There is some evidence that acupuncture helps fertility, so I found a doctor in traditional Chinese medicine in midtown. Every Monday, I made the trip, and lay in one of eight tiny consultation rooms, waited on by her many smiling assistants.
Before they began the acupuncture, they cupped me, which involved lighting alcohol swabs inside small glass jars, then quickly attaching the cup to my lower back. The suction formed by the vacuum of oxygen draws blood to that area of the body. I was instructed to lie still on my stomach for ten minutes. If I moved at all, the glass knobs would shift and tinkle against each other. I felt like a fragile stegosaurus.
Then, after they’d pulled the cups off (with a delicious sucking noise) the doctor would come. She seemed to cycle endlessly through her consultation rooms, from woman to woman; ten women an hour, eight hours a day, six days a week. She would feel for my pulse with a hand as small as a child’s, and ask me to stick out my tongue. ‘Aaah,’ she would say politely, and make a note in my chart in Chinese. I was drinking her bitter herbal tea twice a day.
‘Better?’ I’d ask.
‘Yes,’ she’d say.
Then with firm, quick movements, she’d insert the needles in my head, ear lobes, stomach, hands and legs. Tap tap. Tap tap. ‘Meditate on your womb,’ she’d say, then turn the light off, leaving me alone for thirty minutes. I frequently fell asleep.
Sometimes, as they removed the last of the needles, the assistants would stroke my hair, giving me a tiny caress that nearly always moved me to tears.
I was told that I was yin deficient, that I shouldn’t do yoga in a hot room anymore, that I needed to slow down a little. I tried. I did not think it was going to work, but her treatment gave me a semblance of control; here was something I could do.
In 1968, an American couple called Doris and John Del Zio married. Though both had children by previous marriages, Doris couldn’t seem to fall pregnant, and were referred to Dr William Sweeney at New York Hospital, who operated on Doris for blocked fallopian tubes. She fell pregnant, then miscarried. Sweeney operated twice more, to no success.
He finally suggested an experimental procedure; he would try laparoscopic surgery to withdraw follicular fluid from Doris’s ovaries, and this would be mixed with her husband’s sperm and incubated by another colleague, Dr Landrum Shettles, who worked nearby at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
This was one of the first IVF experiments in the United States. The Catholic Church had already condemned any fertilisation of eggs outside the human body and in 1969 a poll showed that the majority of Americans believed techniques like IVF were ‘against God’s will’. Dr Shettles did not clear his in-vitro fer- tilisation experiments with Columbia-Presbyterian’s hospital administration.
On September 12, 1973, John Del Zio took two test tubes containing Doris’s follicular fluid on a five-mile cab ride uptown, while Doris recovered from her surgery downtown. Upon arrival, he was directed to a room to masturbate, and Dr Shettles mixed the liquids together. But word of the ex- periment had reached the hospital’s administration, and Shettles, along with the test tubes, was summoned to their offices and told that the hospital’s federal grants might be compromised by his actions. He was forbidden to continue.
One version of the story has it that the director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology refused to let him leave the room; after a few hours at room temperature, any fertilisation in the test tubes would have failed. Another version is that they removed the corks for good measure. A third version is that this sabotage was quietly done in the lab later on. A fourth is that the test tubes were frozen – and remain, to this day, in a fridge at that hospital.
Doris and John Del Zio weren’t informed the experiment had been stopped until hours after the fact. It sent Doris into a deep depression; the month her child would have been born, she woke from a faint in a Florida department store to find her arms full of baby clothes. There is no mention in any of the news reports I could find of what Doris and John’s children from their previous marriages thought about any of this. I do not know if Doris and John are still alive, or still in Florida. As the faces of one of the first attempts at in-vitro fertilisation, they flame like comets into history, then out of it.
The Del Zios sued Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital for intentionally inflicting distress and for terminating a pro- cedure that was begun at another institution. (They were eventually awarded $50,000.) A week after the civil suit began, the world’s first successful IVF baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born in the United Kingdom, weighing 5 pounds and 12 ounces. Incrementally, step by step, a number of scientists had refined their understanding of the hormones involved in ovu- lation, of when to withdraw follicular fluid and mix it with sperm, what temperature to incubate it at, and how to transfer the embryo back into the womb. And when it was suddenly possible – when there was a baby girl, smiling, a miracle of flesh and blood on the front page of hundreds of newspapers – public opinion swiftly changed. Clinics began to open at research hospitals across the United States and through the United Kingdom.
It amazes me that IVF is barely older than I am. This is one reason why no history of the rapidly evolving field has been written for the layperson; there is no book that traces the Western discovery of sperm and ova, the identification of hormones involved in ovulation (and how to stimulate this event), or the development of insemination techniques and incubation. It’s there, in pieces, in medical journals. There are articles written by psychologists about the grief of infertility. But there is no ethnography of the field, no study of all of the women who were operated on: those anonymous seventeenth-century female corpses, the unnamed patients of Dr Sims and the Doris Del Zios of this world. There is no consideration of the anthropological oddities of this technology and its effects on women, no book about those online message boards (which belong to the Bronze Age of the internet, when the point was not to publicize one’s life so much as to explore and participate in communities otherwise out of reach). These messages feel like old telegraph messages, archaically instru- mental. They broadcast basic information, opaque and often puzzling abbreviations, numbers and measurements, emotions in stark, primary colours, emojis for when matters get really complicated. The code that has developed is a counterpoint to Western medicalese. It is a dialect that women you know have quietly and silently learned how to speak. And beyond these message boards, no one really acknowledges it. There is no book that tries to stitches together women’s stories, that notes the strange tonal shifts in their conversations with each other, how they – we – swing between the coy and the scientif- ically explicit, between joy and despair. This is how I’m going to tell it.
On the 24th of July, I got my period again. On the 25th, I went in for another round of blood tests. Doctor No. 2’s office was in a far swankier building further uptown, but his waiting room was similarly crammed with upholstered chairs in apricot and blue. On each chair sat a numb-looking woman.
We did not talk to each other.
When I came out of yoga that afternoon, there was a message on my phone. Another nurse. ‘Your FSH is 9. You are going to start treatment tonight.’
And just like that, I could begin. It was Louise Brown’s thirty-seventh birthday that day.
Written in August 2015 and first published in Tell You What, November 2015. Image: "Hope", by Stephanie