In April 2006, a doctor thaws eight frozen embryos and transfers the five that survive into Carolyn Zinn's uterus. Her friends worry she'll have too many babies, but Carolyn isn't concerned about that. She just wants to give her client, Diane, at least one.
Carolyn has already failed once and doesn't want to disappoint Diane again. Besides, having babies is her life's work. At 39, she needs to prove she can still do this.
A week or so after the transfer, she is back at the doctor's office to get the verdict. Again, the line on the pregnancy test never appears.
• • •
By now Diane has spent several months and $40,000 and Carolyn has given herself countless painful injections of progesterone and Lupron, all in vain. It says something about Diane's yearning and Carolyn's determination that neither is willing to quit.
Diane has several frozen embryos left. Dr. Stephen Welden, a gentle man who performs about 100 embryo transfers a year, has been candid about the low likelihood of success with frozen embryos. But Diane regards these fertilized eggs as her children. She wouldn't consider destroying them, and it's costly to store them.
So she asks Carolyn to try once more, and again Carolyn agrees.
Diane is hoping for a good outcome, but she is also hedging her bets. One day, without telling Carolyn, she interviews another surrogate. When Diane learns the woman has tattoos and four kids from three different fathers, though, she rules her out.
• • •
Welden's exam room is decorated with reassuring touches — a blue Queen Anne chair, a poster of babies diving into a test tube, and a print of a smiling, E.R.-era George Clooney on the ceiling so women can enjoy his good looks as they lie on the table.
It's now June, two months since the last unsuccessful transfer. Carolyn sees Clooney as she lies on her back, her feet in stirrups. But as she waits for Welden to transfer the embryos into her uterus, she doesn't feel relaxed. She feels alone.
For the first time, Diane is not here; she's on vacation in Europe with her family. Carolyn hasn't even spoken to her in a month.
This is not how it's supposed to be, she thinks. Carolyn, who has had five babies as a surrogate so far, recalls other transfers in her past. The mother of the triplets had sat by her side and held her hand, tears in her eyes. The mother of her two other "surro-babies," as Carolyn calls them, sends her photos of the children every six weeks — even now.
Nurse practitioner Lenora Welden, the doctor's wife, peeks into the room. She has known Carolyn for years, ever since Carolyn got pregnant with the triplets in this very office. Lenora is surprised to hear Diane and Carolyn are trying again with the frozen embryos. She worries that it will just mean more disappointment.
She tells Carolyn, "I worry about you being okay."
• • •
Dr. Welden sits on a stool by Carolyn's feet. Welden, a Southern Baptist and father of seven, wears a white jacket with an angel pin on one lapel and a gold pin shaped like a swimming sperm on the other. The sperm's eye is an emerald.
Embryologist Bill Clark stands next to a mobile pediatric incubator containing a Petri dish full of embryos. Earlier, Clark had thawed the frozen embryos, a combination of sperm from Diane's husband and eggs purchased from a Tampa military reservist who resembles Diane.
Welden and the embryologist have worked together for decades and have developed a rapport that reminds you a little of Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock on Star Trek.
"Are you ready, sir?" Welden asks Clark.
"I am, sir!" the embryologist responds.
Clark uses a skinny catheter with a plunger to suck up the embryos. He hands the catheter to Welden, who inserts it into Carolyn and pushes on the syringe. Five embryos spray up into her uterus. Carolyn feels a little pressure inside her but no pain.
"We had a discussion, my cervix and I, on the way here," Carolyn says. "You got to open up and let 'em in."
The procedure takes about five minutes. Welden switches off his lamp and comes to Carolyn's side. He takes her hand.
"I'm going to say a prayer for you," he tells her.
Carolyn is still lying on her back as they bow their heads and close their eyes.
"Heavenly Father, we call upon you, creator of all life," Welden says in his lilting Tennessee accent. "That you take these cells — we've done everything scientifically we can do — and we pray that you'll do what you can do and that is to bring life to them. Amen."
Welden gazes down at Carolyn with his Cheshire grin. "I'm proud of you," he says.
Carolyn begins to cry large tears that roll down her temples into her thick brown hair.
"I didn't mean to upset you," he says quietly. "Are you comfy?"
Carolyn nods. She looks down at her stomach.
"Okay guys, stick!"
She pauses, then smiles.
"Okay, not all of them."
• • •
A week later, Carolyn hurries home from work and takes a pregnancy test. Standing in her kitchen, dressed in capri pants and a pink knit top, she examines the result.
Her husband, Larry, walks in from work, says hello and heads for the shower. She smiles at him, then looks back at the test.
She lets out a long groan.
"Why?" she asks, looking up at the ceiling. "Three times. This is ridiculous! For whatever reason, this is not meant to be."
Soon Larry emerges from the bedroom, freshly showered.
"So it was negative," she says.
He's not surprised. Everyone knew the odds were against Carolyn becoming pregnant with frozen embryos.
Still, Carolyn is uneasy. She has had three transfers, with no success. What if she can't become pregnant at all? And what if Diane starts asking the same question?
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.
Coming Wednesday: Diane has a surprise for Carolyn.