“You must be the most interesting couple I’ve treated,” my OB remarked. Embarrassed at the flattery I replied, “Well, you come highly recommended.”
This was not your average first pre-natal appointment. For one thing, I was already 11 weeks pregnant only a few weeks away from my second trimester. Most women see their OB for the first time at week 6 or 7 weeks. And I had come bearing a large stack of medical files — in Hebrew.
On the drive there, I had mentally prepared myself to retell my story for what seemed the hundredth time. Yet, this was the most important telling and I wanted to get all the details right because this was finally the person who would be assisting me on my journey to motherhood and delivering my baby into the world. So I started from the top, careful not to leave anything out:
Two years ago, my husband and I began seeking medical consultation for fertility problems. After a myriad of blood tests, check ups, and diagnoses which took about five months we were finally cleared to start a procedure called IUI – intrauterine insemination – where after receiving daily hormone shots to induce ovulation, a male sample is inserted directly into the uterus in hopes to increase its chances of unifying with the egg. We had this procedure done a total of 3 times over the course of several months. All 3 procedures proved to be unsuccessful. The doctors and nurses, all extremely kind and informative, explained to us that it might be time to try IVF – in vitro fertilization – where the embryo is created outside the body and then inserted into the uterus. This procedure is 50% effective (as opposed to IUI which is 20% effective) but also much more costly. As anyone who’s been through an extensive medical procedure knows, the procedure itself is simply one component. There is also the nightmarish obligation of dealing with health insurance, medical bills, and specialty medications.
After speaking to the clinic’s financial advisor, I understood just how costly the procedure was. And although, the doctor had tried to get us into a medical study which would have covered the cost of at least one cycle and the nurse had offered some financial aid options in addition to the payment and loan brochures the advisor had mailed, I was still gaping at the price tag. It’s times like these where crazy thoughts begin to seem justified… so I called my husband and after explaining to him the enormous amount it would cost us to try to have a baby (because who knew how many IVF cycles we would need), I prefaced my outlandish idea with “This may be crazy but….” and “Why don’t we think about doing IVF in Israel?”
Israel is one of the few countries in the world that subsidizes IVF costs. In general, Israel has a progressive health care system with costs that are affordable when compared to other parts of the world. These factors have encouraged medical tourism for fields as far ranging as dentistry to fertility.
My husband reassured me that, in fact, my crazy idea might not be so crazy after all. We discussed it with my parents who were helping us cover the costs of the treatment and were Israelis themselves although having lived in the States for over 20 years.
That is how we wound up on a plane to Israel a mere 2 months after my crazy idea.
We made our way to Herzliya, the town where we had first met 6 years ago while both studying at the college there, and also the location of a very reputable hospital. It was a difficult time to be in Israel. Gil-ad Schaer, Eyal Yifrah, and Naftali Fraenkel had been recently kidnapped and the police and military were still scanning the area for any sight of the boys or their captors. However, my husband and I were no strangers to the ups and downs of life in Israel. He had lived in Israel for 10 consecutive years and had served in the elite airborne Special Forces unit of the military. I had visited Israel on and off since I was a toddler, having been born to Israelis living abroad, in addition to going to college in Herzliya and living in Israel for several years.
A mere two days after we arrived, my husband received a phone call from the reserves department of the military. He did, after all, have the same phone number as he had had when we were living in Israel two years prior.
“They wanted to verify contact information,” he told me.
“How did they know you were in the country?” I asked.
“I don’t know. They must get updated from immigration at the airport,” he responded. I gave him the stink eye, the same look I had given him when he had asked me back in the States if he should pack his army boots ‘just in case’.
We didn’t think much of the phone call. Things went on as normal, or as normal as they could be when you arrive in the Middle East to undergo fertility treatment. We met with the head nurse and our doctor. I began going in for monitoring on a daily basis, where they draw blood to track hormone levels and do an internal ultrasound to measure follicle size. Every evening, my husband would inject me with the medication.
Unfortunately, the situation in Israel escalated. The boys’ bodies had been found and the country was in a state of mourning. Rocket fire from Gaza was creeping closer and closer to the center of the country. It was during that first week of treatment that I was standing at the Lod train station waiting to head back to Herzliya when suddenly an air raid siren went off. What do I do? My heart pounded and I looked around me in bewilderment. I saw everyone heading for the stairwell so I did the same and we crowded into the concrete tunnel that ran between the tracks. I reached for my phone trembling but it froze. I had no way to reach my husband or my parents in the States. The siren subsided then we heard a boom in the distance, which I would find out later, is an indication that Israel’s Iron Dome technology successfully intercepted the rocket. The crowd began to disperse and I made my way back to the track.
On the train to Herzliya, I finally reached my parents in the States and told them that I was okay. I kept the conversation brief because I had yet to speak to my husband. I called him to tell him the news – there had been a siren in Lod but I was fine and I was on my way home. “I also have some news,” he told me, “My unit received a Tsav 8, immediate call up.” “Okay…” The news took me by surprise. We were meant to be in Israel for only three months, we were here seeking medical treatment, it was a pseudo-vacation even though both of us were continuing to work… how could they call him up for reserve duty if we didn’t even live in the country any longer?
The next day we went shopping for all the gear that my husband had left in the States – army boots, thick socks, warm clothes, waterproof pocket liners. I pasted a smile on my face as he held up various options asking for my opinion. I wasn’t about to stop him from going. I knew that it was out of our control. The least I could do was make sure he wasn’t worried about me while he was out there.
The following day, we went to the hospital to make arrangements for the treatment to continue even if my husband was not physically present. On our way out we thanked the nurses and the staff. With typical Israeli camaraderie, they responded “No, we should thank you for protecting us.”
Several days later, I borrowed a car from a friend. We drove to Tel Aviv where we stopped at a friend’s apartment to pick up spare uniforms and clothing to substitute for what we had left back home. We made a second stop to pick up another friend who was always up for an adventure. This way I would have someone to keep me company on the drive back. My friend helped keep the mood light on the way down South, joking with us and filling us in on what everyone was up to recently. After all, we had been out of the country for two years.
We arrived at the base close to midnight. Thankfully there were no sirens on our way down. The late hour didn’t seem to make a difference. A handful of girlfriends, wives, and moms still stood in the parking lot talking to their soldiers, handing them hot pizza and soft drinks. We got out of the car and walked towards the main gate. My friend held back to give us a moment to say our goodbyes.
I hugged my husband and told him I loved him. He told me to message him all the time with updates about my treatment and that he would try to call as frequently as possible. We hugged again and I watched as he passed through the gate to the other side of the base.
The morning after I made my way to the hospital for daily monitoring. In the afternoon, a nurse called me with the results and instructed me on what medicines to take. It was time to move on to the larger dosages. “It’s not fair,” I thought, “My husband was supposed to be here for these injections.”
I filled my days sitting at cafes, working on my computer, and meeting up with friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I did everything to try to get my mind off the situation but whatever fun activity filled my day it didn’t detract from coming home to an empty rental apartment and having to inject myself with two large shots. I cried. Like clockwork. Every day around nightfall I found myself coming home, injecting myself, and breaking into tears. Sometimes the tears started before the injections, sometimes after. I had so many invitations from close friends and family to come stay with them but I had to stay in Herzliya where the hospital was so I could make it to monitoring every morning.
My husband called me one afternoon towards the end of his first week on base. “We have to hand in our phones,” he said. “What does that mean?” I asked. “I won’t be able to talk to you for a few days and I’m not sure when I’ll be getting my phone back.” I didn’t like the sound of this one bit. I told him to come home, that we would go back to the States. I could hear the pain in his voice. “There’s not much I can do. I love you.” And with that, we hung up.
That evening, I met a friend for dinner trying to forget about the conversation I had had earlier. After dinner, I returned to my apartment and my usual routine. Shots, tears… I decided to turn the TV on to try and distract me. What I saw on the TV was not a distraction. Israel had entered Gaza. An operation had begun. Now I understood why my husband no longer had phone access.
I tried to get some rest but I couldn’t sleep. Crying, I called my mom in America. I was so scared and I felt so alone.
Having your child call you in the middle of the night hysterically crying while they are 3,000 miles away is the last thing any parent wants. My mom did what any worried Jewish mother would do. She bought a plane ticket.
Shabbat came and went. On Sunday I was ready for egg retrieval. A close family friend accompanied me to the hospital. We sat in the waiting room of the IVF department. The TV was on with its 24-hour news coverage. All eyes were glued to the screen. I looked around soaking in the strange reality of my situation. I sat amongst tourists and locals; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We were all there for the same reason — to start a family. What an unusual environment to be trying to bring a child into the world.
A nurse called me back to a room full of hospital beds. She explained the egg retrieval procedure as she took my vitals. I met with the anesthesiologist who reviewed with me the risks of general anesthesia and then I was called in to the surgery room.
A short half hour later, I was waking up to good news. My mom had landed at Ben Gurion Airport. She would meet us at our friend’s home who had accompanied me to the hospital. A mere day later and her flight would have been grounded — a measure taken by several international airlines due to the security situation.
The day after egg retrieval and my mom’s arrival, we received a phone call from the hospital. All seven of the eggs they had retrieved had successfully become embryos. Implantation would occur two days later.
I wanted so much to share the good news with my husband. Instead, I ended up sharing the news with the group of girlfriends and wives from his unit. We had formed a support group communicating through the popular message forum, WhatsApp. One of the girls in the group had a contact at the command center of the unit. He would inform her each day that everyone in the unit was safe and that no one had been injured. She would relay the updates to our group so we could all sleep a little better at night.
After two days, I returned to the hospital this time with my mom by my side. We followed the nurse into a special room for implantation. It looked like a normal gynecological exam room but with a special window in one wall that led to the laboratory. My mom laughed at how far technology had come since she had had kids and snapped some photos on her iPhone of me in my hospital gown so my husband would see what he was missing.
The doctor came in and checked that the specimen was indeed mine. In a matter of seconds, we saw the tiny embryo be released into the uterus on the ultrasound screen. “Like a shooting star,” my mom commented smiling.
Next was the dreaded two week wait. Every woman who’s been through this procedure knows, no matter how difficult the shots are, nothing beats the two week wait. Every inkling leaves you wondering ‘is that the embryo burrowing itself into the uterine walls?’ You drive yourself crazy trying not to get too positive but also trying not to be too negative.
My mom kept me busy during this period taking me out to restaurants, movies, and museums trying to get my mind off of not speaking to my husband and waiting for the next stage of my treatment.
The Friday before my pregnancy test, I met up with the other girlfriends and wives of his unit. We went to the Shuk in Tel Aviv to buy items for care packages to send to our soldiers. We bought all their favorite snacks – candies, dried fruit, nuts. We asked one candy shop owner for empty cardboard boxes to package everything. “For soldiers?” he asked. He disappeared into the back and returned with a few boxes and two huge chocolate bars the size of computer screens. “On the house,” he said. We packaged everything as girls do – with lots of hearts and sparkles, effort and love. We then dropped them off at one of the soldier’s homes who was working in the unit’s command center and happened to be home for the weekend.
That Friday night, I went to turn my phone off before Shabbat. I noticed I had an unread message on WhatsApp. My husband’s unit was being brought back to the base that night! Finally, after three weeks in the field, the boys would be able to take showers and charge their phones! All the girlfriends and families were heading down South to the base on Saturday to see them. I was so upset. I had no way of getting there and I wasn’t about to travel on Shabbat. I turned my phone off knowing that my husband would probably be turning his on in a few hours.
Shabbat was difficult. I had dinner with my mom and her cousin. They tried to take my mind off of the situation. The next day I walked to the friend’s house who had leant me her car almost a month ago to drive my husband to the base. I ate lunch with her family and stayed there chatting with her in-laws for hours. I arrived back at my apartment only forty minutes before Shabbat ended. The longest forty minutes of my life. I sat there watching the minute hand turn on the clock. At the first appearance of stars in the sky, I turned my phone on which began buzzing incessantly.
I called my husband immediately. No answer. Disappointed, I texted him. Then my phone rang. It was him! We spoke for so long. I asked him how he was and if he had had an opportunity to shower and eat. He said he got my package and thanked me for the dried mangoes, Turkish delight, and candied almonds. I asked him when he was coming home.
“I’m not sure”
“What do you mean? They would send you back in?”
“It seems that way.”
I was so upset. Not only had I missed my chance to go to the base to see him, now they were sending him back out there.
After close to an hour on the phone, I let my mom talk to him and then we said our goodbyes. I cried to her, upset about the situation.
Twenty minutes later I received a text message.
“We might be coming home tomorrow.”
I called him, thrilled. He didn’t pick up.
“What do you mean ‘might’?!” I texted back.
After what seemed like eternity, he called me back. “We’re coming home tomorrow,” he said. But he warned me that by the time they were debriefed and returned all their gear, he probably wouldn’t be back till late in the evening.
Early the next morning, I returned to the hospital for my pregnancy test. They drew blood that would be tested for HCG levels. Increased HCG is a sign of early pregnancy. I then prepared for the longest day of my life waiting for my husband to come home.
Around eleven at night, we agreed to meet in front of the grocery store where his friend from the unit would be dropping him off. I emerged from the grocery store with all his favorite foods. I saw a car stop right before the traffic circle in front of the grocery store. Out came my husband with a huge smile on his face and an equally huge beard.
We embraced, smiled at each other, then embraced again not paying attention to anyone passing by. To me, it was obvious with his giant bag of gear. People should know he was returning from reserve duty.
We walked back to the apartment holding hands, talking. I wanted to ask so many questions. I wanted him to tell me everything. But after such an experience, I wasn’t sure how much he’d be willing to share so soon. I let him lead the conversation.
I sent a picture of him and his big beard back to our friends in the States with a caption, “Look who’s back!”
The next day we met my mom for lunch. She hugged him, seeing him for the first time since she arrived in Israel almost three weeks ago. We sat down in the cafe, chatting, talking a little about the operation but trying to talk about happier topics. We asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, which as only a few days away.
After placing our order, the waitress brought over water. Suddenly my phone rang. I looked down at the screen not recognizing the number.
“Hello?” I answered hesitantly. It was the hospital. With the excitement of my husband returning, I had forgotten that I was supposed to receive my test results today.
The nurse said something in Hebrew I didn’t quite understand.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re pregnant!” she said, “The test was positive! Come back tomorrow so we can make sure your HCG levels are still doubling.”
I hung up in shock. “What?” my husband and mom asked in unison. “I’m pregnant…” I said very slowly trying to let the news sink in.
The next few minutes were a blur — shrieking and hugs, phone calls to our dads still in the States. My husband joked that he’s the only soldier happy to find out his wife conceived while he was away.
Several weeks later, our stay was coming to an end. All my tests had checked out and my pregnancy, though early, was progressing nicely. Exactly three months after we had arrived in Israel, we boarded a plane back to America.
Everyone was excited for us to come back. My mom had stocked our fridge with local produce from the farmer’s market and our friends decorated our front door with balloons and posters along with leaving us some homemade treats. No one, however, was more excited than me. I had my husband by my side, the spark of life growing inside of me after several years of trying, and I was heading back to the comfort of my apartment with all my possessions instead of living out of a suitcase as I had been doing for the last several months.
Six weeks after returning we got some more good news. My brother-in-law in Jerusalem was engaged and getting married in the coming months. The wedding was an opportunity to replace the memories of sirens, rocket fire, and invasive medical treatment with more positive experiences of dancing, merriment, and family. When I purchased the tickets to fly back during my 25th week, my husband – concerned about what the weather would be like during winter in Jerusalem – already had his suitcase open in our bedroom. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Should I pack my army boots?”