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National Infertility Awareness Week Highlight: Shiraine and Barrett McLeod’s IVF Journey and the Quest to Challenge Stigma

Bintou Diarra | Editorial Lead | MS1: Alpert Medical School of Brown University | April 28, 2024

In 2021, Shiraine McLeod and Barrett McLeod decided to pursue having a baby. The two had been trying for four months, and each attempt was unsuccessful. While Shiraine consciously processed that four months fell below the threshold for infertility, she sensed that something was wrong. She and her husband had stopped using condoms years prior, and despite the lack of intentionality, Shiraine knew that the absence of an unintended pregnancy, when coupled with their recent experiences, was concerning for infertility.

The McLeods were certainly not alone in this experience. In a world where the narrative of conception is often shrouded in the imagery of joy and expectation, the reality of infertility remains unspoken, yet profoundly felt. In the United States, approximately one in eight couples struggle with infertility, which represents 6.7 million people each year. While these statistics paint a dismal picture, a few promising realities about the interplay between technology and family planning can provide hope to those looking to grow their families. In 85 to 90% of cases, infertility is treatable with conventional medical therapies, such as medication or surgery.

While the reality of infertility can breed feelings of demoralization, Shiraine was determined to explore every option. Leaning into her sense that something was the matter, she did some research and started learning about in vitro fertilization, or IVF. IVF is a fertility treatment that involves the retrieval of eggs from a birthing person’s ovaries, and subsequent fertilization in a laboratory setting. From there, Shiraine and Barrett would seek consultation through clinics. “I did some further research into clinics near us and found Illume Fertility. After meeting with Dr. Cynthia Murdock, we were approved for fertility testing.” It was then that Shiraine learned of her diagnosis—they had struggled to get pregnant because her fallopian tubes were damaged. “After our test results came back, Dr. Murdock spoke with us and let us know that our best chance at pregnancy would be through in vitro fertilization, or IVF.”

Navigating infertility is a challenge in and of itself, and societal and cultural stigma surrounding the topic is certainly among its concomitants. “Stigma was always a factor in my fertility journey,” said Shiraine. “I shared my experience with no one in the beginning. My husband was my only support throughout the process.” As an African American woman of Caribbean descent, Shiraine was clear on the fact of her sharing being inconsistent with cultural norms. “There was this unspoken rule in my family, and I’m sure in many other families, that you just did not discuss such things, because having a diagnosis of “infertile” brands you as “worthless” and would essentially embarrass the family.”

While staying silent was the path of least resistance for Shiraine and Barrett, the birth of their son Lejend was galvanizing. From there, Shiraine found herself leaning into the compulsion to share her story, even if it meant meddling with set norms. They were aware that the prospect of them sharing would not necessarily sit well with some, but decided that sharing their experience was something that they needed to do, to honor both their unique paths to pregnancy and childbirth, and their son. 

Shiraine and Barrett’s parents discouraged them from sharing out of fear that they were unveiling what was meant to be a private journey, and yet, they’d learn that the basis of their parents’ concerns further underscored the necessity of speaking out. “So many women responded, thanking me for sharing my story, because it showed them that infertility is nothing to be embarrassed about or kept secret. My journey and subsequent success inspired women to continue on their own journeys and that made me feel amazing.”

Shiraine and Barrett represent one of many families that stood to benefit from the use of reproductive technology, and Shiraine understands the significance of heightening the accessibility to others. One of the barriers to this valuable resource is cost—a barrier that was virtually non-existent for the two. Shiraine’s medical insurance was able to cover all of her fertility treatments, and the Connecticut State Infertility Mandate was also an option, rendering IVF a possibility.

When couples embark on the journey of IVF, they are often coming to the path with a number of uncertainties and fears. Shiraine, Barrett, and baby Lejend’s journey are a reminder that even amongst the challenges and complexities, stories of triumph emerge. These stories are not only displays of the possibilities that exist for couples struggling with infertility, but also vessels for potential when it comes to destigmatizing the experience. 

And much like with other pregnancy and birthing journeys, this is a story about the beauty of the village. “My husband made me feel very supported while we were pursuing IVF and throughout my pregnancy, but I also have to thank the team at Illume Fertility. Their support played a vital role in my journey, especially when I had a low moment and minor ‘panic attack’. If they read this, they will know exactly what moment I’m talking about. Without their teamwork and quick thinking, we probably wouldn’t have had our son when we did and I will forever be grateful to them.”

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