Their spouses died. Here's why these women went through IVF after loss.
What it's like to try for a baby as a widow.
When Sarah Shellenberger and her husband Scott struggled to get pregnant, they sought out the services of a fertility clinic in Barbados, where treatments for in vitro fertilization (IVF) were less expensive than those in their native Oklahoma. The plan was to undergo a few egg retrievals and build a reserve of good-quality frozen embryos before starting any transfers. Scott came down for the first egg retrieval, but had to miss the second, scheduled for February 2020, due to work obligations. Sarah instead flew abroad with her mom, and was on her way back from Barbados when she found out that Scott had suffered a heart attack while at work. Within days, he was taken off life support, and Sarah found herself a widow after just a year and a half of marriage. A widow who now had two frozen embryos.
"There was never a question in my mind about continuing on," the equine sports massage therapist tells Yahoo Life of seeing her IVF plans through, despite Scott's death and a then-nascent coronavirus pandemic that restricted travel and forced her fertility clinic to pause treatments for months on end. "It was a chance for Scott's legacy to live on." And, as a spiritual woman, she regarded the two embryos as "our babies."
"I've wanted to be a mom as long as I can remember," she adds. "And I think it just became even that much more important knowing that I would have a chance to continue to have a family with Scott. It just became that much more precious. ... And for me personally, it was like my one shot at having a pregnancy. When you lose your husband, you're not thinking about getting into another marriage and trying with somebody else. Those thoughts are nowhere on your radar."
In late August of 2020, six months after her husband's death, Sarah returned to Barbados to undergo her first embryo transfer at her reopened clinic. The procedure was successful, and son Hayes will turn 2 in May.
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Last summer Sarah had the second and final remaining embryo transferred. Again, the procedure resulted in a pregnancy, but she miscarried a few weeks later. Though there's no possibility of having another child fathered by Scott, Sarah is focusing now on keeping his memory alive for Hayes. Though the toddler is too young to fully understand his family's story, his home is filled with photos of Scott, who is often discussed.
"Scott continues to be a part of our conversations," Sarah says. "Almost every day somebody will say something — 'oh, Scott loved this,' or 'Scott would've loved that.' He'll just grow up hearing about him. And Scott's family is still very involved. ... I think [the plan is] just continuing to have the close family connections and open conversations about it when he is old enough to understand."
Ellidy Pullin, a podcaster, model and author of the forthcoming memoir Heartstrong, is also finding ways to best keep her late partner, Australian snowboarding champion Alex "Chumpy" Pullin, present for their 18-month-old daughter, Minnie. The little girl was born 15 months after Alex, 32, died in an accidental drowning in July 2020.
"I'm always telling her that her daddy's out in the sky or out in the ocean," Ellidy shares. "So every morning we wake up and I open up the blinds and I'm like, 'Where's Daddy?" And I'll say, 'In the sky.' ... And every time we're at the beach I'm just like, 'Oh, he's out there, he's in the water,' because he died in the ocean. I always feel really connected to him when I'm at the beach, so I hope that she can too."
A couple for eight years, the Pullins "were really close to going down the IVF route" to have a baby, Ellidy says, citing her low egg count. They'd found a fertility doctor, but decided to try conceiving naturally for a few more months before committing to assisted conception. And then Alex died.
Without sperm samples or embryos in storage, Alex's untimely death meant that the only way he could father a child was through a posthumous sperm retrieval, a rare and hugely time-sensitive procedure that must be performed within 36 hours of a person's death. Ellidy credits her loved ones with leaping into action in the aftermath of losing Alex.
"It was like the sudden shock just kicked them into gear and they were just running on this weird autopilot where they were just getting s*** done," she says, "whereas I was just obviously like a potato. I couldn't do anything."
After consulting with a lawyer and medical professionals, both she and Alex's parents signed the necessary paperwork and were approved for the procedure in time. But the grieving Ellidy wasn't ready to rush into motherhood quite yet.
"I took about the next six months off just figuring out what the hell just happened," she tells Yahoo Life. "I was grieving hard; I was in some dark places."
By the following January, she was ready to start the IVF process. The first round, in which Alex's frozen sperm was used to fertilize her eggs, didn't result in a pregnancy. Ellidy tried again the following month, and got pregnant.
While IVF can be a physically and emotionally grueling experience, Ellidy says it paled in comparison to the the shock and sadness of losing her partner.
"The fact that I was injecting a couple of needles in my stomach, just, like, was nothing," she says of the fertility drugs. "Probably because my mind was already in such a crazy state and stuff, I didn't feel anything from the hormones. ... I was actually so balanced, weirdly. Although life was just crazy, I felt very grounded and ready to do this. I was so focused on it."
Little Minnie has inherited both her father's eyes and his love of the water, so much so that her family call her "mini Moana." And while Ellidy has made a point of being transparent about her pregnancy journey on social media, in her memoir and on her Darling, Shine! podcast, Minnie's young age means easing her into understanding her birth story.
"I just want Minnie to always have that very strong sense of belonging and feeling so loved, even though she's only got one parent," she says. "Everyone talks about Chumpy [Alex's nickname] around her and around me; it's not ever a secret.
"I'm sure when she's like 3 or 4 she'll probably ask questions, but I don't think it'll be a big shock," she continues. "I think she'll be gradually learning. ... I just don't think it'll be one big fat conversation and one big shock. I think it'll be just, like, daily conversations that I'm always having with her."
Fabi Powell also lost her husband at a young age. Josh Powell was 25 when he was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in November 2014, just two months into his relationship with Fabi. The couple married in November 2016, and 27-year-old Josh died a month later.
Though he and Fabi were still in the early stages of their relationship, Josh's diagnosis "sped up" conversations about what his future life — marriage, kids — might look like, she tells Yahoo Life. Because cancer treatments can negatively impact fertility, Josh sought out fertility preservation by having samples of his sperm frozen before beginning his treatments in December 2014. At the time, it was considered a "precautionary measure" to improve his chances of conceiving a child one day — with or without Fabi.
"We had just started dating, so it was just there for whoever would be there [for him] to start a family with," Fabi says. "And then of course, as we continued the relationship and fell deeper in love ... those conversations shifted to our family."
But the couple still expected to raise their kids together. By the time of their wedding — moved up due to Josh's declining health — the cancer had unexpectedly metastasized, however. Having a child now meant moving the goalposts.
"We were expecting to be enjoying a life on the other side of cancer when we got married, and obviously life had a different plan," Fabi says. "Josh voiced his opinion very clearly that he wanted me to go through IVF to have our family with or without him, should I choose to do so. So basically giving me his blessing and it took me several years to decide that this was the right choice and the right time. Luckily, because of him proactively freezing his sperm and sharing his wishes with me, I could kind of make that decision when it was right for me."
The right time turned out to be four years after Josh's death, after pandemic restrictions had eased up. The IVF journey has been anything but simple for the Tennessee resident, however. All told, Josh had eight vials of frozen sperm in storage. Because Josh carried the BRCA gene, which carries a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer, the embryos made using his sperm and Fabi's eggs were subjected to genetic testing. "We have several embryos that have had the mutation, and just a few that have not," Fabi says.
Over the past two-plus years, the sales rep has undergone five egg retrievals and two embryo transfers, neither of which resulted in a pregnancy. She currently has a handful of embryos with the BRCA mutation on ice, but just one "perfectly healthy embryo that has normal chromosomes" that she plans to transfer once she settles on a new fertility clinic and attends to some personal health issues.
In the absence of Josh, Fabi administered her ovary-stimulating fertility shots herself, and had friends and family members come with her to her egg retrievals, in which the patient is put under anesthesia and discouraged from driving themselves home. Still, the setbacks she's encountered have been difficult to weather on her own.
"It's still so extremely challenging to go through this alone," she says. "It doesn't matter how much support you have. Not having a spouse going through this with you, and losing these embryos along this journey with you — and for me, obviously having already lost my husband. ... Every time we have a negative test or an embryo that didn't survive a thaw or embryos that weren't healthy or whatever the case may be, it's like losing your spouse all over again. It's a very triggering process."
And then there's the financial toll. Though insurance through her work has covered $15,000 of the IVF costs, that's a "drop in the bucket" to the "wildly expensive" tally. One IVF cycle at her former clinic in Colorado, she notes, cost $26,000, plus thousands more for medication, genetic testing (including more than $5,000 to create a single-gene probe identifying the BRCA mutation) and travel costs. "And then times that by five," she says, noting her multiple egg retrievals. It also cost $500 a year to store Josh's sperm, on top of embryo storage fees and further tests to rule out other issues.
"It's astronomically expensive, and that's probably the most disheartening part, aside from the fact that there's no guarantee that you're gonna get a baby at the end of all this," she says.
That's a possibility Fabi is contemplating more and more these days. With one healthy embryo and three remaining vials of Josh's sperm, the 36-year-old still has options, but finds herself wondering how much more she can push herself and her body. And while she's put off the prospect of finding a new relationship in the more than six years since Josh's death, she's slowly become more open to meeting someone.
"As this journey has become more and more emotionally and physically draining, I'm definitely getting close to a place where I am willing to close this chapter if it's not meant for me," she says. "My biggest fear above all else is regret. I never wanted to look back on my life and wish that I would've tried harder, or wish I would've done one more round, or wish I would've tried at all. I definitely have given this journey everything I've got and more."
For now, she's taking things "day by day."
"Right now the focus is [getting] my uterus as healthy as possible to transfer this last embryo that we have. And then depending on what happens with that, will kind of dictate what my next move is. But to wrap that up in a pretty bow ... I'm really freaking tired."
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