By Ron Donoho
(page 1 of 2)Why me?” wondered Jennifer Westermeyer. The former United Airlines flight attendant felt destined to be a mom. No, it was more than just a feeling. She knew it—the way you know something because you want it, picture it and refuse to believe it won’t happen. But for four years she couldn’t get pregnant. She and her husband, Al, who were married in 1985, tried nearly every available avenue.
“It wasn’t as much frustration as disappointment,” recalls Jennifer. “I knew I was going to be a good parent. But I couldn’t understand why this was taking so long.”
Fast forward to the dawn of a millennium in an age of technology.
The Westermeyers, now partners in Jenal Corporation, a petroleum-industry construction company, own a spacious hillside house in La Mesa. The property comes with a magnificent view of distant purple mountains. Jake, an affable, small pony–size German shepherd, patrols the gated property. On a cloudless day, Jennifer and Al sit at a glass-topped table in the backyard gazebo.
About 20 yards across the yard is a large, round trampoline. Jumping up and down is a trio of the blondest children you’ve ever seen. Afternoon sun illuminates—almost angelically—three alabaster faces. There is laughter. And bouncing. Like pistons, one lands on the trampoline and seems to springboard the next. And the next. And the next...
Jennifer is smiling. “I knew we were going to have children. I just didn’t know when.” Paige will be 9 years old in November. Paul is 6. Claire, pigtailed Claire, in pink floral dress and with lucky blanket in tow, is not yet 3.
Jennifer may well have known she’d be a mother, but she certainly didn’t know how. Or that her pregnancies would garner so much attention. The kids were conceived by an assisted reproduction technology (ART) procedure called in vitro fertilization. Because all are the precious product of a single harvest of 19 of Jennifer’s eggs, the children—though different ages—are fraternal triplets.
Of those 19 eggs, five were put into play for the Westermeyers’ first in vitro attempt; the remaining eggs were frozen. Right out of the gate, Jennifer got pregnant.
The parents-to-be reacted differently to the news. “I was scared,” she says. “I was afraid to move out of the chair, afraid I might cause a miscarriage.”
Al was relieved. “We’d finally accomplished the first step,” he says.
Paige was born prematurely, at seven months. The 4-pound, 6-ounce newborn spent a month in a hospital. Her weight dipped to below 4 pounds. Finally, she was strong enough to leave the “preemie” ward. But it was nearly a year and a half before Jennifer and Al stopped worrying—incessantly—about anything that might go wrong, especially Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
“We’re still overprotective parents,” says Al. “It’s because we went through so much to get to where we are.”
What did they go through? Well, $40,000, for one thing. But more than the money, the process was a mental as well as physical strain. Both fought off discouragement. Al says they were lucky their first in-vitro try was successful.
“When you go to an infertility doctor, it’s like it’s your last hope. A lot of couples get divorced over this,” he says. “They’re at wits’ end... A lot of females feel like they’re just not a whole person if they can’t have a baby.”
Physically, the entire process is enormously taxing. With Al away at work, Jennifer had to give herself injections on a nearly daily basis. The shots help a physician monitor the hormone levels and acidity levels in the blood.
Jennifer says doses of dark humor helped her through the ordeal. “One day, I found out what was in the shots I’d been taking,” she says. “The pharmacist told me, and I’ll never forget this, ‘urine from postmenopausal nuns.’ They get it from convents. After I told Al, he’d say, ‘Okay, it’s time for your shot of nun piss.’”
Despite the effort required, the Westermeyers decided to thaw four more embryos and try again. The next attempt failed. They waited two months and tried yet again—with five more embryos. Paul was born nine months later.
With just five embryos left, Jennifer and Al essentially had one more chance before they’d have to stop, or go through another strenuous—and costly—egg harvest.
They’d been warned all along that multiple births were possible. When Jennifer was pregnant for the third time, it was initially identical twins. One twin was lost early during the pregnancy. Then Claire, following Paige’s lead, was a preemie. She, too, fought her way out of the hospital. Until this year, Claire—whom Jennifer describes as the most willful of the three kids—held the world record as the baby who’d spent the longest time (six years) as a frozen embryo.
“I know some people think we’re messing with something that we shouldn’t be messing with—Biblical stuff,” says Al. “Some people frown on this. But this isn’t creating life.” Al says he’s not in favor of cloning or DNA research done to create specific types of people. That’s going too far. “Doctors don’t develop an embryo,” he says. “We did that. In vitro fertilization is a process. They’re helping us do something we couldn’t do ourselves.”
Jennifer looks over at her kids bouncing on the trampoline. Paul wants to do a flip. Claire’s short pigtails are tossing left and right. “If they’re the end result,” she says, quietly, “then we’re all blessed by this.”
he first successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) birth occurred in England in 1978. Since 1981, when IVF was introduced to the United States, more than 70,000 babies have been born as the result of ART. Literally translated as “fertilized in glass,” IVF is the best-known and most common procedure. It entails removing a woman’s eggs, fertilizing them in a laboratory and transferring the resulting embryo into the woman’s uterus.
There are other ART procedures. Gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT) isn’t as popular as IVF. GIFT entails making an incision in a woman’s belly to transfer a mixture of unfertilized eggs and sperm to the fallopian tube.
Lesser-known procedures include zygote intra-fallopian transfer, which is a combination of IVF and GIFT; intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, where a single sperm is directly injected into an egg; and assisted hatching, involving complicated lab micromanipulation of the shell that surrounds an embryo.