IMAGINE doing 17 rounds of IVF, having 19 procedures, hundreds of painful injections and being more than $100,000 out-of-pocket, only to be told your only chance of becoming a parent is through surrogacy.
Australian couple John and Hannah* don't need to imagine.
The 37-year-olds are living this "nightmare" and now face the uncertain journey of trying to find a surrogate to make their dream of becoming parents come true.
The couple contacted me after reading a story I wrote on a Queensland woman whose sister-in-law has offered to be her surrogate because a medical condition prevents her from carrying a baby.
They reached out to see if I had any information on surrogacy I could share with them. It was a last ditch effort. An SOS call.
I offered to help tell their story.
And it is heart wrenching. It is exhausting but their resilience, their faith, their selflessness is remarkable.
This is their story.
IVF before marriage
"John and I have been together for four and a half years, married for three and a half of those.
"We started trying to get pregnant before we got married but I had an inkling something wasn't normal, an intuition.
"We went and saw a specialist and the specialist laughed and said they'd 'done bloods' and 'you guys are an easy case'.
"We really thought we'd be having a baby within a year of getting married.
"Just before we got married I was doing hormone injections for our first round of IVF.
"We thought it was going to be an easy process. You hear on the radio ads for clinics that say they have a high success rate, you hear of people falling pregnant within a few rounds.
"I'm pretty resilient and thought I could handle not falling pregnant after the first few rounds of IVF but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think after 17 cycles - 12 stimulated and five frozen embryo transfers - that we would still be in this nightmare."
"On the fifth cycle I produced 12 eggs and we made six embryos.
"On day one the nurses called and told us but said some didn't look like they'd survive.
"Come day three out of those six embryos only one survived and the nurses said 'we don't think we're going to make it to day five, so let's transfer it now'.
"A leading specialist in Victoria said they didn't think it would take so asked us to come in to look at how we tackled the next cycle.
"I was predicting it wasn't going to work. I had my pen and paper ready to write down what to do next when the nurses called me a few days later when to my shock and disbelief she told me I was pregnant.
"I told my husband and we were so scared we were going to lose it to be excited.
"Each day after that I had to do daily blood tests to see if my HGC (pregnancy hormone) levels had increased and they were.
"After three weeks my husband said 'it's time to get excited' and that night I started bleeding.
"I went into hospital. I was still bleeding but they said there was a heartbeat.
"But after seven weeks they couldn't find a heartbeat."
The emotional toll
"You feel like you're living in a bubble. Your eyes are moving but you're paralysed and you're watching everyone living life.
"If you ask most women what they treasure most and they say their families.
"Maybe I'm being selfish but I would love that opportunity.
"I don't take away from anyone else's pain. I understand there are people in worse situations than me and I pray for them every day and that someday they will have the joy of having a baby.
"I've done 17 rounds of IVF, had 19 procedures and hundreds of injections but I don't care about the pain. If this is my journey so be it. I can't lose faith and hope.
"But I do feel like I'm not worthy. I occasionally work with foster kids hoping I can make a small difference in their lives.
"I've also been to see herbalists, naturopaths, tried acupuncture, Chinese medicine, kinesiology, everything.
"I have a wonderful family who give us so much love and support. I can't thank them enough.
"But this is not something you share with everybody. You don't go to lunch and say 'I've spent a week in hospital after a procedure, I vomit at night from some of the medications, the patches give me headaches'.
"And sometimes people's curiosity hurts. People ask why we haven't had kids.
"My manager constantly tells me 'I don't know how you do it. You come in and smile and you wouldn't know what is going on'.
"I try to remain strong but I am only human and that can sometimes be hard.
"My work has been so supportive. I don't want my work and colleagues to suffer. I enjoy the company. I enjoy the distraction.
"My husband is also a great support. He tries to be strong for me. He is working interstate trying to earn as much money as possible for the procedures."
The financial cost
"So far we have spent over $100,000 from our own pocket.
"Yes there is a Medicare rebate but Medicare doesn't rebate everything. A lot of the medication is not covered and some of the procedures.
"I have been on lots of meds that are simply not covered by Medicare.
"I tried this particular procedure they perform in Spain where they take stem cells from the blood and spin it and inject it into the uterus.
"I did this twice but that didn't work either."
"No one loves you like your mother and the pain I put my mum through…
"About a year and a half ago we had our twelfth egg collection. We thought it wasn't going to be a great round and we then got a call from the nurses, saying this was the best round yet. Nine embryos fertilised and surviving.
"We were so ecstatic and happy and we wanted to share it with family but because we had already put them through so much heartache we didn't want to tell them in case they didn't survive.
"All day all I wanted to do was call my mum. I went for a walk and I was walking for hours. I was just so happy.
"Then I got a call from my husband and he sounded so sad. He said 'you need to come home now, it's your mum'.
"That morning I got the greatest new I'd received in so long and that afternoon I got the worst news I could ever receive.
"My mum had died.I feel such a sense of guilt that perhaps it was all the worrying I had made her go through - she had a heart attack - I blame myself.
"I feel like I've taken my mum away from my family. I walk around with this guilt all the time.
"I just feel like I'm in a nightmare.
"I always say a positive attitude equals a positive outcome but sometimes reality hits and you realise what you are missing out on [children].
"I sometimes do question how many blows one person can take. A little mercy would be nice.
"It's broken my spirit. It is literally soul destroying.
"That moment when we had those embryos and that time I did fall pregnant I felt like I could breathe again.
"I don't want anyone to be discouraged to go through IVF. It has helped so many people. The medicine and technology and the remarkable specialists and nurses. But there is only so much they and medicine can do.
"And I want to tell people, if they are going through this, you need to trust your gut instinct and don't be afraid to speak up and question everything if it doesn't feel right. The docs have heard it before. They are there to answer all your questions."
The journey now
"When I go to hospital they know me on first time basis. I'm there four days a week.
"So far we've seen four specialists in Victoria and one interstate.
"For the past year and a half we have been trying to get my uterine lining thicker. My odds of holding a pregnancy are very slim.
"On our last round of IVF we made those nine embryos but only six made it to blastocyst (five days of fertilisation). We transferred one and it didn't take. So we have five embryos currently.
"Three months ago I travelled to Queensland and visited specialists up there. That's when the specialist said to me my only hope now is a surrogate.
"My husband couldn't take time off work so I was on my own, on a park bench, crying.
"These embryos are too precious to be transferring into me. In the 12 stimulated cycles, we've never had six embryos.
"So we are looking at surrogacy but the journey to finding a surrogate in Australia is a difficult one. I don't know where to start."
Looking for an altruistic surrogate
"Being a surrogate is the most selfless act a woman would do.
"I think a parent is a person that a child wakes up to and calls mummy or daddy. When you're teaching them morals, showing them the beautiful things this world has to offer, giving them a loving home - that is a parent.
"It doesn't matter what race or ethnicity, we're all humans and we deserve to be loved."
SURROGACY IN AUSTRALIA
Finding a surrogate is the first battle for many of Australian couples.
Altruistic surrogacy is the only type of surrogacy legal in Australia and it is illegal for couples looking for a surrogate to advertise wanting one - a ban Surrogacy Australia and Families Through Surrogacy are advocating to have lifted.
Families Through Surrogacy (FTS) global director Sam Everingham said they would also like to see a non-profit organisation empowered to screen and match intended parents and surrogates.
"It can be very difficult to locate an altruistic surrogate in Australia given there are so many intended parents looking and there are no services providing surrogate screening and matching."
Mr Everingham said couples should first make it known among friends and family that they are looking for a surrogate.
"They should join sites such as Fertility Connections and attend events such as the Families Through Surrogacy annual conference in June this year.
"I tend to advise intended parents to spend at least six months on the search in Australia, via social media forums and friendship networks and if unsuccessful to consider offshore surrogacy in a well-regulated destination such as the US, Canada, Ukraine or Greece."
Altruistic surrogacy is when a surrogate receives no financial gain for carrying a child. The intended parents can only pay the out of pocket expenses such as medical costs, time off work and legal fees.
This can cost thousands of dollars - on top of IVF.
Mr Everingham said in Australia counselling fees can cost between $3000 and $5000, legal fees $13,000 to $20,000, embryo transfer and surrogate preparation fees of $6,000 per attempt and surrogate travel costs and other expenses $6,000 - $15,000.
"Assuming they find a surrogate they then have to engage separate lawyers and counsellors for all parties, undertake comprehensive counselling, have the surrogate medically reviewed and in most states have their application reviewed by an ethic committee before being allowed to transfer the first embryo."
Despite the costs, altruistic surrogacy is becoming more common in Australia.
"We are likely to have 40 births via altruistic surrogacy this year. However of the hundreds of families who approach FTS each year, or attend one of our educational events, 90% still find themselves having to look offshore because of the difficulties locating surrogates domestically," Mr Everingham said.
*Names changed for privacy reasons.
Alexia Purcell is News Regional Media's social media editor. You can connect with Alexia on her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/alexiajpurcell
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