All is certainly not lost, however, especially in this age of advanced fertility research, said Dr. Samuel Wood, medical director of The Reproductive Sciences Center near UTC. Wood, a veteran of the fertility field, is well versed not only in the science that can turn a childless couple into a full family, but also in the emotional toll going through such an experience can take. He uses his master’s in psychology as much as he does his Ph.D. in biochemistry and his MD with the patients who come to him for help.
“There’s a large psychological component to infertility,” Wood said. “Being diagnosed as infertile is the same psychologically as receiving a diagnosis of cancer. And yet, if you have cancer, insurance companies, the government, everybody steps up to help you. That’s not true with infertility. It’s considered a cosmetic procedure by most insurance companies, but having a child is a major life goal for a vast majority of men and women, and when you take that away, it’s a tremendous loss.”
Part of the difficulty of an infertility diagnosis, Wood said, has to do with the isolation felt by many couples. Every child they see, he said, can be a sign of something they don’t have, something missing from their life, and the resulting depression can be very difficult to relate to family and friends.
But Wood is in the business of hope. Each patient that walks through his doors presents a new challenge to be overcome. He looks at each one as a success story waiting to happen.
“The truth is with modern fertility treatments, there is no reason that anyone cannot have a baby,” he said confidently. “I have never met anyone who couldn’t. Some might give up before they do, but if you walk in here and tell me you want to have a baby, I tell you you’re going to have one.”
Wood is able to make such a sweeping statement mostly because of enormous strides made in fertility research in recent years. In the past, he explained, in vitro fertilization was used almost exclusively for women whose fallopian tubes were blocked (it can now be used to combat a number of issues resulting in infertility). Men, meanwhile, were out of luck, Wood said, if they had a low sperm count. Now, with the advent of intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), nearly any man can be a biological father. Additionally, egg donation meant any woman with a normal uterus could bear a child, while the rise of surrogacy gave those without a uterus hope.
“This field is changing constantly,” Wood said. “With many fields of medicine, change is slow. But with this field, there are so many remarkable things that have happened over the last 30 or 40 years, and it’s just a question of what’s coming next.”
Even more recently, innovations like egg freezing have “dramatically changed the field,” Wood said. A new technique known as vitrification has made it increasingly easy to freeze a woman’s eggs.
“It used to be that, unless a woman wanted to have a child on her own, she had to wait until she found the right partner,” he said. “Many would end up with no chance of having a biological child or with increased risks. Now women who might not have the right partner or who feel it’s not the right time in her life can come in and freeze her eggs. Her biological clock is frozen the day she freezes those eggs, which really frees her up. If you freeze your eggs when you’re 33, they stay 33 no matter how old you are when you decide to implant them. The chronological age of the woman doesn’t matter — the age of the egg is what matters.”
Other advances have been made behind the scenes, after the patient has done his or her part. Comprehensive testing of embryos has drastically reduced the rate of failed embryo implantations, as the tests weed out embryos with minor problems that might prevent them from “sticking” in the woman’s uterus. Wood’s clinic, meanwhile, is perhaps the first in San Diego to use the practice of time-lapse photography to monitor embryos through their various stages, thus giving a further glimpse into the health of embryos and making the process that much more efficient.
“It used to be that you would put the sperm and egg together. You come back a while later and see they’ve fertilized,” Wood said. “But you don’t want to take them out too often, so you come back after a few days and look at it again, and one [embryo] might look good and another bad. Then you come back after another day and it’s reversed — the one that looked bad now looks good. With time-lapse photography, we see the whole picture. All kinds of bad decisions were being made about which embryos to put in, because there are signs you never see. Now, we see them go through these strange stages that you would have to just be lucky to see before, and it could mean the success or failure of the embryo.”
His clinic, Wood said, is exceptional in the industry for more than just time-lapse photography. Many in vitro clinics operate as “mills,” he said, churning out as many patients as possible. And he should know — his own clinic, when he started out 20 years ago, was just such a mill. When he opened his practice, he had no patients. But within 18 months, his was one of the largest clinics in the area. He was performing upward of 350 IVF cycles a year, and feeling like he didn’t know any of his patients personally. It reminded him why he got into medicine — his own outrage at the doctors who had treated his mother for diabetes, who, he felt, hadn’t given her any personal attention, leading to her eventual decline and death. Wood decided he couldn’t run a medical practice that didn’t make personal attention one of its main tenets.
“There was no individualization, no personal time for anyone [when I started out],” he said. “We were doing so many cycles a year, and one day, I passed a couple walking down the hall. I vaguely recognized them, and they were holding twins. I could not remember what their story was, and it really bothered me. I did not go into medicine for this. I wanted to take care of every patient really well, just as I wished someone had done with my mother.”
Wood downsized his patient load and adopted a policy of treating patients like family. Now his facility is, by design, a “boutique size” clinic. The concept seems to be working. One wall of Wood’s reception room boasts a huge world map, with pins stuck in locations all over the globe. They represent, Wood said, the people who have had babies with the help of The Reproductive Sciences Center. The pins are present on every continent except Antarctica.
“The five millionth baby from IVF and fertility treatments was recently born,” Wood said. “That’s pretty amazing. That’s a lot of dreams fulfilled. There has been a striking change in the practice of infertility from when I started. It’s true that no matter what you do, there’s no 100 percent chance, but my goal is that no one leaves here without a baby. That’s what matters to me.”
The Reproductive Sciences Center is located at 4150 Regents Park Row, Suite 280. Visit fertile.com for more information.