It is a warm Thursday night in May and they are back where it all began: Trattoria Bolu, the rustic Italian restaurant in Basking Ridge, NJ where they decided to start their friendship.
They were all undergoing fertility treatment and bumped into one another at RMANJ’s in-person support group and on FertiliTalk, a Facebook community for women struggling to conceive. They started off as acquaintances, but after regular run-ins, they decided to meet outside the practice. Someone suggested Trattoria Bolu, and they came, each with a distinct story of what got her there, eager to talk and listen to someone who understood. It was fall 2015, and they were all on the same trying, exhausting and purposeful mission: to have a child.
Two and a half years later, they are back at this place and the mood has lifted – they are mothers now.
They are Celeste Zazzali, a 36-year-old music teacher, Amie Thomas, a 35-year-old school counselor, Kristen Heller, a 44-year-old reading teacher, Micki Berg, a 33-year-old teacher for autistic children, and Kristin Matty, a 30-year-old project manager at KPMG.
What used to fill their conversations – talk of hormones, retrievals, and blastocysts – has turned to swim lessons, birthday parties and uncontrollable crying fits at night.
They’ve given each other hormone shots, thrown each other baby showers, memorized the birthdays of each other’s babies and the names of their partners, getting together so often that they know more about each other than close family and friends.
“I just tell my husband I’m going out with ‘the girls,’” says Micki, “and he understands.”
“RMANJ’s support groups helped us form this bond, and we’ll always be friends.”
How did they get here? Each had her own story.
In 2013, Celeste and her husband were diagnosed with unexplained infertility. After several failed IUI’s ( intrauterine insemination), a laparoscopy and a few rounds of IVF (in vitro fertilization), her embryos were either not healthy enough to transfer or failed to implant. She tried one more round of IVF, and, following a transfer, was pregnant with twins. But in her first trimester, she lost one of the twins, and, after Celeste was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto immune disorder, she found out her remaining twin had suffered multiple congenital anomalies. The baby girl passed at 30 weeks and three days, and Celeste delivered a stillbirth.
But, since Celeste still had two embryos left, she transferred one with Dr. Shastri. It stuck. Her name was Annarose, born February 1, 2017.
“There was a time I thought, ‘I’m just never going to have a baby,” Celeste said. “But I have two in heaven and one in my arms.”
Kristen was just about to turn 40 when she decided she wanted to have a baby on her own. She began her RMANJ journey with IUIs and donor sperm, but switched to IVF after two miscarriages. Her first retrieval was cancelled because she did not make enough eggs, her second resulted in an abnormal embryo but her third was successful.
She transferred one embryo in March 2016 that miscarried and another in August. He stuck. But at six months, Kristen was told the baby was not growing as he should and would likely come early.
On April 20, 2017, three and a half pound Adam was born at 36 weeks. He spent three weeks in the NICU, but came out thriving.
“He is perfectly healthy,” Kristen beams.
Kristin and her husband knew his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2015 meant three things: sperm freezing (fertility preservation), surgery and radiation, in that order. During freezing, Kristin’s husband gave four samples, but they all came in with a low sperm count, and she began considering IVF. She met with Dr. Foreman – now leading the fertility practice at Columbia University in New York City – and he confirmed the sperm count, morphology and motility were all problematic.
“That was the most devastating day of our lives,” Kristin said.
Kristin’s husband began working with a urologist for several months, taking testosterone, Clomid, and hormone shots. Finally, he tried a testicular sperm extraction.
Kristin underwent an IVF retrieval and made several embryos, most of which were normal.
She transferred a female embryo, and Layla was born May 18, 2017.
Amie expected pregnancy to be easy. She did all the right things – got married, got off the birth control pill early and tried for a while. She wanted it to happen, but it just wasn’t working. At RMANJ, her husband’s sperm sample revealed a morphology issue – the shape of the sperm was off. Soon, she was told her best option at a baby would come through IVF. Her first single embryo transfer gave her a pregnancy, but it didn’t last – she had a D&C in the first trimester. Her second successful transfer resulted in a chemical pregnancy – where the pregnancy is lost before the first heartbeat – and doctors turned to Amie’s egg quality as a source of concern.
“I remember Dr. Shastri kept talking about the silver lining, the silver lining, and somehow, I felt rejuvenated,” Amie said.
During her final retrieval, she got five embryos, four of which tested normal, and one of which stuck. Soon after, in September 2017, Amie saw a rainbow outside and made a wish.
“I’d been trying for so long,” she said.
Penelope was born May 21, 2017.
In 2014, after eight months of trying with her husband, 29-year-old Micki “just knew something was wrong.” A RMANJ, she was told she had Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, and diminished ovarian reserve. She underwent surgery to have her thyroid removed, and prepared for IVF. After several failed retrievals, Micki retrieved enough eggs to make six embryos.
“Every time, I said, ‘this is my last retrieval,’ and when it failed, I said ‘OK let’s do another one,’” she said as the girls listened intently despite knowing every detail of her story by heart.
Two transfers – in January and April 2016 – resulted in chemical pregnancies. She tried anther transfer in September 2016 with Dr. Treiser, and the embryo stuck. Colton was born May 25, 2017.
They all say the same thing: the support groups – both in-person and online through FertiliTalk – helped them through one of the most difficult points of their lives. The groups gave them an outlet to share their feelings, allowed them to learn about infertility and navigate their road to motherhood and helped them find each other.
“We all have different reasons for being RMANJ patients and we were all trying before we met each other,” Kristin said, “but the transfers happened to work while we were all in this together.”
“You hear that one in four pregnancies ends in loss or miscarriage, but together, we defied the odds.”
So what’s next for this unbreakable group?
“More babies!” Kristen exclaims.
“I want our kids to grow up together,” Micki adds.
Celeste pauses and says, “but they are already growing up together.”
And almost immediately, the conversation turns to toddler birthday party planning and baby pictures, and the restaurant’s chatter fades away around them.