Jennifer Donnell is a bright, bubbly woman who speaks with a gentle southern accent and laughs easily and often. She’s the kind of person that could cheer you up no matter how bad your day was going. So, it comes as a surprise when she talks about the doubts that plagued her through her years of trying to conceive. She says, “Oh, I wasn’t the type who had hope all along that everything would work out. No way. I always saw myself as ‘the girl who can’t get pregnant’.”
Jennifer has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), an ovulation disorder that is one of the most common causes of female infertility. While many women with PCOS are able to conceive with the help of their gynecologist and oral medication, those who aren’t sometimes face a longer journey. Jennifer’s journey spanned six years of starts and stops, and she had plenty of difficulties along the way.
Jennifer’s story is inspirational – not because she pole-vaulted over obstacles with determined optimism – but because she found a way to succeed.
An Unexpected Wedding Guest
A month before her wedding to her husband, Mark, when she was 24, Jennifer got her diagnosis of PCOS. She laughs, “Great timing, right?” When most women would be happily obsessing about seating arrangements and flowers, Jennifer was anxiously scouring the Internet for information about PCOS. She says, “I was obsessing, reading all these websites and stories and I just thought, that’s it, I can’t have kids.” Fortunately, Mark was a calm voice of reason. “Mark told me not to worry so much. He said we would figure it out together.”
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common ovulatory disorder, and is caused by a hormonal imbalance in which women produce too much luteinizing hormone (LH) and not enough follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). High levels of LH cause the body to produce too much estrogen. High levels of estrogen can cause the endometrial tissue in the uterus to get very thick, which can lead to heavy and/or irregular periods. FSH is the hormone that’s responsible for stimulating the growth of follicles in the ovaries. If a woman lacks FSH for a long time, her follicles will not mature and release eggs, resulting in infertility.
At the time, Jennifer and Mark lived in North Carolina, and, believing there was an immediate need to get pregnant due to her PCOS, she started treatment with her gynecologist a few months after the wedding. Jennifer’s OB prescribed Metformin, a common treatment for PCOS, and Clomid, a drug that induces ovulation. Jennifer did not conceive after three months of trying on the medications. She recalls, “My doctor had said, ‘you’re young, you’ll get pregnant in no time’ but through the three cycles, I never even ovulated.”
While she was disappointed that she didn’t get pregnant, she sensed that something else was wrong too. “I realized we weren’t doing it for the right reasons,” she explains. “We really weren’t ready for kids yet. I just wanted to know that I could do it.” The newlyweds decided that they should take their time and just enjoy being married, so they decided to put fertility concerns aside for a while.
Finding Shady Grove Fertility
Three years later, the couple moved to the DC area. It was when they started to talk about having children again that Jennifer heard an ad for Shady Grove Fertility on the radio and decided to call. She felt that plenty of time has passed since her previous treatment experience, and she knew what she wanted. “I wanted information, and I wanted to know my options,” she said. “But most importantly, I didn’t want to be given false hope.”
Jennifer and Mark met with Dr. Paulette Browne in Shady Grove Fertility’s Fair Oaks, Va office. Neither had ever been to a doctor’s appointment where all they did was talk. “Dr. Brown started writing all this stuff down and drawing fallopian tubes and ovaries, and I just said, ‘wait, explain this me in English’,” Jennifer says with her infectious laugh. “And she did!”
Jennifer said that she never felt rushed, and she got all the information she wanted. “The thing I appreciated most about Dr. Browne was that she didn’t tell me how easy it was gonna be. She just said, ‘here’s what I think you should do, and if that doesn’t work then we’ll move onto the next option.'”
Jennifer started treatment with two rounds of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI). Because of her PCOS, her treatment protocol called for low dose injectionable fertility medication which resulted in longer-than-usual treatment cycles. “I started to dread my monitoring appointments because it seemed like every time I came in my estrogen levels were too low or something else was wrong.” She says her nurse, Jane Wills, was her saving grace; “My nurse, Jane, is about the nicest person I’ve ever met. She always wanted to answer my questions. She always wanted to help. I felt that she truly cared about me.”
But after two failed IUI cycles, Jennifer again felt the disappointment of not conceiving. “Those negative results really stung,” she says. “Even though Dr. Browne had talked about doing three cycles, I just knew I couldn’t go through with the disappointment of failing a third time. Dr. Browne recommended that we should consider moving to In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).”
Once again, Jennifer listened to her inner voice and applied the brakes. “I felt like I needed to get some control back, so I decided to take another year off from treatment. I was only 27, and if the next step was to do IVF then I was going to do everything I could to be ready for it.” Once again, Mark supported her decision.
Focusing on Her Health
Jennifer’s insight this time around was that she wanted to focus on her PCOS during the break from fertility treatment. She sought out a nutritionist to help her make dietary changes and lose weight. The nutritionist encouraged her to audition for a new web-based TV show called, The PCOS Challenge. The show would follow several women working with a team of experts to make lifestyle changes related to PCOS.
Jennifer jumped at the opportunity. She says, “I knew the opportunity would provide me with expert advice from a trainer, a nutritionist and a mental health counselor in my journey to prepare myself for the next stage of treatment.” After submitting a video that described her challenges with PCOS and what she hoped to gain from being a part of the show, she was chosen.
Jennifer says that The PCOS Challenge was intense, taking up all her free time for several months, but her dedication paid off. She was eating differently, working out regularly, and learning a ton from the show’s experts. She continued taking Metformin and prenatal supplements, and she started getting her period regularly again. She also met other women with PCOS who were struggling with fertility issues. “Several of the women were worried about getting pregnant, and I felt good that I had information I could share with them.”
The Key to Success
Just after she finished The PCOS Challenge, she returned to Shady Grove Fertility to start IVF treatment. The lifestyle changes she learned through the process of The PCOS Challenge paid off as her first IVF cycle was successful. Jennifer and Mark welcomed a healthy baby boy to their family in April 2011. Jennifer credits a lot of her success to the support of everyone at Shady Grove Fertility.
“When you have a ‘syndrome’ like PCOS, you start to feel like a chart, like a statistic,” she said. “But, everyone at Shady Grove Fertility always made me feel so special. Everyone knew my name and they all wanted to help me reach my dream of parenthood.”
Considering she saw herself as the “girl who can’t get pregnant,” it’s safe to say, she got more than she ever expected.