Toni Gardner underwent years of gruelling fertility treatment in her quest for motherhood. On her journey she was faced with heartache and prejudice. Now Toni is sharing her story with Observer reporter Laura Cooke to assure the women of 1066 Country undergoing IVF that they are not alone.
Starting a family is a happy process for many people and, on the face of it, the most natural thing in the world.
But what about when nature doesn’t appear to be on your side?
Fifty thousand women go through IVF treatment in the UK each year and on average it takes four cycles of treatment before achieving a pregnancy.
The average cost of one cycle of IVF stands at between £5,000 and £7,000, pushing many couples to the brink financially, not to mention physically, mentally and emotionally.
And Toni Gardner, of Cantelupe Road, Bexhill, knows only too well the anguish and isolation women can face when undergoing IVF.
Toni had always wanted a big brood but in 2009, after five years of trying to conceive with husband Derek, the couple looked to fertility treatment to help them have the family Toni dreamed of.
The first blow came when the couple learned the treatment was not available on the NHS.
Toni said: “When we first started trying for a baby, we put our flat on the market and started looking at three bedroom houses and then we were told the only way we could have a baby was by IVF.
“We were working all the hours under the sun.
“My dad sold his car, my sister gave me some money, we used all the money we saved for a deposit to get a family home on getting a family.
“So it was a hard time.”
In August, 2010, following a course of drugs and injections to her stomach, 17 eggs were taken from Toni’s body.
Of these, 13 were the right size for intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a form of IVF where individual sperm is injected into the egg. Ten of the eggs were successfully fertilised.
After five days, five of the eggs reached the blastocyst stage, meaning they were ready to be implanted into the body.
Toni picked one and the other four were frozen.
But things did not turn out as Toni had hoped.
She said: “I had convinced myself that it had worked.
“I had done everything right – I had given up drink, given up smoking, stopped drinking caffeine, I was doing yoga and swimming and I had convinced myself it had worked.
“When I saw that one pink line on the pregnancy test instead of two...it hurts to even think about it now.”
A heartbroken Toni blamed herself for the treatment not working.
She said: “I was disgusted with myself. I hated my body.
“I remember very clearly when it failed I could not go in the shower for about a week – I did not want to see myself naked because I was so angry with my body for not working.
“I remember wanting to slash my stomach apart with knives because it did not do what I wanted it to.
“My husband had done his bit, the Esperance had done their bit, they put the embryo into me and it died. And I felt like it was my fault.”
Toni added: “I was so unbelievably devastated but I was at least prepared for feeling sad.
“What took me completely by surprise was how angry I was – at myself, at the world.”
At the time Toni, a qualified therapist, was working with abused children.
She said: “Having to go to work and see children who were abused and not wanted was incredibly hard.
“And I would go out and see heavily pregnant women smoking and screaming at their children and I would wonder why they could do it and I couldn’t.”
And to add to her torment, Toni faced some jaw-dropping ignorance.
One person told Toni she was not meant to have kids while another said it was ‘shocking’ she had spent £18,000 on IVF, and the money could have been better spent elsewhere.
Toni added: “And my personal favourite, which I still to this day cannot believe what was said to me, was ‘I have read a bit about IVF – doesn’t it have a higher rate of birth defects?’
“I said ‘yes it does’ and she said ‘don’t do it Toni – you may end up bringing a retard into the world’.”
In May, 2011, Toni underwent a second unsuccessful cycle of ICSI. By this time she was running out of hope – and money.
As a last throw of the dice, the doctor suggested a Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET), a process using eggs frozen from the first cycle of IVF.
But the odds of the procedure working were slim. Toni was told there was only a 10 percent chance a FET would result in a pregnancy.
Toni said: “Derek and I had no more money, no more time.
“He was over 40 and time was moving on.
“Derek said ‘why don’t you do a FET, use up the frozen eggs and see what happens’.
“And I’m glad we did.”
After eight years, two failed attempts and 33 eggs, Toni finally fell pregnant.
She said: “It was the happiest day of my life. But I was scared. IVF pregnancies are more risky than normal pregnancies.”
But despite all that had gone before, Toni enjoyed a straight-forward pregnancy and gave birth to her beloved Eddie.
Toni kept a blog, writing about her experience and offering advice to women going through similar experiences.
And now she has set up a support group to those experiencing the heartache of infertility.
She said: “It’s so taboo. It’s hard to admit that your body is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing naturally. I found it very, very lonely.”
She added: “I could not bear the thought of anyone suffering by themselves.”
* Toni Gardner has set up a support group for any women in Hastings and Rother who have fertility problems, whether or not they are going through IVF.
The weekly group will include natural relaxation sessions, homemade snacks with fertility-boosting ingredients, and talks from guest speakers.
Women can share as much or as little information as they wish.
The first meeting is on Monday (September 14), 6pm-7pm, at St Peter’s Community Centre, Bexhill.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.