The One Thing Most Infertility Stories Don't Mention
Rosalinda Patlan, from San Antonio, Texas, has been trying to have a baby with her husband, Dago, for eight years with the help of reproductive medicine, specifically with in-vitro fertilization treatments. Rosalinda was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome around 2006, and the couple cannot conceive naturally — an ability that most people take for granted and consider a rite of passage in life. But that feeling — the existential need to have children of your own — is heightened for the Patlans, as Rosalinda hopes that children will carry on the memories of her father and two brothers who were killed in a car accident when she was young. But, as the documentary Vegas Baby shows, even the most deeply-held desire for a child doesn't increase the odds of an IVF treatment being successful. Rosalinda's story captures one of the most important takeaways of the film, and perhaps the one thing most people don't know about infertility and IVF: that it often doesn't work, despite the monetary, physical, and emotional costs to those who use it.
Vegas Baby, which premiered on Netflix July 4, follows a contest held by Dr. Geoffrey Sher, a Las Vegas fertility specialist with a national chain of clinics who has been "influential in the births of more than 18,000 babies," according to his website. Every year, Sher hosts a competition whose winners will receive a free round of IVF, which could cost anywhere from $12,000, on average, to as high as $80,000, depending on the patient's age and type of IVF cycle, according to RESOLVE and IVF Cost Calculator. The contest — which has couples and single people submit videos where they put their emotional trauma and financially-strapped stories on full display — has been characterized by some as "playing God" and "an unapologetic marketing ploy," according to TIME. But for couples like the Patlans, it's their last shot at trying to have a baby — and it's just that, one shot, with a success rate of 40 percent at best and 20-35 percent on average.
As troubling as Sher's contest is for many people, Vegas Baby isn't a critique of the ethics of choosing which traumatized couple or person is most "worthy" of the chance to have a baby. Rather, the film presents stories like the Patlans' so that viewers get an idea of just what it's like to try for years and years, often to the detriment of their bank account as well as their marriage, to have a chance at having a baby. The documentary follows the Patlans; Ann and Brian Johnson, a couple who had twins via IVF in the past, but both died in premature labor; and Athena Reich, a single woman and actress living in New York City, on their journeys. Two of them become pregnant and have babies, which at first glance might seem as though it misrepresents the success rate of IVF. But when you watch the documentary, you see that these pregnancies result after multiple rounds of expensive IVF and a lot of emotional pain.
The film's director, Oscar-nominated Amanda Micheli, tells Romper she homed in on those personal stories to capture the emotions — many of them similar to the emotions she experienced in her own journey using IVF treatments, which began in 2013, when she was 41. But, despite the fact that Micheli's odds of success were relatively good for IVF and she and her husband had drained their savings for the treatment, their first round was unsuccessful.
There we were, out about $25,000 and didn’t have any embryos to use at all — nothing was viable. It was just devastating, and we were facing this decision of, 'Do we try to find the money to try this again or do we just stop?' And both of them seemed equally dismal, to be honest.
Micheli says that after that first round, she was floored by her own ignorance when it came to the way her own body functions and the success of IVF, and that's part of the reason she wanted to create the film.
I felt like if we had bought a car I really would have done more research than I had with IVF, because I just trusted the doctors and I trusted my friends who had been through it before, and I just thought it would work.
And Micheli isn't alone. Most people who aren't themselves going through infertility or who aren't part of a couple that might need to use assisted reproductive technology likely don't know about IVF — whether that's the scientific part of it or the monetary and emotional costs.
In Vegas Baby, the couple who wins Sher's contest, Ann and Brian Johnson, talk about just how extreme the effects of infertility and their IVF journey have been on their relationship. Six years prior to winning the contest, the Johnsons conceived twins using IVF, but both of the twins died in premature labor. The contest was their last chance after taking out a second mortgage on their house, with Brian working two jobs.
“There’s a part of me, inside of me, that feels like it would be best for us to start over,” Brian says in the film, while sitting next to his wife and looking at photos of their daughter who died shortly after she was born. “You know, be in a different relationship with somebody else, and try to have a family with somebody else because that pain that we have will always be there. And that’s the challenge, is trying to fight through that urge to say ‘You know what, I’m done, I just want to move on.’”
Ann looks at Brian for a moment, and says quietly, “Yep.”
The exchange captures how debilitating infertility and unsuccessful IVF treatments can be for a relationship, which is something relationship expert and author Andrea Syrtash says isn't being talked about enough. Syrtash tells Romper that infertility is a relationship issue in addition to being a medical diagnosis — though really only the medical perspective is presented online, offering little support for both those struggling with infertility and those who want to be there for their loved ones.
Syrtash has been married to her husband for 10 years, and she’s been trying to get pregnant and have a baby for more than half of her marriage. “It ends up defining my relationship in a way I wish it didn’t,” she says. And that seemed to be a common theme in Vegas Baby as well: infertility rocks relationships, and when the people dealing with it turn to the internet or their friends for emotional support, there are few resources that provide what they really need. As a result, Syrtash started Pregnantish.com, a website "dedicated to helping people dealing with infertility and fertility treatments navigate the emotional, personal, and practical realities of an often overwhelming process."
"Right now, the primary place for editorial about infertility has been primarily through parenting verticals, which is very hard for people going through infertility," Syrtash says. "Because ... it’s like ‘oh I’m going through all of these families to get to my section.’ It’s really awful."
And then, both Syrtash and Micheli say, when people struggling with infertility turn to their friends for support, they often get a lot of unsolicited advice, when all the really want is for someone to listen. And, because it often takes multiple rounds of IVF for it to be successful — or maybe sometimes IVF doesn't end up working at all — that advice is incredibly painful.
Syrtash says she became pregnant in 2013, but then she lost the heartbeat and miscarried. As anyone who has miscarried knows, it can be a traumatic experience, but Syrtash says when "you are billed many thousands of dollars after and you’ve taken years to get there through fertility treatments," there's another edge, or salt-in-the-wound effect to the trauma. And then when friends accidentally make comments like "Oh don't worry, you'll get pregnant eventually if you just stop stressing about it," it can feel as though someone is twisting a knife in that same salted wound.
And it's not just friends' and family's comments that can be hurtful: comments from complete strangers that are well-intentioned or just lack awareness can be painful, as one scene shows in Vegas Baby. Rosalinda goes to the nail salon to get a pedicure before she's about to start another IVF cycle. She's getting blue nail polish on her toes because she wants a boy. And then the women sitting next to her start talking about babies. One says her friend accidentally got pregnant at 41. Another says her friend accidentally got pregnant and then had triplets. Then a pregnant woman in the row shares that her baby was also an accident. Rosalinda silently watches the technician paint her toes, and then she quietly let's out a "K" as she fights back tears.
Micheli says that she doesn't want to live in a politically-correct culture where we're constantly worried about offending people, but that even "an ounce of awareness" among everyone — both those who know someone struggling with infertility and those who don't — might help someone who feels incredibly alone.
[The nail salon scene] really for me captures the isolation and pain that can really be brought home when you’re in public surrounded by people who don’t have a problem getting pregnant. You’re surrounded by families and babies and baby showers and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and people’s glib comments all the time. And ... 9 times out of 10, when people say something hurtful to someone with infertility they have no idea it is insensitive.
All of this is why, when I ask Micheli where she is on her infertility journey, she says happily but with reservation, "I'm actually pregnant now." Micheli has been pregnant one other time, but she miscarried at 10 weeks and lost the heartbeat. When we speak, she's at 14 weeks — officially out of the first trimester — and it's a pretty big deal. "It’s just been hard for me to get excited about this," she says. "I just feel really protective of my husband and our emotions. So I’m just like, ‘Oh we’ll see what happens! We’re not out of the woods yet.’ We’re probably not out of the woods until the baby goes to college, but I feel like we’re definitely well on our way now."
Though Vegas Baby is not about Micheli's experience, her story drives home one of its key themes: that many people with infertility struggle to have babies for years. Some of them never do. But all of those people — regardless of whether they have babies — need to have their experiences recognized more in the public narrative about family and they need support. Even if their journey is hard or it doesn't end the way they want, those who are diagnosed with infertility and want to have babies need to be able to feel like they're loved — regardless of how their journey ends. Micheli puts it well when she tells me:
That’s part of why I’m not running around high-fiving everyone about being pregnant: is that the reason I feel good right now and the reason I feel whole is not because this finally worked. It’s because I’ve been able to stay grounded and, quite honestly, salvage my marriage, because so much of this becomes about the relationship, and what’re your core values and how do you get through a hard time together. And that, to me, is ultimately the greatest victory, is that if you can come out of this whole and — if you have a partner — with your relationship intact, that’s kind of a big deal.
IVF isn't a guarantee. It's an expensive treatment that will have serious effects on a person's relationships, and it's something we need to be talking about more as both a medical issue and a relationship issue. People shouldn't need to have babies to feel like whole people, but those who do want to become parents should be supported in their journey so that they can feel whole throughout it.
Vegas Baby is now available to stream on Netflix. For more details about the film, visit this website.