Infertility Stories: Miss California, a Stuntman, and a lot of Awareness
After experiencing multiple infertility issues, Heather is using her platform to empower others.
Heather and Chris are a powerhouse couple. One is a beauty queen and the other has a thrill for adventure. Care to guess who is who? I met Heather a few years prior in Washington DC for a US family building advocacy fly in. In a room filled with hundreds of family building advocates, she stood out. With a beaming smile, and adorning pageantry crown and sash she was not someone I would have guessed that would be openly advocating for family building legislation.
Heather made a decision to use her voice and platform to empower others to talk about infertility and that this disease can impact anyone. She turned her past wounds into awareness and used her own personal experiences to educate future generations about advocating for their own reproductive health.
Here is what Heather had to share when I asked her to get personal with FertilitySmarts:
Let’s Get Personal With Heather Denison
This is us:
My husband, Chris, and I will be celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary this year! We met in college in Illinois and shortly afterward we started dating. Chris was hired to work as a motorcycle magazine editor in California. His background with motorcycles, scuba diving, and Krav Maga eventually led him to become a stuntman in Hollywood where he’s worked on many major motion pictures.
Ever since I was a little kid, my dream was to become a teacher. I think kids are the most hysterical, interesting, and inquisitive people on the planet. Their curiosity and spark are unmatched. My love of children prompted me to earn a master’s degree in Elementary Education. I taught kindergarten for four years, and fifth grade for three.
Things that bring me joy, include baking and decorating cakes and cookies, circuit training (to work off the baked goods), and pageants. I have a strong love of pageantry because it combines some of my favorite things—philanthropy, glam, and goal setting. I was given the opportunity to represent the Golden State twice as Mrs. California America 2014 and Mrs. California United States 2017. In pageantry, contestants have a “platform” issue that is something they promote throughout their year. As you could probably guess, infertility support and advocacy are near and dear to my heart. I’m grateful for my experience in pageants because it’s given me a chance to spread awareness about infertility.
How Our Fertility Journey Started
After being pretty laid back about birth control for a few years, Chris and I started actively trying for kids in our late 20s. Months of failed attempts later, we finally booked a visit with a reproductive endocrinologist (RE). Come to find out, we were shocked to be diagnosed with dual factor infertility. We both come from large families and neither one of us had any apparent indications we would be infertile. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and much later learned I also had adenomyosis. Chris was diagnosed with azoospermia, congenital absence of the vas deferens, and a carrier for cystic fibrosis. We’re a hodgepodge of fertility issues.
With our combined conditions, it was clear we would never be able to conceive naturally. Our RE fast-tracked us into beginning in vitro fertilization (IVF). My naïveté about the intensity of the process was quickly shattered as the daily rounds of shots became routine. Meanwhile, most men have the awkward experience of…ahem…producing a sperm sample in a fertility clinic. However, due to his absence of the vas deferens, Chris went through an even more hands-on approach. He was scheduled for a surgical sperm extraction (TESE) around the same time as my egg retrieval. We were devastated when the urologist told us we had only six sperm to work with. SIX. They fertilized my eggs with what sperm they could find, and we crossed all our fingers and toes as we waited for an embryo report. One little embryo made it to the fifth day of development. After transfer, we learned we had a chemical pregnancy. It was completely heart wrenching. I still can’t think about it without tearing up.
As many couples discover, infertility shows no mercy.
Our RE wanted us to side-step the issues with Chris’s sperm and search for a donor. The urologist wasn’t ready to give up hope yet. He came up with a game plan—for three months he put Chris on Clomid which made him moody and supplements that were so strong they made him regularly nauseous. We started shopping for a new RE who would agree to let us keep trying with Chris’s sperm. Through our interviews, we found a doctor who thought my PCOS needed more careful consideration, as well. We decided to move forward with round two with our new RE.
At Chris’s second TESE, the urologist reported his sperm sample looked NORMAL. What!? I burst into happy tears. FINALLY—a little hope was on the horizon. We were able to get four PGS normal embryos from that round. We transferred our best embryo and hoped for the best.
We were thrilled when we learned we were pregnant! It was a rollercoaster ride—we were excited, nervous, and still guarded by our emotions. At about six weeks, I started bleeding. We were absolutely terrified. I was diagnosed with adenomyosis put on bedrest for most of my first trimester.
I’m so happy to report that pregnancy was a success. Despite the months of nail-biting anxiety, our little miracle made his entrance into the world in a grand fashion. His presence in our lives suddenly made everything we’d been through seem completely worth it. He’s a very special kiddo, and we recently celebrated his second birthday.
Where are we now?
Last fall, we tried a frozen embryo transfer with another one of our PGS tested embryos. We were pretty crushed when we found out the cycle was unsuccessful. Our RE wanted to keep our momentum going and try another cycle right after. When we found out the results would be delivered a few days before Christmas, we decided it would be better to postpone. We don’t think it’s any coincidence that on Christmas day we received a phone call from a dear friend who was looking to help her sister place her unborn baby a loving adoptive family. Of course, we accepted the offer! We now have a beautiful healthy baby girl added to our family.
What I Want You to Know
I want people to remember to give grace! If you know someone struggling with infertility, unless you’ve gone through it firsthand you likely have ZERO idea what it feels like. You may imagine or think hypothetically about their situation, but I promise you it’s different when you’re living it.
I like to tell a story to people, and I always feel like I’m tattling on myself, but it illustrates this point well. Before our diagnoses, back in my days of blissful ignorance about infertility, one of my friends confessed to me over lunch her experience of going through intrauterine insemination (IUI) to try to have a baby. Thankfully, I wasn’t a complete poop-head, and I listened compassionately and tried to sympathize. But you know what I did? I went home and I told my husband, “That sounds like hell, and if we were ever in that situation we’d ‘just adopt.’”
I had it all figured out, didn’t I? You now know what we did when we found out we were infertile, so clearly, I still had a lot to learn. My point is, none of us have all the answers and it’s silly for us to think we do. Give those struggling with infertility support and empower them to come to the conclusion of what is best for their family and their unique situation.
Let’s Talk Money
- Treatment: $50,000
- Adoption (so far): approx. $20,000
- Grand total: $70,000
Our Infertility in Numbers
- 2 infertile people
- 5 diagnoses
- 2 IVF Cycles
- 2 TESE procedures
- 4 PGS tested embryos
- 3 FETs
- 1 chemical pregnancy
- 1 failed cycle
- 1 miracle baby
- 1 adoption
- 4 hopeful family members
You can read more about Heather and Chris on their blog, Meet the Hopefuls.
Do you have a story you'd like share? We'd love to hear from you.
Written by Candace Wohl | Award-Winning Blogger & Infertility Advocate
Candace Wohl is a writer, infertility advocate, speaker and mother through surrogacy. She is a co-author of the award-winning blog, Our Misconception, that has received a prestigious RESOLVE Hope Award for Best Blog, along with being recognized by Healthline as a Top Infertility Blog. Candace and her husband were also featured on MTV’s True Life, “I’m Desperate to Have a Baby,” a documentary on couples who struggle with infertility and MTV’s Check-Ups and Check-Ins. As an active volunteer for RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, she also leads a RESOLVE local support group, helping couples who are struggling with infertility and miscarriage, along with other advocacy work. She has been featured in numerous publications including Cosmopolitan magazine and Huffington Post.