News & Blog

Celebrating 40 years of IVF in Bristol with Caroline Harvey

Perhaps I should start by saying that our daughter Clare sends her apologies for not being able to come today but wishes the centre a very happy 40th birthday and she will try to come to the 50th birthday party in 10 years time!

Fifty years ago, when David and I got married in our late twenties/early thirties, most people got married much younger, and as a result most of our friends were already married with small children. So it never occurred to us that we would not start a family fairly quickly and that we would have two or three children. It was quite a shock when nothing happened.

We sought help after a couple of years and were referred to the fertility clinic at Tower Hill. We were incredibly lucky in that at that time (and quite possibly still today) if you were unable to have children, Bristol was reckoned to be one of the best places in the country to be infertile.

At first, the treatment we received was all focused on why I wasn’t able to get pregnant, with lots of tests etc. Then I had an ectopic pregnancy, and the focus changed to my fallopian tubes, with surgery etc to unblock my remaining tube. We obviously heard about the successful IVF birth of Louise Brown in 1978 and thought how wonderful for her family but it never entered our heads that we would be able to benefit from such an achievement.

It is probably difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced childlessness to understand how it feels. Some of our friends assumed we didn’t want children so tried to keep their children away from us. Others who knew what we were going through kept asking “any news” when they saw us. Life seemed to revolve around our appointments and we never wanted to plan anything too far in advance “in case it happened”. We were lucky in that it made us stronger as a couple but I know other couples who broke up as a result of the stresses. David was a brilliant support throughout but I still felt a failure – I knew he would be an amazing dad and I was depriving him of that chance. We were a couple and not a family.

By 1984, when I was 37, we seemed to be coming to an unsuccessful end to our attempts to have a baby. But in 1983 Professor Mike Hull had set up the University of Bristol Centre for reproductive medicine, starting its own IVF research programme and in March 1984 we were offered a chance. It felt like a last chance, and to be fair I think the staff thought – “let’s give her a chance then when it doesn’t work we can get her off our books”!! Sadly, I ovulated before they could remove the eggs and I was absolutely distraught – I knew then that I would never have a baby. But then, and to this day we have no idea why, they rang in August and offered us another chance even though it was only meant to be a one-off opportunity in the research programme. I hesitated for a while, wasn’t sure I could cope with the stress of failure again, but then we decided if we didn’t try we would spend the rest of our lives wondering whether it might have worked.

So off I went to the Bristol General Hospital yet again and this time they managed to get two good eggs. In those days, the eggs and sperm were put in what we were told was a Boots thermos flask (we have sworn by Boots flasks ever since!) and taken by taxi to Southmead Hospital for the magic to happen. Then we went home and waited … the phone call came through that one of the eggs had fertilised and could be implanted … so this time off to Southmead for that. I was absolutely sure it would not succeed, I had just taken a new job in Pontypool, and I didn’t want to be so disappointed again, so went in with strong negative vibes determined that it would not be successful. When the phone call came that everyone else in that group had started their period and I hadn’t and could I please go into the BMH to see them, I am not sure who was more astounded – us or the wonderful staff!

That first scan, when we saw a blob that we were told was our child, was absolutely unbelievable and indeed I never really believed I was pregnant after 11 years until our daughter was actually born – my GP used to refer to my pregnancy as my indigestion! There was a bit of a panic in November when I had some minor bleeding but they said all was well but they thought I should stop work – not the job itself but the commuting every day to South Wales. So I stopped and took enormous care of myself and enjoyed being at home. Another panic at the start of June when I couldn’t feel the kicking. After a night in the BMH, it was a lovely sunny day so they suggested David take me to Ashton Court for some fresh air, he bought me a Coca Cola … and yay, our baby got the hiccups, she was alive!! Another entertaining thing just before she was born, when I was about 8 months pregnant, the clinic staff asked if I would talk to some trainee priests who were learning about the sort of issues their parishioners might face. They hadn’t been told what I was there to talk about, so when I said I was there to explain what infertility was like, there was complete silence as they stared at my 8 month bump in deep confusion!!

At Mike Hull’s funeral, it was said that his ambition was to make a difference to people. He certainly achieved that ambition as far as we were concerned – he changed us from a couple to a family. We will always be immensely grateful to all the staff at the infertility clinic who put up with 9 years of us and then a further 9 months of my pregnancy – in particular Mike Hull himself, Dr Rosalind Hinton and Charis Glazener who did most of our care but everyone we came in touch with were wonderful. And then there was Alan McDermott who mixed the egg and sperm – when Clare was about one day old, this man came in and asked if he could see my baby – it turned out to be Alan McDermott who was in the BMH for the day, had heard that Clare had been born, and wanted to see the results of his work as he had never seen one of his IVF babies before. Marvellous!

We may not have got this right, but I seem to remember being told that Clare was the fifth to be conceived in Bristol and the third to be actually born in Bristol – she was one of the very early ones anyway. We agreed to publicity to encourage other parents going through what we had gone through that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. As well as newspaper and radio appearances, when she was two weeks old we were on an HTV programme – luckily she slept all the way through it as I had no intention of breastfeeding her on television if she woke up and screamed! Clare has known from the start that she was conceived through IVF and seems quite proud of it. She came home from junior school very pleased with herself – apparently in human biology the teacher had been explaining how babies got into mummy’s tummy and Clare said “I didn’t”. Yes you did said the teacher. No I didn’t said Clare – I am IVF! One can feel sorry for the teacher especially as when she then tried to explain how babies were born, Clare said loudly “I wasn’t – they had to cut Mummy’s tummy open to get me out” – clearly the word caesarean was too complicated for her!

We have been so lucky to have Clare. Obviously we are very proud of what she has achieved – academically, in her career, in her riding and rowing etc. But even more we are proud of the person she is – incredibly loyal to her family and friends, funny, generous, adventurous, passionate and committed to things she cares about, an absolute joy to spend time with. She has given us nearly 39 years of happiness and we are so grateful to her and to everyone who made her birth possible – thank you to everyone.