Driving past a fertility clinic close to my Wimbledon home, my face breaks into a smile and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling as I send my positive thoughts and blow a kiss.
Inside, frozen and nestled away in a huge storage tank filled with liquid nitrogen, are my five ‘babies’ — tiny embryos created over the past two years in six cycles of IVF using my eggs and my partner’s sperm. These little clusters of cells are ready and waiting for when the time is right for me to have them transferred to my uterus, in the desperate hope that at least one or two will grow into the babies for which I have been yearning my whole life.
This summer I turned 43, so the clock is definitely against me, and many may wonder why I’m not ‘just getting on with it’.
The answer is twofold. First of all, at the start of my assisted fertility journey I was 41 and my chances of producing good quality eggs were falling. For that reason, the priority was making and freezing as many embryos as I could, in as short a space of time as possible, to implant later.
Alice Dogruyol, 43, (pictured) who lives in Wimbledon, has overhauled her diet and spent £40,000 on IVF in the hopes of having a baby
But the other issue I faced back then was that I weighed 19 st 6 lb and had a BMI (body mass index) of 40.8. That put me in the severely obese category and meant I was too heavy (as well as being almost too old — 42 is the cut off) to qualify for fertility treatment on the NHS.
Even the specialists I saw privately told me I had to lose weight before I started treatment — not to increase the quality of the eggs, but to improve my chances of a healthy pregnancy once the embryos had been transferred.
Put bluntly, I’ve had to freeze my ‘babies’ to go on a diet.
With all my hopes and dreams of motherhood riding on it, it’s been the strictest, most successful diet I’ve ever followed. For two years, I’ve avoided carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol — and watched the weight drop off.
While others were piling it on during lockdown, I was still losing it. Between late March and early July, I shed a whole stone, bringing my total weight loss to 5 st 8 lb.
By next month, I hope I will have gone down to 13 st 3 lb — still heavier than I’d like to be, but a good weight for my 5 ft 9 in frame to carry a baby.
In all, I’ll have lost around 7 st — the equivalent of a whole person, albeit a very slim one — in two-and-a-half years. In the process, of course, my health will have improved immeasurably. I’ll have literally turned my life around for the chance to become a mother.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m under no illusions despite the dieting success. In terms of fertility, I’m still in the last chance saloon. But that’s not because becoming a mum was low on my list of priorities.
Alice (pictured before) reliased that she needed to put getting pregnant before work and travel, around the age of 38
Quite the reverse: it’s been my greatest ambition ever since I was nine and held my newborn baby sister in my arms. Life just got in the way of my plans.
Many women will understand that finding the right man at the right time isn’t always easy. At the age of 30, a serious, long-term relationship ended, and as I walked away, so, too, did my dream of starting a family with him.
I tried not to panic, and instead threw myself into work. In my early 30s I founded a PR company and began selling my own brand of jeans for curvy women.
I was having the time of my life — from white water rafting on the Zambezi River to living it up with clients in Las Vegas.
Five years later, when I was 35, I fell in love again, with a musician who has now been my partner for eight years.
I suppose I was foolish at that stage to believe people who told me I was ‘still young’ and had ‘loads of time’ before I needed to start thinking about a family. The truth is, from age 35 fertility starts to diminish significantly — and by 40, for many women, it really does ‘fall off a cliff’. Yet it wasn’t until I was 38 that I finally realised I needed to put getting pregnant before work and travel.
However, it didn’t go as I’d hoped. I was big at that stage, but not as heavy as I subsequently became, and I was ecstatic to find that I could conceive naturally.
But I miscarried one pregnancy after another — three times in two years, all of them thankfully early but still utterly devastating.
Almost as distressing were the months when my period came like clockwork, despite our valiant efforts to conceive during my fertile time. Each and every one felt like a gut-wrenching loss, for both my partner and me.
Alice had three miscarriages in two years, before deciding it was time to seek professional help at aged 40 years and six months (file image)
Finally, aged 40 years and six months, I decided that it was time to seek professional help.
Explorations on the NHS revealed no obvious underlying reason for my miscarriages, other than the quality of the eggs I was releasing each month at my ‘advanced age’.
But one question began to haunt me, and there was no other way to ask it than to blurt it out.
‘Did I miscarry because I’m fat?’ I asked NHS doctors and the private gynaecologists I consulted afterwards. All said that most early pregnancy losses, especially at my age, are caused by a random abnormal chromosomal development in the embryo.
They added that it was more likely to be my age than my weight that was causing it — but that my chances of having a healthy pregnancy would be much improved if I drastically reduced my BMI.
The irony was that comfort-eating had been my way of getting through every loss, with the short-lived sugar highs you can only get from cakes and biscuits. Weighing more than 20 st, I was the heaviest I’d ever been.
I’ve battled with my weight for as long as I can remember and was, by then, having counselling to help me break the habit of reaching for the biscuit jar after every trauma.
Alice was advised by doctors to freeze as many fertilised eggs as possible, as early on as possible (file image)
But the knowledge that shedding weight would improve my chances of a healthy pregnancy was the impetus I needed.
Nothing is more important to me than becoming a mum. I can’t imagine ever feeling properly fulfilled without a child.
We live in a beautiful apartment overlooking Wimbledon Park, where I can see the children playing from my window and where we are sandwiched between two excellent state primary schools. I have the business, the home, the car, the partner, the park, the schools, my mum and dad around the corner, my two sisters nearby. Everything is set up to give a beautiful life to a child.
So now I’m pinning my hopes on the pioneering approach taken by the Create Fertility clinic, which has branches all over the country, from Bristol to Manchester.
Doctors there advised me not to adopt the usual IVF route of extracting eggs, fertilising them and immediately transferring them back into my body — what’s called an IVF cycle using ‘fresh embryos’ — but instead to freeze as many fertilised eggs as possible, as early on as possible, which could then be implanted at a time when my body was better prepared to receive them.
The reason? The quality of a woman’s eggs deteriorates with each passing year and, even though I’m now 43 and still will be when my embryos are transferred, they will have been created using eggs that are younger by just a few crucial years. While the chances of getting pregnant via IVF for a 41-year-old using her own eggs is 9 per cent, it drops to just 3 per cent by age 43.
Doing it this way not only gives me a better chance with embryos created from better quality eggs, but also saves me precious time.
Alice (pictured before) said she decided to keep her five remaining embryos in the freeze after a failed implant
In conventional IVF, each cycle using a fresh embryo can take months, and most women can’t manage more than two or three a year. For older women, that’s using up time you just don’t have.
By freezing embryos, as I have, a woman is able to try multiple times in fairly quick succession, giving a greater chance of success.
In fact, I had a fresh embryo transfer after my sixth cycle, but when it failed to implant it was a huge blow. It was at that point I decided to keep the remaining five in the freezer while I got my body and mind into the best shape possible before a second attempt.
It’s a strategy that’s increasing in popularity every year. Figures released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates clinics and research, show a 93 per cent rise in frozen embryo transfer cycles between 2013 and 2018 — up from 13,421 to 25,889.
Last week, meanwhile, research published in the BMJ showed that frozen embryos are just as likely to result in a live birth as fresh embryos.
Indeed, maximising early harvesting, the Create Fertility clinic believes, may be the key to increasing the chances of older women conceiving through IVF and carrying a baby to term.
My decision wasn’t based on age alone, of course; this method also gave me the opportunity I needed to lose the weight and get as near as possible to my optimum size. Doing this so-called ‘freeze-all’ IVF was the perfect solution.
Alice (pictured) who shed 9lb after having Covid-19 at the start of lockdown, said it’s been hard not to snack while working from home
Despite such a huge incentive, it’s still been a tough slog to lose the weight. As well as cutting out junk food and all alcohol, I’ve been on green juice fasting retreats and at home I practise ‘intermittent fasting’, which means I try not to eat until noon and then eat dinner as early as possible, preferably before 7pm.
At the start of lockdown I actually got Covid-19 and, because I completely lost my sense of smell and taste, I barely ate anything. At my sickest, I lost 9 lb in the space of two weeks.
When I was well again, my appetite returned with a vengeance and it was harder not to snack while working from home.
Whenever I was tempted, I tried hard to remind myself that the stakes are much higher for me than just getting into a smaller dress size.
It’s only a matter of weeks now until the next embryo transfer is scheduled. We’re opting for only one at a time because I don’t want to put undue strain on my body by increasing the chance of twins. However, if I have a successful pregnancy, I’ll keep any remaining embryos in the hope of trying for a second child when I’m 45.
My embryos are graded on quality and there is a particularly robust-looking one described as ‘very good’. That’s the one I’ll have implanted first, and it’s also the one I imagine actually becoming my child.
I daren’t picture how he or she might look. My partner worries I’m tempting fate even when I say such things as: ‘When we have our baby …’
Alice (pictured) said she doesn’t want to imagine what will happen if none of the embryos leads to a successful pregnancy
Crazy though it may sound to anyone who hasn’t gone through it, I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit watching a time-lapse video of our embryos which the clinic made for me using the very latest embryoscope technology.
It shows them growing and turning into blastocysts, the more complex cell-rich stage they reach five days after fertilisation. These videos are so precious to me. For now, at least, they are the only connection I have to what I hope will one day be our children.
So far, we’ve spent around £40,000 on our IVF journey, but as far as I’m concerned, any amount of money is worth it if this works for us. My wonderful parents have made a big contribution — they already have three grandchildren and another on the way courtesy of my little sister, but they know how much this means to me.
Sometimes my dear little nieces and nephew ask me: ‘Why aren’t you somebody’s mummy?’ And I reply that I’d love to be one day, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
I know that when it does, I’ll be a good one because I’ve waited so long and tried so hard.
It’s my fervent hope that I’ll be in the family way this Christmas, if not with this next embryo then with one of the other four.
I’m a great believer in thinking positively, so I don’t want to imagine what will happen if none of the embryos leads to a successful pregnancy. Another attempt at egg extraction, egg donation or adoption are all possibilities.
But for now, at least, I’ll keep directing all my motherly love towards those five little ‘babies’ waiting in the clinic deep-freeze, ready to be given the gift of life.
As told to Helen Carroll