by: Lauren Ochalek
As I sit and ponder my life, how can I even attempt to summarize all of my insurmountable blessings? I could begin by thanking God for my parents, siblings, extended family, and friends; all of whom mean the world to me. I could then go on to thank God for the gift of my husband, my rock, my best friend, my confidant, my heart; though my husband is another one of those individuals that is at the top of my prayer list on a daily basis. One thing that alludes me during my nightly prayers, however, is something simple, something so simple that it rarely enters my mind as I recount and thank God for all that is important in my life, and that is the gift of life itself.
The gift of life?
Sure. That is something that we’re all thankful for, right? I mean, without it, none of us would be here. Honestly, how often do you think about the finite details regarding how you were knit-together? Genetic DNA from your father met with genetic DNA from your mother and 46 chromosomes found merriment together. You were all but once a cluster of cells, an embryo, before becoming a fetus and eventually a newly born, living, breathing, human being. Religion and political correctness aside, this is the science of it all.
After many years of struggling with infertility, we learned around 18 weeks, that our baby girl had shortened long bones in her arms and legs; hydrocephalus, or fluid on her brain, that would necessitate a shunt placement soon after her birth; and a gaping heart defect, that would require immediate open heart surgery. We were also told that she would very likely be born with Down syndrome. All of this surgery would obviously only come to light if she even survived, which many specialists believed she would not. We were told that there was a great possibility that if she did survive, that she may go on to live with a very severe disability or perhaps live in a vegetative state. We had heard it all, but had never once given a single thought to giving up on our girl. We held tight to our faith, prayed incessantly, and were determined to fight for her, no matter the outcome.
On January 18, 2012, several weeks before her anticipated due date, our strong, resilient, beautiful baby girl made her grand entrance into this world. She was perfect. Allow me to type those words again – she was perfect! She did not have hydrocephalus as everybody feared, instead she was born with a much more mild condition called colpocephaly. She was not born with an enormous heart defect as all of the ultrasounds indicated; instead, the hole in her heart closed abruptly in utero, and she was born with a far more mild heart defect that corrected itself soon after birth. She was, however, born with Down syndrome. Remember that brief biology lessen offered earlier in this blog entry? Where you and I were born with 46 chromosomes, Down syndrome simply means that Ellie was born with a 47th chromosome. Before I go on, you should know that Down syndrome is truly one of our greatest blessings and something that we have felt so strongly about from the very beginning. Just ask our geneticist who, upon sharing the results of Ellie’s chromosomal analysis the day after her birth, was high-fived and given the biggest hug imaginable. Do you know what we were most thrilled about after so many years of struggling with infertility? We were elated to be holding a baby, our baby, who was now here in the flesh and compatible with life! Down syndrome for us was an afterthought. Ellie was an absolutely perfect baby in our eyes and our greatest joy. A joy greater than anything imaginable.
Now here is where our story gets really interesting – hair standing up on your arms, goosebumps, kind of interesting.
Do you believe in miracles? If you skipped over the last two paragraphs to get to this part of the story, I suggest that you go back and read about all of the odds that were stacked against our baby girl before she was born. More doctors than not believed that we were going to bring into the world a baby that was not compatible with life. Little did they know that all of the odds were stacked against her long before her life even began.,,
What if I told you that Ellie, prior to her conception, had been frozen for two years? What if I then shared with you that the reason she had been frozen for two years was because she is the genetic product of another couple, turned embryo donors? I am told constantly that Ellie looks just like me. I smile and nod in agreement – she does – she absolutely does. However, that blond curly hair and those blue eyes are not of my husband and me, they are an incredible gift from another embryo donors who so generously donated two embryos to us. One of those two donated embryos became our Ellie. This other couple, like us, struggled with infertility. The difference between us? This other couple had viable embryos remaining after a successful IVF procedure. However, after two IVF procedures of our own, we were unable to produce a single viable embryo. This couple was faced with four options regarding what to do with their remaining embryos: they could freeze them, discard, donate to science, or donate to another couple in need – giving those embryos a chance at life. Where would we be today had they not chosen the latter?
Let me back up a bit. It was spring of 2011, a couple of weeks after our second failed IVF cycle. We had just attended an informational meeting to learn more about domestic infant adoption. We felt that it was the logical next step and something that God was calling us to do. The problem? After spending nearly $30K on infertility treatments, there was no way that we had another $30K laying around to spend on an adoption at the time. It was reality and a hard pill to swallow. We were at rock bottom and felt beyond defeated. Words can’t describe the profound hurt and void in our hearts we felt knowing that we were financially and emotionally tapped beyond the point of no return. Infertility is not for the weak at heart, I assure you. It was that very next week, while at our infertility clinic having some outgoing paperwork taken care of, that our doctor peeped her head around the corner and inquired about what we were going to do next. We explained that we had met with an adoption agency and were ready to pursue an infant adoption once our finances bounced back. That’s when we first heard about embryo donation and embryo adoption, an option that we had never heard of. We were encouraged to look at donor embryo profiles.
It wasn’t long thereafter that we received paperwork in the mail detailing the procedure and cost, along with six anonymous embryo donor profiles to choose from. After all that we had been through, we couldn’t believe that we were even considering such a thing. I mean, given our track record, what were the chances that it would actually work? We had never heard of anybody ever doing such a thing. At the time, it all seemed too experimental. Did we really want this so badly that we were willing to subject ourselves to the ups and downs of yet another round of fertility treatments? We were both so done. And then we sat down and read through the paperwork. The success rates were promising, the cost was doable, and better yet, we had a embryo donor profile that jumped out at us. An embryo donor profile that we just knew in our hearts was meant to be.
It was two months later when we underwent the frozen embryo transfer (FET) of the two microscopic embryos we adopted. Ultimately, one embryo continued to develop and at our eight week appointment, on ultrasound, we had one strong little heartbeat! The most beautiful sight that we had ever laid eyes on. The rest is history.
I should conclude this piece with a few words about how our miracle baby is doing today. Ellie will be three in soon and there isn’t a day that passes where we don’t pinch ourselves, still in utter disbelief that she is here and is ours. She is absolutely remarkable! Before her second birthday she knew all of her letters, their phonetic sounds, and could sight read. Today, she knows all of her numbers, shapes, colors, hundreds of signs, and can read over 200 sight words. During her preschool assessment, they felt no need to continue testing her when they learned that she was accurately answering first-grade reading comprehension questions. She has tested out of special education and will be fully integrated with her typically-developing peers this coming fall. We couldn’t be more proud. She is a chatterbox and a bundle of unstoppable energy. Ellie lights up a room with her smile, gives the greatest hugs, and sweetest kisses. She is so engaging and everybody who meets her instantly falls in love with her. She loves fiercely and is the most amazing big sister to her brother Cameron, whom we adopted this past spring at 15 months. She is who God intended her to be and the lives of countless individuals will never be the same because she is here.
So today, I am just overwhelmed with gratitude for not only the gift of adoption (both embryo adoption, as well as traditional adoption), but also the miraculous gift of life itself, which has blessed us in ways that are simply indescribable.