Over the years, Bay area fertility expert Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh (or just Dr. Aimee to her patients) has treated countless couples desperate to start a family. In many ways they've become an extended part of her own family. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced her to shutter her doors earlier this year, it was a traumatic experience not just for her patients, but her as well.
"For someone like me who runs an operation seven days a week, even having one day where I couldn't do what I need to do to help a patient have a baby was just so heartbreaking," says Eyvazzadeh. "They're very near and dear to me. So having to tell them 'No' it's just something that I'm not use to doing... It was very hard."
It was a traumatic scene echoed throughout the country as thousands of women across the nation found their IVF treatments disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, following guidance that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) issued March 17. The guidance was designed to reduce the risk of spreading Covid to patients and staff during procedures the organization described as "elective" or "non-urgent.
In 2019 over 75,000 babies were born as a result of IVF, a treatment for infertility caused by a range of issues from problems with sperm and ovulation to endometriosis or egg quality. And while the ASRM may have declared the procedures "non urgent," that can be difficult to explain to a couple who sees their window for starting a family rapidly closing.
IVF treatments are highly time sensitive for two reasons: Fertility in both men and women declines with age, and the treatment requires carefully scheduled medications and regular appointments to check how the body is responding to them.
If the female patient receiving treatment responds to the drug therapies, her ovaries produce more eggs than normal, which are then removed surgically and fertilized with a partner's or a donor's sperm. The resulting embryos are grown in a lab for a few days before being implanted in the uterus or frozen for a later transfer.
At each stage of the process, any hiccup has an indirect effect that can delay possible pregnancy. So the psychological impact of having those treatments (which cost thousands) disrupted or delayed can be devastating.
"One day is like a year in the life of a 43-year-old who wants to have a baby ," says Eyvazzadeh. "So for my patients it was devastating, heartbreaking, depressing. It was was very challenging for them to not only be dealing with a pandemic, but also one of life's cruelest diseases and that is infertility."
Jeremy Tu and Anna Wang were one of the couple's who found their plans disrupted at the worst possible time.
"You're left feeling. anxious. I'm feeling nervous. I'm feeling scared," says Wang, who is 37 and has been trying to have a baby for more than seven years. "Just waking up every day hoping I don't get that call from the doctor that your cycle is cancelled." The couple made it to egg retrieval two days before their clinic closed.
"The uncertainty was really the worse," said 43-year-old Amy Schmidt Zook. "Anxiety, desperation, panic, anger. And you had nowhere to aim it. Usually I aim it into treatments. Couldn't do it."
Infertility doesn't discriminate; it strikes the famous and not famous alike. Earlier this year 'Tonight Show' host Jimmy Fallon shared the 'awful' five-year fertility struggle he and wife Nancy Juvonen went through on their journey to starting a family. Or, as Juvonen put it, “Five years of really, really, really, really, really deciding not to give up."
Today, the couple is raising two children together, daughters Winnie, 6, and Franny, 5.
Dr. Barry Witt, medical director with WINFertility in Greenwich, Ct., said his patients underwent bouts of depression and anxiety awaiting the chance to resume their treatments.
"A lot of it is age related. For women in their late 30s or 40s they feel much more in a time crunch because they can’t wait for a year or two because chances of success could diminish dramatically," Witt says. "Psychologically people don’t want to delay having kids if they can help it. If you’re 25 you can wait a year. If you’re 40 that’s a different story."
Because he's in the New York area, where COVID-19 cases have been significantly reduced, Witt has resumed treating patients. He says their anxieties persist about becoming pregnant in the midst of a pandemic.
"I had a patient yesterday in tears going back and forth on if they should get pregnant or not," Witt said. "Once you have the embryo you're in a little bit better situation. But for a lot of people the decision to get pregnant now is a difficult one."
Since resuming procedures back In April, Eyvazzadeh is informing patients to take extra precautions when they've successfully implanted an embryo.
"I'm telling them to avoid anything that looks like a human... sounds like a human...walk like a human...or breathes like a human. Wrap yourself in bubble wrap," she says. "Just stay home."