By Jeff Keen
Special to The Witness
WAVERLY — Our story starts in 2004. We were seniors in high school and, though we didn’t know each other, had both decided to attend a Teens Encounter Christ (TEC) weekend at St. Henry Parish in Marshalltown. Ashley and I hit it off on the first day and quickly became friends. We had a great TEC experience together but college in different places kept us from pursuing the relationship further for the next four years. We decided to stay in touch through email and occasional visits.
Though we didn’t start dating until 2008, the beginning of our infertility story starts in 2007. I was living in Iowa City, attending the University of Iowa, and had reason to believe there might be something wrong with my reproductive health. I decided to have some testing done and learned my sperm count was 1/20 of what is considered the bottom end of “fertile.” The news struck me like I imagine it strikes most people. The usual questions were asked. Why me? How does this affect my future?
After college, I moved to Cedar Rapids and learned that Ashley, who had finished her degree at Central College, was now attending the University of Iowa to study nursing. We were close enough now that we decided to try dating. Our long-standing friendship helped move the relationship along quickly. Before things got serious, I felt it was necessary to let her in on my secret. It was a hard conversation, because both of us wanted to have kids. Ashley especially felt called to be a mother. I was worried about my “problem” becoming her problem and taking that dream away from her, but ultimately she decided to forge ahead and accept whatever fate awaited us. We were engaged six months after we started dating and married a year later on October 9, 2010.
Assuming Ashley’s reproductive health was fine and knowing mine was not, we made an appointment with a reproductive health doctor in Iowa City shortly after our wedding. In our first visit, he identified a large varicocele vein. These veins are actually fairly common in men and often cause both pain and a decrease in sperm count. While it was good news that a potential cause had been identified, we were warned that doing surgery on the varicocele probably wouldn’t fix the problem entirely. The most likely result would be a modest improvement that would help our incredibly slim chances of conceiving naturally or allow us to consider other options such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). At this point, we wanted to at least know our options, and the surgery would help achieve that goal. We decided there was little to lose, and, at the very least, the surgery would alleviate some of the pain the varicocele was causing.
Around the same time, Ashley was having concerns about her own cycle, which had become unpredictable and irregular. She visited a nurse practitioner and had lab work done, but everything came back normal. Ashley followed up by going to a female fertility doctor to make sure there were no issues with her own reproductive system. She had an ultrasound done to look at her uterus and ovaries. Her progesterone levels were checked, and, again, her lab values came back normal. Multiple cysts were seen on her ovaries, but she was told that was normal as well. Usually, a clean bill of health is a cause for relief, but Ashley could never shake the feeling that something was not right. With the doctor’s reassurances that progesterone levels were OK and the cysts were not an issue, we moved on.
Three months after my surgery, tests showed a 400 percent increase in my sperm count. It left us far from fertile but gave a great amount of hope that the problem was not more complicated than the varicocele. Unfortunately, at the six-month checkup, we were devastated to learn my count had returned to pre-surgical levels. Upon examination, it was decided that the varicocele had recurred, which happens after around three percent of surgeries. Emboldened by the hope from the first surgery, we decided to attempt to fix the varicocele through a second operation. This time the fix held, but the increase was not drastic enough to provide many new options for having children. In fact, the only option that was offered was IVF. We were sent home with a packet of information about IVF and the understanding that our only real chance at conception was through this procedure.
After reviewing the information we started to have concerns. We have always believed that human life begins at conception. The IVF procedure would fertilize several eggs without the intention of providing an opportunity at life for all of them. The fertilized eggs deemed by the doctor to be less desirable would be discarded, while the best were either implanted or frozen. It would be dishonest of me to say that we were not seriously considering it. Even with our life views, it can be so hard to have a solution in hand and not use it. Looking for guidance, we decided to visit our priest, Father Henry Huber at Immaculate Conception Parish (Gilbertville), and get his input. As expected, Father Huber strongly advised against IVF.
Looking back on our experience, we both recognize this as one of the hardest times. At our next check-up, we told our doctor that for moral reasons we could not go through with IVF. He was gracious and understanding, but with IVF off the table, there was nothing more he could do for us. He wished us luck in conceiving naturally and sent us on our way. With our known medical options exhausted and our hope hanging by a thread, we took Father’s Huber’s advice and called a local natural family planning (NFP) expert. We explained our situation, and she lit up telling us about other couples like us the Creighton method of natural family planning had helped.
My hopes were low that a natural family planning method could help us overcome our problems after more common medical treatments had failed. But Ashley, still feeling called to be a mother, and still believing that she would someday get to experience pregnancy, was excited to try anything. The Creighton method also appealed to her because of her experience with other reproductive health experts. She felt something was wrong and was bothered by the unpredictability of her cycle. To this point no “expert” had ever tried to explain what was actually happening with her body or why.
We learned more about reproductive health in our first meeting with our Creighton instructor than we had in the previous two years of meetings with reproductive health doctors. After reviewing the first couple months of charts, it was obvious to the Creighton practitioners that a problem had been missed with Ashley’s health. The charts pointed toward polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and after some testing, it was determined that she had not been ovulating at all. Some of the same tests were used to diagnose the problem as had been used before, but this time we were doing the tests at the right time and looking for the right things. The Creighton method helped us understand what Ashley’s body was telling us.
It was also during this time that we started to better treat our fertility health as something that belonged to both of us. Beyond charting fertile and infertile times and diagnosing abnormalities within a woman’s cycle, the Creighton method encouraged us to talk about our fertility on a daily basis. The combination of increased knowledge and communication was absolutely great for our marriage.
Thankfully, we learned that the PCOS could be treated rather easily. Ashley took clomid to force ovulation at the right time and progesterone to make sure a pregnancy could be maintained.
While we were excited to finally understand our situation, I was still skeptical. After the second surgery, I still had less than one tenth the sperm required to be considered fertile. However, in our first month on clomid, the Creighton method correctly identified ovulation, and we achieved pregnancy. We were shocked. Ashley used every pregnancy test in the house that morning before work and then bought more on the way home from work. It was hard to believe that years of technology and observation had failed where this simple and natural system succeeded so easily. Our son, Noah Henry Keen (Henry after St. Henry Parish and Father Henry Huber) arrived on Nov. 30, 2014. The doctor who delivered Noah told us he had never seen a couple achieve natural pregnancy with a count as low as mine.
Our path through infertility has been a long one. For some reason, one of the most important parts of marriage is often spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. We went through over three years of monthly disappointments, answering the never ending “when are you having kids?” questions with as much of a smile as we could muster. We always wanted to scream “We are trying, please stop asking!” but that never seemed like the right thing to do with friends and casual acquaintances.
Now, as we watch Noah learn to walk, we know he would not be here had we not turned to the Creighton method. It taught us so much and identified a relatively natural way to treat the problem rather than the symptom. Since Noah’s birth, we have effectively used the method to avoid pregnancy. Research shows it is every bit as effective as other methods to avoid pregnancy, and anecdotally, it sure seems more effective at helping achieve it. Whether you are using Creighton to achieve or avoid, or just to better improve communication and understanding in your marriage, we cannot recommend it more highly.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not mention our teacher Jamie Rathjen. She made the process of learning Creighton both easy and fun. Her positive attitude was infectious, even for a couple like us who had nearly given up hope. We have proudly helped her educate soon-to-be-married couples about the advantages of natural family planning and are happy to share our story with anyone who is interested. Natural family planning helped give us our son and strengthened our love for each other. We can’t imagine a situation where it would not be helpful for couples who are called to marriage.
The Keen family are members of St. Mary Parish in Waverly.
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.