FeaturesFeb/Mar 2013 Issue

Why Can’t We Have a Baby? Celiac Disease and Conception

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When Marisa and Doug Horowitz-Jaffe decided to start a family, they didn’t expect to have trouble. “There weren’t any red flags,” says Marisa, then 30. But after six months of well-timed trying and no signs of pregnancy, the couple went for help.

Doctors discovered Marisa had a blocked fallopian tube and they were optimistic that in-vitro fertilization (IVF) would successfully treat the problem. IVF is a procedure that circumvents blocked tubes by fertilizing a woman’s eggs outside her body (in a lab), transferring the resulting embryo back into her uterus a few days after fertilization.

Days after undergoing IVF treatment, an overjoyed Marisa knew she was pregnant, sensing it before the blood test could confirm it. But her bliss was short-lived. At her first ultrasound, doctors couldn’t find the gestational sac—where the baby develops in the uterus—and it was declared a chemical pregnancy, also known as an early miscarriage.

Marisa and Doug grieved the only way they knew how—they jumped right back on the IVF bandwagon. Over the next five years, the couple traveled from their home in Bronxville, New York, to several of the top fertility clinics around the country. Marisa underwent nine more cycles of IVF and suffered three additional miscarriages. During her eighth IVF cycle, she experienced a particularly devastating miscarriage—a son—at 20 weeks along.

As the couple mourned again, doctors revised their original diagnosis from blocked tubes (also called tubal factor infertility, a fairly straightforward diagnosis) to unexplained infertility, a label that was hard for Marisa to accept.

“It’s an unknown enemy,” she says. “How does one fight it?”

Marisa and Doug decided to press on with IVF at another fertility clinic—their fifth—and they also began researching the possibility of using a gestational carrier to carry their donor egg and donor sperm. (A gestational carrier is a woman who carries a baby not genetically her own.) In addition, they signed up with three adoption agencies. Then a phone call came that changed everything.

Marisa’s sister had just seen an episode of The Dr. Oz Show that featured celiac advocate and The View co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck, now a mother of three, spoke about her struggle with infertility prior to being diagnosed with celiac disease.

“You’ve tried everything,” Marisa’s sister said, encouraging her to get tested. “What’s one more blood test?”

A few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve 2009, Marisa learned she had celiac disease.

Her new doctor, a celiac specialist, told her to go gluten free for six months and then try to conceive naturally. “You may not actually have a fertility problem,” she said to the couple.

“It was too much to process,” recalls Marisa. “I’d been through so much…five years, ten IVFs and untold emotional and financial damage. Even though I knew celiac was a big deal, I thought, how could it be this simple? So I just stop eating gluten and I can get pregnant?”

Next: Knowing Where to Look

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