Dr. Whitney Gaspard reveals what it’s like to go through IVF from an embryologist’s perspective.
Going through IVF can be stressful enough, but when you are also an embryologist at the fertility clinic where you are being treated, it really notches it up a bit.
Dr. Whitney Gaspard, embryologist at Fertility Answers IVF labs, has dedicated the better part of her adult life training to be an embryologist. In this line of work, Whitney has a front row seat to see the wonders of human fertilization and embryo development. Routine parts of her job include fertilizing eggs with sperm using intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), culturing embryos to blastocyst stage, and biopsying embryos for genetic testing. It is exacting and tedious work, and she loves every minute of it.
“Being on the inside can be good and bad,” says Whitney. Good, she says, because it gave her a different perspective that she would not have had otherwise. Being the patient rather than the scientist helped her understand what fertility patients go through. But on the flip side, being so close to “the action” and knowing first-hand the intricacies of embryology can make it that more stressful when it’s your embryo.
AMH testing prompted proactive steps
Whitney and and her husband Dustin married back in 2012, but they put off having a family while Whitney concentrated on obtaining her PhD from LSU in Animal and Dairy Sciences with a concentration in Reproductive Physiology and Biotechnology and Dustin built his career in construction management. While working on her advanced degree, Whitney also started working for Fertility Answers/Ovation Fertility in the IVF lab in 2017.
While working at Fertility Answers, Whitney took advantage of testing her AMH levels during National Infertility Awareness Week when the clinic often runs specials for this to increase fertility awareness. An AMH test can give an indication of a woman’s remaining egg supply and her fertility potential, an important test to do if you are a woman putting off a family for a career. The first year Whitney took the test, her AMH levels came back in normal ranges. The second year she took it, her levels had dropped a little bit, but were still in normal range. But by the third year, her AMH had dropped drastically to levels below ideal.
“I took the test and the implications really didn’t register until Dr. Storment approached me, concerned that I needed to be proactive,” says Whitney. At this point, she was around 34 years old and knew she shouldn’t wait much longer to start a family. She and Dustin actively started trying to conceive, but when nothing happened after 6 months, they had an official consult with Dr. Storment. After their consult, the couple decided to proceed directly to IVF so as not to waste any time.
Delays in treatment led to more gathering of information for eventual success
Their first stimulation in early 2019 was cancelled after Whitney responded a little too well to the medication that stimulates the production of mature egg follicles. But the second controlled stimulation in July of that year produced eleven eggs, ten of which were mature enough to fertilize. Of these ten, eight fertilized and seven of them matured to blastocyst stage, a stage where the embryo contains about a hundred cells. Pre-implantation genetic testing, PGT-A, came next, a procedure that biopsies a few cells from each embryo to determine if they have any chromosomal abnormalities, a common cause of failed IVF.
“As an embryologist and scientist, of course we chose to do PGT-A testing,” says Whitney. “I wanted to make sure we had every piece of information that would lead to the success of our IVF treatment.” Out of the seven blastocysts tested, four of them resulted in a normal chromosomal profile.
With four normal embryos, Whitney blew a sigh of relief. “The hard part about being so close to this is that I am so aware of everything that can happen to an embryo,” says Whitney. “Everyday in my job I see embryos that don’t develop or receive genetic reports that show its chromosomal makeup are not ideal. Or embryos that for some reason do not implant after transfer.”
After a few setbacks that delayed their embryo transfer, Whitney and Dustin were finally scheduled for a transfer in March 2020 when COVID-19 shut everything down. In hindsight, though, Whitney feels the delay was all for the better. While waiting for medical procedures to resume post-COVID, Whitney did two additional tests to ensure her body was ready to host a baby. First, she had an endometrial receptivity analysis biopsy done of her uterine lining. Every woman’s uterus is different in its response to hormone changes and this test indicates the ideal time that a woman’s endometrial lining is most receptive for embryo implantation. Whitney’s testing showed her lining was pre-receptive and they would need to adjust her progesterone and embryo transfer timeline accordingly.
The second test Whitney did while waiting to reschedule her embryo transfer was a saline ultrasound of her uterus to rule out any anatomical issues that might hinder an embryo to implant. To her surprise, the ultrasound showed a faint line indicating she likely had a uterine septum, a condition that could have caused her to miscarry if not detected and corrected with surgery. A uterine septum is a thin membrane that can separate the uterus and lead to repeated miscarriages if not surgically fixed.
“While COVID was a definite setback to our schedule, it allowed us to gather more information about my body and correct the septum to ensure that the eventual embryo transfer would be successful,” says Whitney. “I wanted a baby, like, yesterday. But looking back, all the delays and things I went through eventually helped to optimize our success.”
Looking inside out on IVF changed Whitney’s perspective
After much delay, that embryo transfer did happen in December 2020 and, two weeks later, Whitney and Dustin received the positive pregnancy test they had waited so long for. “Being on the patient side of an IVF cycle was an eye-opening experience for me,” says Whitney. “I feel it has enhanced how I look at my job, putting a human and emotional side to working with embryos. Working in a lab, we get little face-to-face time with patients, but now when I do get to interact with them this experience has definitely increased my empathy to their dreams and wishes. I think, overall, it’s made me a better embryologist.”
Whitney and Dustin welcomed their daughter Rowan in August 2021, an IVF journey that lasted over two years. “I’m just a little bit biased, but I think Rowan is Fertility Answers’s best work yet!” says Whitney. As for her “em-babies” frozen in liquid nitrogen just around the corner from her office, she feels lucky to get to take a peek at them now and again. “Ah, there you are babies, I’m watching out for you!”