“All I’ve ever wanted is to be a mom,” says Stephanie Cartin, 35. “I was not going to let anything stop me from letting that happen.”
Cartin’s determination paid off. She and her husband, Greg Cartin, 44, welcomed baby Mollie Hope in May after a number of serious obstacles along the way.
The Upper East Side couple married in 2015. The following year, they decided to undergo genetic testing in preparation for starting a family and found out that Stephanie, who has multiple sclerosis, was a carrier for Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause severe developmental issues. Their fertility doctor suggested they use IVF so that they could screen out any affected embryos, but they worried about how the drugs associated with the procedure might affect Stephanie.
“We thought, ‘let’s try naturally for a year and see what happens,’” recalls Stephanie, who is the co-founder and co-CEO of social media and marketing agency SocialFly.
When they didn’t conceive on their own, they returned to the fertility doctor and tried intrauterine insemination (IUI) — a treatment in which a doctor places the sperm in a woman’s uterus, sometimes in conjunction with ovulation-stimulation medications.
“I wanted to avoid doing IVF if I could [because of] the expense and the hormones,” she says.
‘I basically diagnosed myself. I had to be my own best advocate.’
Their first round of IUI didn’t work, and Stephanie had bad side effects from a test.
“I got extremely sick,” she says. “This doctor was unresponsive, not calling me back, didn’t take it seriously.”
They decided it was time to find someone else to work with, and found another doctor who said they first needed to remove a polyp in her uterus. That surgery revealed that her entire uterine lining was covered in polyps, and a subsequent biopsy showed that she had chronic endometritis, an inflammation of the lining of the uterus.
Stephanie started antibiotics to deal with the infection, and then resumed trying to conceive through IUI. After several cycles were unsuccessful, it was time to try IVF.
In the summer of 2017, she had a successful egg removal, but a test also revealed that her infection had never fully cleared up — something she had long suspected. This time, she says, she was adamant about which antibiotics she take and for how long, having connected with other women online who had similar infections.
“I basically diagnosed myself,” she says. “I had to be my own best advocate.”
In October 2018, after the infection was cleared up, the embryo was successfully implanted and the Cartins were at long last pregnant.
“It was very exciting,” she says.
On their second checkup, they were elated to learn that the embryo had split and
Stephanie was pregnant with identical twin girls. (Fraternal twins are fairly common with IVF, as people sometimes choose to transfer multiple embryos, but identical twins are quite rare.)
“I was really grateful; we’d been through so much.”
Then, 16 ½ weeks into the pregnancy, the Cartins received some very bad news. They learned that they had Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS), a rare condition in which the blood vessels connecting identical twins to the shared placenta are abnormal, leading one twin to get the majority of the blood flow, putting both twins in grave danger.
“I’ve had a lot of worst days in my life… that was probably one of them,” says Stephanie.
They Cartins had to decide between terminating one of the twins or opting for a dangerous procedure known as fetoscopic laser surgery to repair the abnormal blood vessels. They needed to make a decision quickly, but Stephanie was insistent that she sleep on it.
“Those next few days were a complete hell,” she says. They decided to try to save both embryos.
“I was like, if there’s a chance, we’re going to try it,” she says. “I just could not do the termination.”
Both babies made it through the surgery, but sadly by the next morning they’d lost the smaller one.
“It was just terrible,” she says.
Then, a few days later, Stephanie was at home recovering when she started leaking amniotic fluid. Her amniotic sac had been punctured during the procedure and now the cushion that was supposed to nourish and protect her remaining baby was dangerously damaged. She was 17 ½ weeks pregnant at that point. Doctors noted that most people terminate the pregnancy in these circumstances, but Stephanie couldn’t bear it.
“I knew in my heart the baby would be OK even when I was told that when someone ruptured this early, most people will terminate,” she says. “That was never an option. She had a heartbeat and my husband and I had hope.”
Stephanie spent the next six weeks on bed rest, doing everything she could to remain positive and pregnant.
Those weeks “were extremely difficult,” she says. “There was so much unknown at that point … I’d celebrate every Friday where when we had made it another week and I did not get an infection.”
“We didn’t want to give up, but we weren’t being given much hope,” adds Greg. “We were in constant fear of what the doctor would say next.”
At 23 ½ weeks, Stephanie was admitted to New York Presbyterian Children’s Hospital for the remainder of her pregnancy.
“It was actually a big relief,” Stephanie says. “I’d now be monitored every day and if I did go into labor, I was in the safest place for myself and Mollie.”
For Greg, the emotional roller coaster was tough, but “nothing compared to what Stephanie had to contend with both mentally and physically,” he says. “She wanted to be a mom so badly, and the uncertainty as to whether or not that would happen made facing each day challenging. It pained me not be able to tell her with certainty that everything was going to be okay.”
Stephanie was also fortunate that a woman in similar circumstances who she’d met on Facebook was in the hospital at the same time.
“We developed a deep friendship,” she says. “There were days we both wouldn’t receive great news about our fluid levels or other complications and we were able to constantly encourage each other and focus on the end goal of bringing our babies safely into this world.”
Mollie was born at 33 weeks and 6 days, healthy and weighing 4 pounds, 13 ounces. She spent just two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit before the whole family could head home.
“I literally still cry every day looking at her. I’m just so, so lucky,” says Stephanie. “Even through everything we’ve been through, I still consider myself the luckiest person in the world.”
For Stephanie, the online communities made a huge difference to her ability to endure the process.
“I’ve made some of my closest friends over the past two years by being open and transparent about my journeys through Instagram,” she says. “Talking about what I was going through allowed me not to feel as alone and I was able to help others at the same time. There’s power in community. Just because a doctor has a white coat it doesn’t mean they have all of the answers. Talk to others who have gone to a doctor or clinic you are considering going to. Knowledge is power. I was not informed when I started my fertility journey. I was completely naive and felt alone. By sharing what I was going through, I learned from so many other women and because of them I am now a mom.”