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The gift of life, and its price

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On the doctor's table, she felt like a guinea pig. The subject of an expensive experiment in which the chief catalyst was hope. When the needle probed her, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine success. A warm, milky smell. A drooling, toothless smile.

An angry, delicate bundle. A final, readymade retort to the world.

But two agonising weeks later, all that greeted her was a big, red blob of failure. She now felt like a murderer. In fact, worse, for at least a murder is certain. Definite. But her victim had been a possibility, a dream. Someone who hadn't even been born yet. The house felt heavy as if everyone was in mourning. Her mother-in-law cried, her husband swallowed hard and her mother pacified. She stood under the cold shower and let the downpour camouflage her tears.

This ebb and flow of emotions that characterises a failed infertility treatment is the poignant and even serial reality of many women today who are, in fact, mothers without babies. This is perhaps why Bollywood director Farah Khan, who gave birth to triplets through In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) in her 40s, once said: "Going through IVF is a gruelling procedure, maybe that's why only a woman can go through it. "

Suddenly in the course of a well-planned careermarriage-home life, these achievers are struck by the discovery that their eggs can only make fruitful love in a petri-dish. Though the IVF treatment - the process by which an egg is fertilised by sperm outside the body - is undoubtedly a boon for couples who cannot conceive naturally, the chances of success are between 30 and 50 per cent. So, the possibility of a shattered dream, the scars of multiple failures and the intensified cacophony of biological clocks seem to stare at these women like demons, more so in child-obsessed India.

"Indian women in particular bear the brunt of being infertile, " says fertility specialist Dr Firuza Parikh who recently counselled a couple where the wife was not allowed to attend the baby shower of her sister-in-law because she might bring bad luck. Naturally, such women are plagued by feelings of inadequacy. If an IVF cycle fails, Parikh says that many women are in a state of shock for a few days. Some are even fatalistic about the outcome, she says, as they believe they have done something wrong. "They blame themselves thinking that they ate the wrong foods or did not take adequate rest, " adds Parikh.

Some women even tend to isolate themselves to avoid questions, says Dr Aniruddha Malpani, a leading infertility specialist. He is referring, of course, to queries that begin with the innocent "How long have you been married?" and end with "Why don't you have kids?" It is because of cousins who chided, "Bahut ho gaya. Stop your family planning" and aunts who casually offered, "Why don't you adopt?" that Thane's Sonali Gaikwad (name changed) has stopped attending weddings and other family functions. "It is always the woman who is blamed, " feels the embittered Gaikwad, who got married at the age of 24. The former HR professional had scheduled her baby for two years later but when she failed to conceive after a year of trying, the couple decided to approach a gynaecologist.

The suggested course of treatment meant spending up to five years of savings previously set aside for a Mauritius trip. But it had to be done, reasons Gaikwad, as "in the minds of the in-laws, the fault is always with the woman". To be absolved of such blame, she went through the treatment process, even quitting her job for it. After the first course of treatment failed, she was advised to go in for IVF. Gaikwad had taken about 8 to 10 injections worth Rs 4, 000 each to prepare her body for the IVF process, when she was told that her body had failed to produce enough eggs. This jolted her confidence. The second time around, despite having followed all the instructions to the T, she failed to get pregnant. By then, not only had the couple spent Rs 4 lakh but the potent combination of stress, hormones, and prescription drugs saw the frail Gaikwad bloat up to twice her size. She now looked like a far cry from the thin, tall woman on her cellphone wallpaper. "I lost faith in God during that time, as my prayers were not being answered, " says Gaikwad, who took to crying in the bathroom, tired of hearing the same spiel from doctors: Try again.

Those two words aren't soothing to these desperate women who are only looking for assurance. Their vulnerability leads them to believe anyone who can give them even the faintest hint of their baby's arrival. Superstitions abound. Babas are approached.

In fact, only last week, a couple that had tried IVF four times at another clinic came to Parikh with an unprecedented request. "They told me that their previous cycles had failed as their astrologer had predicted that they were affected by Saturn. They asked if I could perform the IVF procedure before sunrise for them, " recalls Parikh, who has even seen patients who fast before the egg retrieval procedure.

When Manju Padmasekar's first IVF cycle failed, it was painful but nothing prepared her for what followed. "The second IVF cycle was successful but the happiness was short lived. In the scan, we learned that our baby was not alive. That is the greatest pain I have undergone in my life, " writes Padmasekar in an email interview. She used to cry but soon found a more productive way to vent - writing. Padmasekar now maintains a blog called myselfishgenes. blogspot. in, where she chronicles not only her IVF timeline but also records her fears, doubts and prayers. "When I started to write I became a new person. I wish every woman undergoing IVF learns to let out her emotions in a positive way. "

Though IVF is an excruciating process, it is not all pathos, she assures. "I am a biologist and the entire IVF process is scientifically so beautiful to watch, " says Padmasekar, who waits for each ultrasound to know how her ovaries are reacting to the drugs, how many follicles she produces, how many eggs she gets. "When you see the embryo under the microscope, it is just amazing. I can show my children how they looked as embryos, " says Padmasekar.

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