Infertility and IVF: One couple's uphill struggle in Israel - opinion

IVF treatment is covered by health care providers Maccabi, Clalit, Meuhedet and Leumit, meaning that Israeli women and couples have access to affordable, cutting-edge IVF treatment.

 SARAH AND Elliot Ward: ‘My struggle is horrible and I really don’t mind sharing it,’ says Sarah. (photo credit: NATHAN PINK)
SARAH AND Elliot Ward: ‘My struggle is horrible and I really don’t mind sharing it,’ says Sarah.
(photo credit: NATHAN PINK)

Time marches on for Sarah and Elliot Ward, a childless couple living in Tel Aviv, and with each passing year since they made aliyah from London in 2015, so do their chances of having kids. Or so it appears.

Sarah and I became friends on Facebook where I learned of her struggle to have a baby through her open and honest posts. When she approached me to write about infertility in order to enable people to better understand this often taboo subject, I readily agreed.

Infertility problems are a challenge for 15% of couples and yet, many of those affected are too ashamed to discuss them, she believes.

“I find people think it’s something to be ashamed of, you know. It’s not at all. My struggle is horrible and I really don’t mind sharing it… I think it’s important,” Sarah said.

She and Elliot , whom she first met in Britain, have been trying for a baby for over 10 years.

Wu Tianyang, who is five month pregnant with her second child, attends a sonogram at a local hospital in Shanghai September 12, 2014.  (credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)Wu Tianyang, who is five month pregnant with her second child, attends a sonogram at a local hospital in Shanghai September 12, 2014. (credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)

Initially, their problems got short shrift by doctors in the UK. They were told everything would be fine, not least because Sarah was still only in her 20s. Yet this was despite the fact that they fitted the medical definition of infertile, “a couple that is unable to conceive after having had unprotected sexual intercourse for 12 months, and the woman is 35 years of age or younger.”

After a few years of trying for a baby, Sarah and Elliot  sought IVF treatment on the National Health Service, or NHS, in Britain. Their request was declined.

It wasn’t until the couple arrived in Israel that they started to get some answers. Infertility is viewed differently here in Israel, where it is recognized as a disease.

In Israel, infertility is a disease, and is treated by health care providers

Accordingly, IVF treatment is covered by health care providers Maccabi, Clalit, Meuhedet and Leumit, meaning that Israeli women and couples – unlike millions of others in different countries who are struggling to have a baby – have access to affordable, cutting-edge IVF treatment.

This treatment is available to women aged between 18-45 (in egg-donation cases, up to the age of 54) where the woman or couple has either no children or only one child.

SARAH FINALLY discovered why she had failed to become pregnant towards the end of 2016. The reason was simple; tests revealed blocked fallopian tubes arising from endometriosis. The problem was severe and irreversible. IVF treatment was the only solution.

The first of Sarah’s IVF cycles commenced on January 17, 2018. The treatment was grueling and sadly, unsuccessful. She then took a break from treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic and started a second round of IVF in March of this year with some success; she succeded to get pregnant, but sadly miscarried very early on.

A month-long break preceded the next grueling cycle, commencing with a course of daily, self administered hormone injections into her stomach for 28 days, to help her eggs grow. This left her black and blue. As a result, 11 eggs were harvested, of which two were successfully fertilized and transferred into her womb.

An excruciating fortnight followed. They didn’t know whether Sarah was pregnant or not. Anxiety, paranoia, denial, sore breasts, fatigue are just some of the side-effects which women going through this exhausting treatment often suffer, and Sarah was no exception.

Sadly for them, this cycle was also unsuccessful – and so the struggle continues.

For now, they are keeping on at it. Sarah has just completed her fourth round of IVF, again, without success. This time, she shared her experience with friends on social media, where she published a short, heartrending daily vlog chronicling each stage of the cycle and how she was feeling. In her most recent dispatch, she said this latest IVF attempt had also failed.

Although Sarah is stressed, tired and jaded by her ongoing struggle to have a baby, she feels fortunate to be married to Elliot, “he deserves an absolute medal to put up with me,” she jokes. She’s also grateful to be living here in Israel, a country which “wants your babies,” she says.

Let us all hope and pray that Sarah and Elliot’s struggle will soon come to an end and they’ll be blessed with a child of their own before too long.

While Sarah and Elliot  have been on their own personal journey, one man who has shared the journeys of thousands of people in their situation, is Prof. Hananel Holzer, director of the R.E.I. and I.V.F. Department and associate director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Division at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem. 

I approached Prof. Holzer in order to find out what it is like to work in such a fascinating area of medicine and he kindly agreed to an interview.

Holzer has worked with women and couples both here in Israel and in Canada, where he worked for ten years as the medical director of the McGill Reproductive Center in Montreal, Canada.

The “fertility voyage,” he told me, is a “rollercoaster.” Emotional support for people who embark on this stressful journey is crucial, he says. In Canada, full time psychologists were among the staff in his department, whereas here in Israel, social workers are there to provide support.

HOLZER LOVES his work, describing it as “the most fascinating” field of medicine. For him, each case is memorable. Even after more than 20 years, he remains “excited” by the embryo-transfer stage of IVF – the procedure by which the embryo is returned to the uterus. If that stage of the process is a success, the woman will fall pregnant and there is a good chance she will have a healthy baby, nine months later. By coincidence, Holzer now has a patient, who herself was transferred by him personally as an embryo, something which gives him great satisfaction.

And it’s not just infertile women and couples who turn to IVF to have a much-longed-for baby.

It is well known that fertility declines with age. This decline is steeper for women than for men, especially after the age of 35. It is for this reason that freezing eggs is becoming more prevalent amongst young, healthy women who are opting for this procedure for social, rather than medical reasons (cancer patients have been given this option for many years). Holzer can attest to this fact, having seen three times more women who are currently going down this route than just a few years ago.

Freezing eggs is “not a guarantee, but an insurance,” he says to those women who wish to increase their chances of having a baby later in life, something which should be borne in mind, he believes.

Holzer’s clinics also help couples or individuals who carry serious genetic disorders with a high risk of passing them on to their children.

Pre-implantation genetic testing (PGT) is the technique used in the course of IVF to help reduce such risks. It is a life saver for many and can even be used to prevent the cancer-causing BRCA gene from being passed down.

Sex selection is also possible through IVF, although Holzer is not in favor of this, for non-medical reasons, despite it being legal in Israel in limited circumstances. He describes it as a slippery slope.

Still, Holzer sees IVF as one of the greatest medical innovations, bringing joy to millions.

Whereas in other countries, IVF treatment is not available to all due to its exorbitant cost, Israel has affordable healthcare providers which include IVF, for up to 2 mutual children, as well as skilled professionals such as this Hadassah star.

Although the struggle remains real for Sarah and Elliot, they couldn’t be in a better country than Israel, the same land where the world’s oldest story of another woman named Sarah and infertility was first recorded in the Bible.

The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.