. Poor mental stress may negatively affect fertility in ways that are not yet clinically understood. (I asked Dr. # 4 about the impact of stress and she said and I quote “we live in New York City, everyone is stressed and women get pregnant all of the time”. That statement literally crushed me at the time and now I think it is just plain ridiculous that I allowed her view to cloud mine.) Just because there isn’t enough clinical research to provide gold standard research on the affects of high cortisol levels doesn’t mean that we aren’t affected by stress. Stress is real and we have the power to either contribute to it through negative thoughts, thereby punishing ourselves, or through combating it through manifesting the positive.

There is only upside to practicing a positive outlook. A generally happy person enjoys a higher quality of life and it may also reduce disease so there’s that. Each morning is an opportunity for us to hit the reset button. While it applies to just about everything, focusing every waking moment on getting pregnant “or else you won’t have this, or that,” can create tunnel vision. (Cue that crazy spiral image from the Twilight Zone.) Being so attached to a fertility outcome may even make things worse for us mentally and emotionally should our reality not match our expectation. I’ve been there. We have a choice to be all consumed or practice counting our blessings for the things in our lives for which we are grateful right now.

So if you missed the memo on “National Happiness Day” today, remember that you’ve got another shot to get happy tomorrow. Before you go to bed tonight, reset. Close your eyes for a (whole!) minute and breathe deeply. First forgive yourself, maybe even forgive that self-absorbed barista, taxi cab driver, or your nosy colleague who keeps asking when you are going to have kids. Consider giving them the benefit of the doubt, as they are likely just unaware. Take three more minutes. Just three more! Write down three things that you are grateful for, and three moments that you are looking forward to in the new day. (Writing my thoughts and tasks in a pretty notebook gives me an insane amount of satisfaction for some reason. Maybe it will for you?) The moments that will make you smile as you think about the future may be as simple as hugging your dog, or seeing the sun/sky in the morning. On the back of the paper, dump anything else that you need to park outside of your head like calling your mom, the doctor, any work related items, and, and, and… Bonus points if you write down one self-care item (massage, manicure, etc.) that you plan to schedule for yourself, just because.. Then leave your phone in another room and affirm to yourself that you have set yourself up to get a good night’s sleep to reset and restore for the coming day ahead. Believe it when you say it.

Tomorrow, right when you wake up, read that list of six things at home and not on the run, saving the other side of the to-do’s for the office. Honor your brilliant mind and body by telling yourself how grateful you are, drink a whole glass of water and mentally prepare yourself for the day with a smile. And give yourself permission without judgement to fake that smile until it becomes real.

Wishing all of us endless National Happiness Days…

xx


Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash