In “Unstoppable,” Colorado’s IVF pioneer logs her journey

Epilogue

A Year and a Half Later

“Wouldn’t you say you are playing God?”

Moments earlier, cool fingers had touched my neck as an assistant, wearing big earphones loosely hanging under her chin, clipped a microphone onto my white, ruffled collar. The people I noticed when I arrived this morning, standing in line outside the studio doors in a long hallway, were now settling into their seats. I squinted out, trying to see them, but there were so many lights shining into my eyes and multiple cameramen stepping over cords and blocking my view that I was unable to clearly focus on the guests. The television studio audience was much smaller than I expected, and it looked like there were mostly women, judging by the silk scarves dangling out of the sleeves of their spring coats now draped over the backs of chairs.

Mother always said that red gave a woman confidence, so I had borrowed her red boiled-wool jacket. I had never been on a television program and had spent the evening before in my hotel room studying all of my information on in vitro fertilization. I had carefully kept files with every medical form, newspaper article, letters from doctors’ offices, and every one of my own notes starting just after the very first infertility doctor’s appointment in 1979.

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“Wouldn’t you say you are playing God?” She turned with a conspiratorial nod toward the audience as if to have the crowd join her in this aggressive question.

I was well aware of the Irish Catholic make-up of this studio audience in Boston. I knew exactly what I could do to help them understand.

“Oh, no, I thank God for the gifted doctors and medical researchers who made it possible for my husband and me to finally have our own baby.”

“How can you possibly say that producing a child in a test tube isn’t playing God?” she continued.

“This is no different than a heart bypass,” I replied. “This is simply a bypass of the Fallopian tubes. My egg couldn’t reach the uterus, just as blood can’t flow through a blocked heart artery. We are so grateful to God for the scientific discovery of this miraculous procedure. I am on your program today so other couples know they have a chance to have their own baby, thanks to the God-given gift of in vitro fertilization.”

Dr. Quigley shared, with my permission, our home phone number with the attorney and author Lori Andrews. She had interviewed me by phone when I was five months pregnant. One chapter of her book New Conceptions was about Peter’s and my quest to have our own child. Lori was on the panel with me today, and I could see her sitting motionless, wondering and worrying how I would handle this barrage of questions. It was like I was being cross-examined in a witness-box.

“Playing God,” the TV host repeated.

I felt my head shake in an involuntary “no” movement, not in answer to her shock-value question, but as a sign of disappointment. 

There were so many deeply private questions I wish the host had asked—questions only I and the handful of other mothers of in vitro babies could have answered. Had I been concerned over publicity when “Colorado’s First Test-Tube Baby” appeared in headlines around the country? I would have described how, at 1 AM, just twenty-four hours after my baby’s birth, I pressed my emergency call button in the darkened maternity ward. I had been awakened by the shock of desperately needing to protect my defenseless newborn child as she slept, away from me, in the nursery. I squeezed the nurse’s hand in my shaking one and held her eyes as I begged her to keep special guard over my precious infant. I had been crushed under an avalanche of terror that my baby would be kidnapped once news of her birth was released.

I would have frowned reflectively and looked down at my lap as I confessed that I searched the Letters to the Editor section in secret daily for months after our baby was born. I loudly flapped the newspaper pages open each morning with both hands, my heart banging in dread that there would be a letter saying that test-tube babies were a blasphemy. I was prepared to defend all of us, our new family, my doctors, and the silent parents of IVF babies who never had told anyone how their child was conceived.

I refused to grant the press permission to use our last name, and I wasn’t ashamed of that. While I didn’t believe in anonymity for my sake, I was, perhaps irrationally, perhaps not, petrified for my baby’s safety. An imagined person or group might strike us with words or worse because of how our child had been conceived. That fear froze so deeply in my body that there were moments when my bones felt as if they were coated in ice. Yet I never once whispered this private terror to a soul—not to Peter, my mother, or my friends. I shuddered in that cold alone.

Onstage that day, I was prepared to share with other families what it had been like for me, one of the first mothers in the world to give birth to a baby conceived in vitro, had the interviewer asked those relevant questions. Instead, she was disappointing me.

She might have asked if I had a normal pregnancy and birth. I would have described the easiest pregnancy ever and a labor of only three total hours. It would have been of medical interest to describe how I got to have more ultrasounds than other pregnant women, and how the doctor carefully measured the size of my fetus’s skull and sent the information to Dr. Quigley in Houston. I suspected there was a concern about the as-yet-unknown health and development of in vitro babies, which was being intensely studied. I never once had a moment of worry about my baby’s health. Peter called me “The Walking Smile” for nine months.

“You had five embryos,” she could have said. “What happened to the other four?” Only one of the five embryos transferred had implanted in my uterus wall. Doctors believed that fertilized eggs often do not implant in a woman’s cycle, for reasons still being studied.

I would have loved to answer another question she didn’t ask, “What misconceptions about in vitro have you faced?” I could have chuckled as I related my answers to “Where is the baby growing?” (when I was clearly eight months pregnant), “Who is the father?” and “Is the baby in a jar in a lab right now in Houston?”

If only the talk show host had just thoughtfully asked, “But you were the first in Colorado, a pioneer; didn’t you feel completely alone?” 

I would have said yes. My heart would forever remember that I had been alone in my grief, my guilt, and my single-minded determination. Though I had the support of my husband, family, and friends, it was just me being wheeled into the operating room every single time. I was alone when I had microsurgery, a medical technique no one I knew had ever heard of. Alone in Hartford Hospital. I was one of the very first women to have laser surgery on Fallopian tubes. I went into the in vitro fertilization program in Houston completely alone, knowing of only four other women in the world who had been through the same procedure. There were certainly other women going through each of these experimental surgeries, but I never, ever met one in the hospital or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

I had been totally on my own; but now, others didn’t have to be. For all of the women coming behind me, sitting in that audience, or watching from home—the unseen, bereft women I would never know personally, who desperately wanted a baby, who needed information on what nascent techniques were available and where they were being performed, women not sure where to go, whom to ask—I was here to tell them.

I had quite a story to tell.


Ellen Weir Casey is the mother of Colorado’s first “test-tube baby” and the author of “Unstoppable: Forging The Path To Motherhood in The Early Days Of IVF.” The longtime Colorado Springs resident is an award-winning educator, women’s advocate and graduate of Colorado College.



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