Local women bond over infertility, start support group to help others
In contrast to her vital appearance and upbeat personality, Andrea Gleason wages medical battles that would leave most people with a perpetual frown.
Many of her 29 years have been spent in and out of hospitals. Both she and her sister required kidney transplants; Gleason received hers at age 16. She subsequently developed a rare condition, Caroli Disease, that has put other organs in jeopardy; she expects to need a liver transplant.
Gleason has shared her story publicly as an advocate for organ- and tissue donation.
Yet, there’s a part she once kept private. Only those close to her have known how deeply she yearns to start a family with her husband, Michael, but cannot carry and deliver a child on her own.
The Gleasons sought help from a specialist. No doctors in Chico offer infertility treatment services, so they traveled to Stanford. They began the process for in vitro fertilization (IVF) with a female relative of Andrea’s to serve as surrogate.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said, “but then going through it, it was a lot.”
Gleason works at Enloe Medical Center in the Human Resources Department. One of her close friends there, Sarah Blofsky, transferred from Recruiting to the Mother & Baby Care Center as a neonatal technician.
When Gleason revealed to Blofsky that she was starting IVF treatment, she got an unexpected response.
Blofsky and her husband, Eric, were doing the same thing.
“I remember my jaw about hit the floor,” Gleason told the CN&R. “I had never,ever had anyone say, ‘I’m doing it, too.’”
The Blofskys had been just as private: Only close friends and family members knew at first.
“People ask all the time, ‘When are you going to have a baby? Don’t wait too much longer!’” said Blofsky, 30. “So I asked Eric, ‘What do you tell people when they start asking?’ He said, ‘I just tell them we’re doing IVF … because then they don’t ask you any more.’”
Hearing that, Gleason laughed, and Blofsky joined her. They can look on the lighter side, even though infertility weighs heavily on both couples, because they have each other for encouragement. They no longer feel alone.
The feeling of connectedness inspired Gleason to ask Enloe to sponsor a support group for couples like her and Michael, and the Blofskys. The medical center agreed. The group would need facilitation, of course, so Gleason turned to her friend. Blofsky overcame initial reservations and agreed to share the moderator duties with Gleason.
The Enloe Infertility Support Group meets monthly (see infobox). It launched this past January and draws an average of a dozen attendees. Along with open discussions, in which they share experiences, participants hear from physicians and other experts.
Dr. Mark Garrison, a gynecologist with Enloe Women’s Services, says 1 in 6 couples struggle with infertility.
“It’s substantial,” Garrison said.
The term infertility is defined as an inability to get pregnant after trying for at least a year, and/or having multiple miscarriages. Garrison said a woman under 35 should seek medical treatment after a year of unsuccessful attempts to conceive. Until that time, she should continue to monitor her cycles and check her fertility timetable with over-the-counter ovulation tests.
Better still, he advises, couples should see their doctor(s) before starting.
“Just make sure that your general health is good, see if there are any issues that need to be addressed as part of preconception counseling [and] go over the family history,” Garrison said. “Once you know everything is good, you’re on your prenatal vitamins, avail yourself of every available scientific technology to be smart about the timing.”
Even then, some couples won’t conceive. That’s when it’s time to consult a specialist. Urologists in Chico can send semen specimens to a local lab for sperm counts. For actual remedies, both men and women mostly go to Sacramento, the Bay Area or beyond. Treatments, with or without surrogacy, typically are not covered by insurance and run tens of thousands of dollars.
Along with the financial and logistical tolls, the medical procedures can drain couples emotionally and physically. IVF and related therapies using assisted reproductive technology require doctors to remove multiple eggs from a woman’s ovary, but in order to get enough eggs ready at once, she must take hormones that cause discomfort.
Blofsky underwent treatment in September 2014 so doctors could fertilize her eggs, freeze them and reintroduce them two at a time. She is in good health; nonetheless, she received medication to boost hormones to stimulate pregnancy. Two attempts have failed.
The Gleasons, meanwhile, suffered a painful disappointment: Their relative did become pregnant with their child, but lost the baby at 13 weeks last year.
“I felt like the rug was just taken from under me,” Gleason said. “I found myself feeling so alone, lost, with nowhere to turn. I didn’t know anyone else who was struggling with these same issues, and I just knew I couldn’t be the only person.”
She wasn’t and isn’t. Now she and Blofsky have cultivated a community, which they hope will grow.
In the meantime, each couple is moving forward. The Gleasons thought last year’s pregnancy might be their last chance, because they cannot afford a surrogate on top of IVF, but a mother of two in Willows, where they live, heard about their plight and has agreed to carry their child free of charge. The Blofskys, after taking a year break, plan to try again next month without all the medications from the previous rounds.
“Mother’s Day was really hard for everybody in that group, but you feel like everybody else is pumped,” Blofsky said. “I texted Andrea [saying], ‘Hey, I’m having a really hard day today,’ and she [replied], ‘Yep, me, too.’ I couldn’t text my best friend because she has three kids, so Mother’s Day is an amazing day for her, and I’m very glad about that.
“To have that sense of normalcy, to know that’s all I have to say [for Andrea] to know how I feel, you instantly feel relief in that.”