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When Ashley and Brooks McMahon of Duluth, Minn., decided the time was right to have a baby, they figured getting pregnant would simply be a matter of stopping birth control.
Destiny had been on their side before, like meeting each other on Day One of classes during their first year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
After graduating from college in 2015 and marrying in 2017, Ashley and Brooks decided in early 2020 that it was time to add a third member of the family. After several months of trying, frustration began to mount as one pregnancy test after another came back negative.
By then, something just didn’t feel right to Ashley.
Living in Oregon, Wis., at the time, Ashley and Brooks learned about the UW Health Generations Fertility Care Clinic from a friend who had good things to say.
“One of the first tests that Generations did was a sperm analysis,” Brooks said. “We learned that there was virtually no sperm in my semen, which was a big shock. It turned out that my vas deferens didn’t form correctly. Essentially, I was born with a vasectomy."
Dr. Laura Cooney, a UW Health reproductive endocrinologist based at Generations, said the McMahons’ experience is a reminder that both members of a couple are equal partners when it comes to fertility care.
“Many people assume that infertility is only an issue with the female partner,” Dr. Cooney said. “That was not the case with the McMahons.”
Further complicating the situation, Dr. Cooney says, was Ashley having PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, which can often be a childbearing obstacle.
“PCOS is a hormonal disorder that causes irregular menstrual periods,” said Dr. Cooney. “Because it is often associated with conception challenges, we see a lot of women with PCOS in our clinic.”
Once Dr. Cooney laid out the challenging picture to Ashley and Brooks, the McMahons decided to try for pregnancy through use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a sophisticated fertility treatment that mimics sexual reproduction. Between 1 and 2 percent of all births in the U.S. begin with IVF, resulting in about 55,000 babies each year.
While IVF never comes with a guarantee, Dr. Cooney assured the McMahons that they would be cared for by an expert team of professionals who work tirelessly to help couples like them.
“Not every fertility center offers a comprehensive team like ours,” said Dr. Cooney. “We see nearly 5,000 patients a year. In addition to fertility physicians, physician assistants and nurses, we have a urologist on staff to address issues such as Brooks experienced. We also have a health psychologist, a genetics counselor and a team of five embryologists who ‘make the magic’ in the laboratory by conducting the egg fertilization and embryo preparation.”
A surgical approach to sperm retrieval
Before the McMahons could begin IVF, the Generations team needed to know whether Brooks’s body was producing sperm, and if so, how to obtain it.
To accomplish this, Brooks was seen and evaluated by UW Health reproductive urologist Dr. Daniel Williams at Generations. Dr. Williams determined that Brooks was producing sperm, but they were trapped inside his reproductive tract. This meant that Brooks qualified for a surgical sperm retrieval procedure Dr. Williams performed called MESA, or microsurgical epididymal sperm aspiration. Once Dr. Williams completed the procedure, the McMahons were able to freeze the sperm for later use during IVF.
As the couple began IVF, Ashley started a series of daily prescription injections that caused her to ovulate several eggs at a time, rather than the single egg that is normally released during the menstrual cycle. At just the right time, Dr. Cooney retrieved Ashley’s eggs during a procedure.
“She retrieved eight eggs, but apparently the egg quality wasn’t great,” Ashley said. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
Of the eight eggs, the laboratory was able to fertilize four for storage in an incubator. After five days, the hope was that at least one egg would turn into an embryo for placement into Ashley’s uterus. Unfortunately, they didn’t even get one embryo.
“It was devastating,” Ashley said. “We had already been through so much emotionally, clinically and financially, and then we end up with nothing.”
After taking time to decompress and talk things over with friends, family and Generations’ health psychologist, Julianne Zweifel, PhD, Ashley and Brooks decided to try a second round of IVF.
“Round one didn’t end well,” Ashley said, “but that failure really inspired us to try a second time.”
A decorative sign that hangs in their bedroom provided further inspiration. It reads: “You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.”
In late May 2021, Ashley and Brooks returned to Generations for what they hoped would be a successful IVF journey. This time, Ashley produced 13 eggs, of which five were able to be fertilized.
Second round brings better news
Each of the next five days seemed to take forever, but finally the phone rang. A Generations embryologist was on the line.
“I have good news,” she told Ashley. “One of the five fertilized eggs turned into an embryo.”
A baby finally seemed within their grasp.
After several weeks of medication to prepare Ashley’s body for gestation, Dr. Cooney transferred the embryo into Ashley. On Aug. 19, 2021, their fourth wedding anniversary, Ashley got a call confirming that she was pregnant.
“It was such a huge relief,” Ashley said. “We had come so far, and we finally had a baby to look forward to.”
It was only fitting that after such an emotional 18-month roller coaster, Ashley’s pregnancy was mostly routine.
On May 1, 2022, Ashley and Brooks witnessed the birth of their beautiful baby daughter, named Whitley. Weighing 10½ pounds, she has been nothing but a joy for a most deserving couple.
“She is simply the best baby we could have asked for,” Ashley said. “She is so healthy and smiles all the time and even sleeps through the night.”
At 16 months old, toddlerhood seems to agree very well with Whitley, whose initials — WAM — spell out the sound that perfectly evokes the ups and downs of the McMahons’ journey.
“She loves exploring and being outside,” Ashley said. “Whitley talks up a storm and loves books, being in the water and visiting grandma and grandpa. She’s also a wonderful traveler and has already been to Alaska, Florida and many places around the Midwest.”
Ashley and Brooks can’t say enough about Generations for everything they did to make the McMahons’ wish come true.
“Dr. Cooney and the whole team became part of our family,” Ashley said. “Without them, we would not be parents today.”