Looking for the key to the infertility puzzle

With 1/6 Canadians dealing with infertility, Apr. 23 - 29 is Canadian Infertility Awareness Week

Apr. 23 to 29 is Canadian Infertility Awareness Week, which focuses on creating awareness around the reproductive challenges faced by one in six men and women on a daily basis. And while Canada boasts a universal health care system, thousands of B.C. residents are denied equitable access to the necessary medical treatments to treat their fertility issues.

This is the first in a three-part series that examines infertility, how it affects our community, and what can be done to overcome its psychological and physical challenges.

Ashley & Jonathan Funk

It was 2001 when 16-year-old Ashley Korthuis began dating classmate Jonathan Funk. And while so many teenage romances are short lived, Ashley and Jonathan—who grew up in the same neighbourhood—continued strong throughout their senior years in high school and tied the knot two years after graduating.

“We were young, but in love,” said Ashley, smiling. The couple, who married in the spring of 2005, recently celebrated 13 years since promising to have and hold through better or worse, however, Ashley says they weren’t quite prepared for what came after the honeymoon.

“We had plans for our future … for having children. (But) knew it would take some time, so we were just having fun (as newlyweds).”

After their first wedding anniversary they actively began trying to conceive a child. “But then a year went by,” said Ashley. “A year of negative pregnancy tests.”

Thats when the Funks started to worry that their dreams of raising lots of kids may remain just that—a dream.

The birds & the bees

Each year thousands of Canadians are shocked to learn they’re infertile.

Starting when they’re old enough to ask questions, children are taught the basics about the birds and the bees. And once they’re old enough, school-based sexual health curriculums deliver more detail, however, the focus is usually on pregnancy- and STI-prevention methods rather than on reproductive health and fertility awareness.

“Sexual education has frightened women off unplanned pregnancies,” said Dr. Shaun Tregoning, an OBGYN specializing in fertility issues. “It’s like they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

This means that after years of preventing pregnancy it can be extremely jarring to learn of unexpected fertility challenges. Generally defined as a couple’s inability to conceive a child after a year of unprotected intercourse, infertility doesn’t discriminate and can be caused by a variety of issues.

“Infertility is no respecter of people,” said Tregoning, who works out of Olive Fertility’s Abbotsford location. “It affects people of any status, any education level,” and the public need to be more prepared for it by understanding what it is and when to start seeking help.

Right now more than 600,000 Canadians struggling to build their families: for every six people you know, at least one of them is suffering from infertility. And while there are many causes of infertility, it can often be classified as either male-, female-, or unexplained infertility.

“(That said), too much emphasis is often placed on the egg factor,” added Tregoning. “Sperm is needed as well … and studies are showing an increase in male infertility across the globe.

“Unfortunately, male-related factors usually lead to in vitro fertilization (IVF), but there are other options for female factors.” And although one of the most common fertility challenges is age, there are a range of issues that could affect conception, including lack of ovulation, hormone issues, or tubal dysfunction.

“You can’t change your potential (for conception)—that’s from your parents—but (you) can improve the environment,” said Dr. Lorne Brown, the clinical director of Acubalance Wellness Centre, which offers specialized fertility care out of its Vancouver office.

Ashley & Jonathan Funk

With a couple of years of trying to conceive a child under their belts, Ashley and Jonathan Funk made the decision to step off the traditional path to parenthood in Oct. 2008, and began looking into adoption.

“We signed up with an adoption agency for the introductory course,” said Ashley. “But a week before the seminar, we learned we were pregnant, so we cancelled (our enrollment in) the course. We were so excited!”

However, after telling their families about their expected bundle of joy, Ashley’s and Jonathan’s dream came crashing down when she noticed some light bleeding before bed one night.

“I knew what it was,” Ashley said sadly. Her worst suspicions were confirmed after five hours spent in the E.R.: they’d had a miscarriage at 14 weeks along, although an ultrasound revealed growth had stopped at seven weeks.

After trying for years to conceive a child, Ashley and Jonathan had lost theirs before ever having the chance to hold them in their arms.

“I cried. A lot,” said Ashley. “It was definitely the loss of a child. We had hopes and dreams, a nursery planned.

“I was so very angry. Angry at God,” continued Ashley. “Why would He give me this desire but take my baby away? My husband worried that the experience would break me—and it did for a while.”

Jonas Funk’s parents, Ashley and Jonathan, struggled for years to conceive him, making them part of the 600,000 Canadians who struggle with infertility. (Submitted)

What’s at stake?

“There are studies showing infertility is as stressful as cancer,” said Brown. And not just cancer: when standardized testing methods are used, patients dealing with infertility list is as the most upsetting experience of their lives, and they score along the same lines as patients with cardiac disease, or who are HIV-positive.

However, unlike cardiac and HIV patients, most fertility patients in B.C. don’t have readily available access to treatments as they’re usually quite costly.

“Infertility isn’t the same thing as other uninsured services. It’s not a nose job,” Tregoning said. “Everyone has the right to start a family … but not everyone can (make a) baby.”

In February 2009, Ashley was told by her doctor that she had a heart-shaped uterus, which was problematic and greatly reduced her odds of carrying any pregnancy to term.

“I was devastated,” she recalls. “We’d always wanted four kids close in age, and now I was being told that wouldn’t happen.”

However, it did happen for Ashley and Jonathan. A month after being told she’d likely never be a mother to biological children, Ashley was again pregnant, only this time she carried to full-term and delivered a healthy, nearly 10-pound baby boy at the end of 2009.

And while they’d achieved the dream they’d longed for for so many years, Ashley and Jonathan’s fertility journey wasn’t over.

Check out next Friday’s Chilliwack Progress Life & Leisure section to learn more about how infertility and the people it affects.


@SarahGawdin
Sarah.Gawdin@theprogress.com

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