SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. — “1 in 8 couples in the United States is going to experience infertility in some format. And just the barrier of getting treatment is so hard because it just costs so much.”
What should be a joyous moment in life becomes an emotional and oftentimes financial struggle, especially in the face of infertility.
Stephen and Leah Russell are just like any other couple. They began talking about kids before they were married and after more than a year of trying, they saw a doctor. Because of their young age, it took multiple doctor visits before they found one who would take their case and what they discovered was hard to hear.
“It seems to be everyone when they get the news that they need IVF, they have the same reaction I had. We can't afford this,” Leah recalled.
The Russells know these struggles firsthand. One round of in-vitro fertilization or IVF, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. They've been through three.
“Infertility is not covered by most insurance plans,” Leah said. “There are less than a dozen states in the United States that have a mandate that it even needs to be offered.”
Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are not among that list.
“Even if I wanted to go and buy and insurance plan and pay out-of-pocket for it, it pretty much does not exist,” she said. Leah spent countless hours doing research on insurance with infertility coverage.
The Russells had to take out a new loan on their car to afford their first round of IVF. That took place in September of 2017. They went through an embryo transfer, but it didn’t work. It took them nearly two years to try again.
To afford their second round, they applied for grants, friends from across the country and even around the world held fundraisers. Stephen and Leah saved every penny they could to afford for their second IVF round which happened in January 2019.
“When we finished two, we kind of hit a spot where we thought we were done because we could not afford it anymore,” Leah recalled. “We didn't want to be done. Emotionally, we wanted to do more, but we were too young, we didn't make enough money. We just don't have our lives together enough to have that amount of cash available and we thought we were done.”
But that wasn’t the end of their journey. Leah was hired at a company that offers IVF treatment with their insurance coverage. While her entire paycheck does go to her insurance costs, having coverage at all for round three was a game-changer. What would have cost them $2,000 just for shots, cost less than $200 with insurance.
“When they said $160, I don't want to say it was life-changing because that sounds very dramatic, but it really was because it was such a big difference from what we had experienced before,” Leah said. “I didn't need special funding for that. I could just pay that with our normal weekly paycheck. It wasn't this thing that greatly impacted our life. We were able to just go forward with it and that was really exciting.”
Round 3 of IVF for the Russell’s took place in December of 2019 and that cycle again, didn’t work.
“It was very unsettling, and it also happened on Christmas Eve,” Leah said. “So, we had gone into this hoping for that joyous Christmas magic that you experienced as a child and just found the opposite.”
“You just kind of break down and you ask yourself, why are you doing this? Why are we going through so much pain and suffering because it does take a massive toll on her body,” Stephen said of the treatments, shots and procedures Leah has to go through for each IVF round. "I think it always just comes back to that we really do want to have biological children and that's something that is important to both of us," he said.
Through the highs and lows and their fight for affordable care, this journey has given the Russells something they weren’t expecting: a voice.
“Through this, I feel like infertility for me has really tested my strength and my happiness and it's really made me sometimes not like myself very much or not like my situation and it's just a very dark thing. But I knew the one thing that it couldn't take away was my voice,” Leah said. “So I wanted to take my voice and share our story so that anyone out there who is reading, even if they don't feel safe talking about it yet, can just hear that someone else is going through this and here is how they deal with it and hopefully, I can help someone else and if I can get that out of this, then it was all worth it to be to be able to impact someone’s life.”
Leah has taken to Facebook to share their journey, connecting with other women and other couples around the globe who have and who are also experiencing infertility and friends who just want to offer their support.
Stephen and Leah have also become involved with Conceive Nebraska, which holds a Walk for Infertility in Omaha each year.
This journey has brought them closer to others who have fought the same battle they are currently fighting. It’s also brought them closer as a couple.
“I had this moment where I sat down and thought to myself... this can either tear us apart or it can make us stronger. And I decided that I wanted it to make us stronger,” Leah said.
Stephen agreed, “I think we actually help each other by reassuring each other that it is okay and it's not our fault. It's just... reassure each other a lot and comfort each other when we are at the lowest point and just support each other and hold each other up.”
“I would not choose this journey, ever. If somebody came to me and said... hey, you can be fertile, I would do it in a second. I would not want to go through this anymore,” said Leah. “But if the choice was having him in my life for being fertile, I would take infertility with him any day. As long as I have him in my life, I have everything I need, and we can get through this together. But I would take living childless with him over having children with anyone else and I think knowing that is really important.”
“If it never happens,” Stephen said, “that's okay because we have each other.”
Both Stephen and Leah are going through more medical tests as they prepare for what they hope is Round 4 of IVF. While they don't know for certain what their future holds, they do know that they will always have each other to lean on.
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