Olympic Swimmer Faces Upstream Battle With Infertility
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Dara Torres has it all - talent, a bushel of Olympic swimming medals and stunning
looks. But while Torres has smashed records and stood atop the pinnacle of competitive
swimming, there is one event Torres hasn't been able to win yet - getting pregnant.
This Mother's Day is bittersweet for Torres and her husband.
"I try not to think about it but it's there - especially on Mother's Day,"
says Torres, 37. "For me it's hard because I have five siblings and 18 nieces
and nephews. Everyone in my family is fertile and having no problem. Everyone
has a bunch of kids - at least three or more. I'm so happy for them, but it
And Torres knows it is hard for a lot of couples.
More than 6 million Americans experience infertility issues, with males and
females affected equally. An estimated 20% of couples have fertility issues
that involve both partners. The American Infertility Association defines infertility
as a disease that prevents the reproductive system from functioning properly.
"My ovaries are fine and my hormone levels are fine," Torres says. "There is
actually no reason why I can't get pregnant. But it's just not happening. If
there was something wrong with me it would almost be easier because I would
have a reason why I couldn't get pregnant."
Infertility is on the rise principally because people are delaying their child-bearing.
But for about 20% of infertile couples the cause remains a mystery. Among the
many reasons for infertility are:
- Irregular ovulation
- Poor egg quality
- Untreated STDs
- Male fertility problems
"It's very frustrating because here I am this healthy woman who's been to the
Olympics and never had any health problems, and I can't get pregnant," says
Torres, who became the first American to medal in four Olympiads. "I thought
if I could share my story it might really illustrate that this can happen to
anyone and that you're not alone."
But talking about her infertility was hard for Torres. When asked by the AIA
to be their spokesperson, she initially balked.
"It's a personal matter to the point that when I first began infertility treatments
I told my husband not to tell anyone," Torres notes. "It's not like it's something
to be ashamed of, but I never heard anyone talk about it so I was just going
with the flow."
But Torres realized that her story needed to be shared with infertile couples
and agreed to speak out so she could help people find accurate information and
resources at a time when many are confused, angry and even ashamed.
"I only know of people who have spoken about their problems getting pregnant
after they succeeded," Torres states. "That's great but I felt that people who
are struggling with this need to hear from someone going through it just like
Torres suggests people find out more about infertility from either the AIA
or Fertility LifeLines, a toll-free service that helps educate patients about
the whole spectrum of choices. From May 10-12, Fertility Lifelines and the AIA
will hold three teleconferences with experts to answer pre-registered questions
from the public. Lifelines is sponsored by Serono, makers of several fertility
treatments, but Torres is not financially compensated by the company.
While one in six couples will need medical intervention to help them conceive,
approximately two-thirds will in fact have a successful pregnancy.
Typically fertility treatments begin with various forms of ovulation induction
using injectible gonadotropins, also called follicle stimulating hormone. FSH
allows more than one follicle which contains the egg to mature at a time. Artificial
insemination is then performed using a small catheter to place a sample of the
male's semen in the woman's uterus.
"This process allows us better control of timing and a numerically better chance
by having the semen and one or more eggs available in the right place," says
Richard Scott, a reproductive specialist and medical director of Reproductive
Medical Associates in Morristown, New Jersey.
After failing to get pregnant, Torres underwent in vitro fertilization. The
purpose of IVF is to bypass the majority of the reproductive process.
First the woman is induced to produce several eggs using FSH. Then doctors
retrieve the eggs using a needle under ultrasound guidance. Retrieval is performed
under light sedation so patients do not feel anything.
On the day of egg retrieval, a semen sample is taken from the male and the
sperm washed and placed around the egg in a very highly refined culture system.
Sometimes if the couple has very few sperm doctors can perform intracystoplasmic
sperm injection where an individual sperm is injected directly into the egg.
"By the next day we'll know how many eggs fertilized and by the next day after
that we will know how many are dividing," Scott says. "After three days - sometimes
five or six-we will do the embryo transfer. Typically we implant between two
and four embryos depending on the patient's age and their history. The younger
the patient the fewer embryos we put back."
While infertility struggles can strain a marriage, Torres says the IVF was
"Going through IVF was difficult because you're on a lot of hormones so for
me it was like PMS all the time," Torres says. "I wasn't too bad really, but
I did completely lose it one time when I was getting a speeding ticket and I
But Torres had cause to be happy when her doctor was able to harvest 16 eggs,
far more than normal.
"I was lucky I had about 16 eggs that fertilized so I was able to freeze eight
and use eight for the procedure where they would transfer the embryos into my
uterus," Torres explains. "That was really good news, and I thought it was finally
going to happen."
But before doctors transfer embryos they are graded for implantation quality
from 1 to 5.
"A grade of 4 or 5 does not mean a pregnancy won't result," Scott explains.
"It only means the probability of implanting is lower. The vast majority of
people have some good embryos and some less good ones. Our job is to put the
best ones back so the patient has the best chance of conceiving."
Torres learned that all of her embryos were less than optimal - all were 4s.
"I was incredibly upset," Torres says. "I did everything you could possibly
do and it was still out of my hands. When I swam, I trained hard and did everything
my coach asked and I got results. But I had no control over this. It was mind
Despite the "huge emotional rollercoaster," Torres hoped for the best after
four embryos were implanted.
"You have to wait 12 days after the embryos are implanted to take the pregnancy
test," Torres explains. "It was the longest 12 days of my life. When the test
came back positive, I was so excited."
But three weeks later her ultrasound crushed her hopes.
"My ultrasound revealed there was one embryo, but it did not have a heart beat,"
Torres says. "It was horrible -- just awful."
After a second cycle of IVF failed, Torres tried three rounds of artificial
insemination. But nothing worked.
While Torres is now taking break from getting pregnant to concentrate on covering
the Olympics, she is not giving up. She's passionate about helping others and
is hopeful about her own chances of becoming a mom.
"I look at it now as whatever is going to happen is going to happen," Torres
says. "I think that attitude comes from when I made my comeback after taking
seven years off from swimming. I'm just going to have to leave it up to the
• American Infertility
is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns,
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Created: 5/22/2004  - Donnica Moore, M.D.