Ignoring the television in the background, I glanced at my husband, Marty, then back at my mobile. I’d been willing it to ring all day. Then, just as I was about to give up, the screen flashed. “It’s the doctor’s office,’’ I said, picking it up.
“Your test results have come back,” the nurse said. The pause seemed to go on forever. “And you are pregnant.’’ The relief and excitement were overwhelming. “Oh my goodness!’’ I cried as Marty hugged me.
Then he pulled away. “I’ve waited 20 years to hear those words; Can you say them again?’’ Marty said as I put the nurse on loud speaker.
“You are going to have a baby,’’ she repeated and for once I was speechless. I didn’t know what to do. I kept touching my stomach but it was still flat. “Can you believe it?” I kept saying to Marty, 52, over and over.
It was so hard to take in – I’d wanted a baby for as long as I could remember and here I was, finally expecting at the age of 51. It had been such a difficult and emotional journey.
I’d been told at 26 that I’d never have a baby. In fact, my doctor had said I would be bedridden for the rest of my life, unable to walk. I was devastated. I thought my life was over, all because I’d contracted a rare viral inflammatory syndrome called Transverse Myelitis (TM), which caused debilitating nerve pain down my legs and left me sobbing in agony.
It’s not genetic or hereditary, and everyone was baffled by the condition. I was a nurse, and used to looking after other people. Now I was the one in pain, and would cry most days as I hobbled along. The pain was so bad and my feet would go completely numb. “Move somewhere beautiful,” my doctor advised. He thought it would take my mind off the pain because there is no effective cure for the condition.
I took his advice and moved from Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles to the most beautiful place I knew – Lake Tahoe, in California, a nine-hour drive away. It was amazing and I moved in with a friend, but I couldn’t work and was on disability allowance.
One Sunday I hobbled to church and as I listened to the sermon, I looked outside and saw that it was snowing. Being from LA I’d never seen snow before, and panic rushed through me. How would I get home?
The guy sitting behind me must have sensed my fear because a moment later he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be OK.” After the service we started chatting and he told me his name was Marty. He was 29, a sales manager and had one of the biggest smiles I’d ever seen.
We became friends and he’d visit me at home. “You will get better,’’ he’d say. If I couldn’t walk, he’d carry me around. On good days, he’d get me to walk towards him, like a child taking their first steps.
I would be crying and in pain, but his encouragement and enthusiasm pushed me forward. It wasn’t long before I realised I was falling in love with him. Nobody had taken care of me like he did. Under his loving attention, my condition began to improve and in a few months I could take short walks without help.
One day, three years after we’d met, Marty got down on one knee at dinner. “Will you marry me, Les?” he asked.
I burst into tears, shocked. “Yes!” I said, smiling and wiping away my tears of joy. Why wouldn’t I want to spend the rest of my life with him?
We married a few months later on May 18, 1991. I was 31 and he was 32. Marty knew my doctor had said I couldn’t have children. “I am marrying you, and everything about you, the good and the not-so-good,” he said. He also hoped that one day there might be a way we could have children. He believed in the impossible.
For the first 12 years of our marriage I was ill constantly – with TM but also irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, gastric reflux disease, endometriosis and anaemia, and an MRI showed the early stages of MS.
I spent a lot of time in bed but Marty would encourage me to get up. He’d take me out, even carrying me if I couldn’t even hobble. I’d be pleased to be outside, and then if I saw parents happily playing with their children I’d feel a pang of envy. I longed for a baby, but with each passing year, I knew that the chances were receding and there was nothing I could do about it.
I took medication, hoping that eventually the right drugs would help my condition, and in my 40s I began to feel better. I could walk unassisted and wasn’t in so much pain.
I began to think that maybe I was well enough to try for a baby. I knew Marty would make a fantastic father so one day I went to my gynaecologist to ask about fertility treatment. “I want to have children,” I told him, but he shook his head.
“You are too old,’’ he said, bluntly. “If you went to a fertility doctor now they’d laugh you out of the office.’’
Shame made my cheeks burn. I felt humiliated for asking. As usual Marty was supportive. “If we are destined to have children, we will,” he told me, but a year passed, then another. I was too scared to see a fertility specialist in case they did laugh at me.
Plus there was a lot of treatment I was undergoing for the various conditions that I had.
It meant my desire to be a mother was pushed to the back of my mind, but it would pop back up again, each time stronger. And then when I was 47 I couldn’t ignore my biological clock. “Time’s running out,” I realised. I had to act now if I wanted to have a child. So, taking a deep breath, I picked up the phone to make an appointment with Dr Russell Foulk, from the Nevada Centre for reproductive medicine in Reno. I’d heard about him, and his centre was only an hour’s drive away.
He was out of town though, so I left a message. When I didn’t hear back from him, I decided to see another local fertility specialist.
He examined me, then said, “You can’t have children.” The words left me reeling. He said my uterus was “toxic” and poisoning my system.
“You should have an immediate hysterectomy,” he said. I held back tears, clutching at Marty’s hands as my dreams fell away.
I was still crying when we pulled into our driveway and my phone rang. It was the other fertility expert Dr Foulk’s office, apologising for the delay and scheduling an appointment for the next day. I didn’t think there was any point, and told them what the other doctor had just told me. But Dr Foulk carried out his own tests the next day and gave me an ultrasound.
“You have fibroids,” he told me and my hopes sank again. “One is the size of a grapefruit and that will stop you getting pregnant.’’
I was 47, and ready to give up hope. But he was still talking. “I can operate,” he said, “and then you can try for a baby.”
It was a four-hour operation, and I was scared, but I couldn’t refuse. If I did I knew I would always regret it and wonder, “What if?”
So after talking it over Marty and I agreed to go ahead. At my next appointment I asked Dr Foulk to explain exactly what the surgery would entail. He paused for a moment, then said, “Well, I will take out your womb, hold it in my hands and fix it, and then put it back.’’
He was so confident; I knew if anyone could do it, he could.
“You will have to wait a year to get pregnant or your uterus could rupture,’’ Dr Foulk explained.
I was nervous as I was taken to theatre but hopeful, too. Afterwards I was sore, but fine. Dr Foulk was able to restore my uterus to that of a healthy 30-year-old! On a follow-up check-up, I presented him with a sketch done by a friend of mine of two hands in the posture of holding a healthy womb. “Oh, it’s so beautiful,” he said and placed it on his desk.
Back home, we decided to transform our guest room into a nursery, and painted it blue with an ocean theme. With the doctor being so positive we were sure we would be having a baby soon and I felt it would be a boy.
I couldn’t wait to call my mother to tell her about the nursery. “Mom, guess what? I have been told that we can have a baby,” I gushed. She was ecstatic. “I’m so happy for you,” she said. “I must come and see you.”
But a few days later, the phone rang and it was Dad. His voice was shaking and immediately I was scared. “I’m sorry, darling, but I have some bad news,” he began, and I felt my mouth go dry with fear. His voice was choked with emotion as he told me that my mom, Brookie, 71, had died of a sudden heart attack. I was devastated. “But I spoke to her just a couple of days ago,” I managed to mumble before breaking down.
Within a week my dad came to live with us. He was 89 and grief stricken and we did not want to leave him alone. The only available room in our house was the nursery. I have a brother and sister, but they weren’t in a position to take Dad in. Our dreams went on hold as the intensity of Dad’s care became a priority. In the haze of selling my parents’ house and caring for Dad, two years passed.
I was 49 and sure I’d missed my chance of becoming a mum, but I still had that yearning. Because Dr Foulk had been so helpful and kind I decided to make a final appointment to explain why I hadn’t returned. As I waited in his office, there on the desk was the picture I had sent him after my surgery. I cried because I felt that I had been so close to that dream but now it had once again drifted away.
“Leslie, do you still want to be a mother?” Dr Foulk asked gently.
“Is the sky blue? Is it cold in winter? Yes please!’’ I said, but I told him I didn’t know how it could be possible because I was nearly 50.
Dr Foulk then went into great detail about IVF. Marty and I decided to trust him and putting everything on the line – home, finances and health – agreed to IVF with a donor egg as mine were too old.
Insurance wouldn’t cover it, and so we had to take out a loan from the bank. The whole thing cost us about $40,000 (Dh108,900).
Just a week before we were to go in, on January 1, 2011, we were lying in bed when Marty said he could feel his heart beat in his leg.
“That’s not right,’’ he said, and we went straight to hospital. He was given an ultrasound, which showed he had a massive blood clot in his leg.
“It’s a good thing you came in; you are a walking dead man,’’ the doctor said. If the clot had moved to Marty’s lungs it would have killed him.
He was given blood-thinning drugs to disperse the clot. Because I was a nurse they allowed us to do it at home. It made us realise we had to seize every opportunity and so, three weeks later, I underwent IVF. There was only a 15 per cent chance for pregnancy success, but we were willing to try anything.
I was able to see the embryo, my baby, on the ultrasound screen the moment the transfer occurred. He was a tiny star shimmering brightly in a dark womb. There was a hush in the room as we all watched the special moment.
Marty was holding my hand and I started laughing to the point of tears, it was so amazing. Something happened when the embryo was transferred, it was like I instantly became a mother and was filled with love for this child I didn’t know yet. But I had to wait for two vital weeks to see if it would implant and grow.
In the first week of February, we received the call we had hoped for. I was pregnant. They told me my HCG (pregnancy hormone) numbers were the highest of any patient in history! The higher the hormone the more likely the pregnancy will last. We had been waiting for two decades to hear those words, and I could hardly believe it was actually happening.
Every week for the first three months I went to see Dr Foulk for blood tests to make sure everything was OK. I also had to take progesterone and oestrogen shots twice a day – because my hormone levels were low – which Marty injected into my bottom after I had injected the blood thinners into his stomach – we were quite a pair!
My pregnancy was smooth with no major problems. My condition had improved drastically and I could walk properly without help. All my tests and scans were clear and I was just enjoying my pregnancy.
On May 10, 2011, the ultrasound revealed we were having a boy. I laughed as I thought of our blue nursery. After 20 years of hoping and waiting on September 27, 2011, at 8.40am, at the age of 51 and six months, I had a planned C-section and a healthy, beautiful son we name Zachary Nathan John David Chamberlain was born.
Marty was there to cut the cord, and our little boy weighed a healthy 3.3kg and was 47cm long. I stared at this wriggling little baby, and couldn’t stop sobbing. I’d loved him from the moment I was pregnant, but seeing him now, holding him in my arms was simply amazing. I couldn’t stop kissing him, and Marty kept kissing us both.
“I love you,” he said. “We’re a family.” I’d worried I was so old I wouldn’t know how to look after him – after all, most women my age were grannies not first-time mothers – but it all came naturally. Being a mother was everything I expected it to be – and then some. Yes, the sleepless nights were difficult, but I didn’t care. I’d cried and not been able to sleep for years because I was in pain. I’d gladly stay up to take care of our little baby.
“You’re my little gift,” I’d tell him.
Marty and I couldn’t wait to take him out and show him off in his pram. He grew up so fast, and is now three. Every moment has been incredible. Zachary is a happy, bright little boy who Marty and I are proud to call our son. It took 51 years for him to come into our lives – but he was worth the wait. He’s incredible.
Leslie Chamberlain lives in Redding, California, US