TAMPA — Faith and Ryan Shears for a long time shared nothing of their struggles, coping quietly as their family and closest friends invited them to celebrate baby showers, baptisms and 1-year-old birthday parties.
They want to be parents, too. So far, however, the New Port Richey couple's journey has led only to doctor's appointments and events like Saturday's New Beginnings Fertility Conference.
They found solace in a crowd that shared understanding glances, laughter and a few tears as experts addressed the medical and emotional challenges of infertility. While news headlines are full of extraordinary stories — movie stars who make it look like a cinch to conceive in their 40s, the trials and tribulations of "Octomom" — everyone at the conference knew better.
Dealing with infertility means developing an encyclopedic knowledge of medical acronyms and the steps to in vitro fertilization. It means battling a host of triggers in everyday life, like the pain that flares unintentionally when a best friend or a sister announces a pregnancy.
"I wouldn't have been able to host the showers, especially at my own house, if I wasn't happy for them," Faith Shears said, her eyes welling over. "But there is an underlying heartburn. When will it be my turn? Will I ever get a baby shower?" wondered Shears, 27.
No one could make guarantees to the women and their partners at the conference, expected to become an annual event. But organizers at the Reproductive Medicine Group, whose doctors have been treating infertility in the Tampa Bay area for more than 25 years, could share hopeful news about advances in assisted reproductive technologies.
"Often it's an isolating experience," said Dr. Sandy Goodman, an event coordinator. "We wanted to let them know that they are not alone, and there are options for them."
Thousands are quietly confronting fertility concerns in the privacy of doctor's offices and homes. More than 10 percent of U.S. women of child-bearing age in 2002 had received infertility services at some time in their lives, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The accompanying stress can compound the difficulties.
"What do couples fight about the most? Money, sex and kids," said Alice Domar, the keynote speaker and a national expert in the mind-body connection to fertility. "That's infertility right there."
An author and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Domar sketched a picture of how the infertility can result in couples withdrawing from family and friends. It can impair sex lives and test still young marriages.
She advised couples to take steps to become psychologically healthy, such as trying the mind-body program that she developed, or other types of support groups.
After nearly three years of trying to get pregnant, Shari Locascio identified with her description.
"I'm a goal-oriented person, and usually I'm pretty successful," said Locascio, 32, of Land O'Lakes, now frustrated and uncertain about how to proceed.
"I don't know if I'm really at the IVF place. There's still this part of me that thinks about natural conception and let it happen," she said. "I'm going to take baby steps, literally baby steps, before we go in any one direction."
Doctors say many couples can find hope in the staggering advances that in vitro fertilization has made in the three decades since the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born in England.
Today, the Reproductive Medicine Group is able to get about 50 percent of women pregnant with in vitro treatment. Success rates are higher among women younger than 35, where the technology has advanced in the last few years to where its doctors encourage many patients to transfer a single embryo, rather than multiple ones, which carries greater health risks.
Still, the challenges remain most daunting for women older than 35, particularly those in their 40s. Like many of the group's patients, Dr. Betsy McCormick has delayed trying to have a child while she completed her education and launched her career.
Now 37 and a physician at the Reproductive Medicine Group, she understands better than most how age changes the pregnancy odds. "The impact of age is kind of the biggest and saddest factor that I think people don't realize," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322.