After five gruelling years of IVF, Alice Almeida was walking her dog during lockdown last year when an idea struck her.
Alice wondered why it was that so many other women were on a similar journey, yet she felt so utterly alone.
"I remember thinking that there was no support," Alice tells 9Honey Parenting. There was nowhere to meet other people going through the same thing.
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"I used to sit in waiting room at the IVF clinic after having my bloods done with 10 other women, and we'd all give each other these awkward knowing smiles," she continues.
"But it's not the place to meet people. It's not that place to say 'this is really tough, do you want to go for a glass of wine later?'"
"And the idea just started growing..."
'It was disheartening'
Rewind 10 years, 30-year-old Alice was diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis and told she may struggle to conceive.
It was a cruel blow to the recently single Sydney marketing executive.
"My specialist at the time told me there was quite a lot of damage to my right ovary... and I should really consider having kids soon," she reveals. "The problem was, I didn't have a partner."
Fortunately, Alice met her husband two-and-a-half years later, and the couple began trying to fall pregnant not long after they were engaged.
"After six months of trying to conceive naturally without success, we started our IVF journey. I was 35."
Alice, now 40, recalls feeling 'positive' for her first cycle after the couple collected three fertilised eggs.
"We were feeling confident, and that's how it was pitched to us," Alice recalls. "But after that first transfer didn't work, my mindset started to shift."
The couple went through two more rounds without success - despite having multiple viable embryos, none would implant.
"I was really struggling mentally at this point," she admits. "It was over two years since we started and it felt like we were stuck in a constant cycle of tests and recovery."
"It was disheartening."
'Our last shot'
Alice decided to see another doctor, well-renowned IVF specialist Professor Gavin Sacks, for a second opinion.
"At this stage, we were also talking very seriously about surrogacy," Alice reveals.
"This would be our last shot. I didn't want to keep putting embryos in that weren't implanting.
"I had come to terms with the fact that I might not carry a baby. But my goal was to have a baby, not get pregnant."
The quotes the couple received for surrogacy hovered around the $200K mark.
"That's one of the biggest dangers with IVF, all the decisions you make are in desperation and emotional," she says. "Rationality doesn't come into it."
While the desperate couple started gathering funds for surrogacy, their appointment with Dr Sacks turned up an unusual finding.
"He sent me off for a special blood test, and it turned out I have high levels of natural killer cells," Alice explains. "My body was attacking embryos after they got put in."
"At that point I was relieved there was a reason, but then I was pissed off that I gone through 2.5 years and given up three perfect embryos.
Isolated and ill-informed
"I constantly felt isolated and ill-informed, I was relying on specialists to give me the full picture. No other specialist even mentioned natural killer cells."
After being put on a drug to help suppress her immune system which had 'hideous side-effects', Alice went for her fourth transfer.
Even though she felt there was 'no hope'.
"I was in my darkest place, it was bad news after bad news, all while meeting with surrogacy companies," Alice admits. "Then I got a phone call from the clinic."
"'Alice, you're pregnant' - and I just remember saying 'What? Are you sure? Are you lying?'"
While obviously thrilled, Alice felt immense anxiety, and constantly expected to hear bad news at every stage of her pregnancy.
"I had been through so much negativity and trauma I was sure I would lose the baby," she recalls. "But I didn't, and now I have a beautiful daughter, Maya, who is three.
"And I look at her every day and think 'how are you actually here?'. With everything that we went through, 'how are you actually mine?'"
According to Alice, the couple spent about $80K all up in their quest to start a family, which included a range of therapies outside of the IVF treatment itself including yoga, acupuncture, naturopathy and Chinese herbs.
"You're so desperate, you would spend any amount" she admits. "I would have spent more if I had to. And the problem is, I felt like the mental health side of things wasn't considered in the whole journey.
"I didn't get any guidance or support after a failed transfer or miscarriage that I needed.
"My husband and I both think we are still suffering from PTSD after years of infertility and IVF."
The Amber Network
It's for that reason, that Alice decided to propel her efforts into creating a portal for Australians experiencing infertility or going through IVF with mental health support at the forefront.
Launching today, The Amber Network offers women and men alike five core resources to support them through their journey - a directory of services, a community forum, a calendar and mood tracker, a media and information hub, and self-care resources - all in the one place.?
"I was constantly asking myself, why isn't there a place where we can find all the information we need?" she continues. "No one prepares you for the depths of despair fertility treatment plunges you into. Too many women and men experiencing infertility are suffering in silence."?
"It's what my husband and I so desperately needed when we were starting out on our journey."
'I couldn't believe it'
While working on the Amber Network, Alice also decided to do more IVF to conceive a second child.
"I was desperate to give Maya sibling," she admits. "But my husband said 'No Alice, I can't do this anymore'
"I was sick of feeling depressed, heartbroken and disappointed. Before IVF I was a happy, bubbly person and lots of fun to be around.
"No one wanted to be around me anymore. I started despising who I was turning into. And then I had a meltdown. I didn't want to give up, but I couldn't go on feeling like this.
By this stage, Alice had endured seven operations in 10 years to have her endo removed so she could undergo IVF - and her doctor warned her that this couldn't continue.
"He looked at me and said that I'd already had five more operations than I should have," she explains. "There were things they could do to stop the endo returning if we weren't having any more children. It was a turning point.
"I know it sounds stupid, there was only a 0.05 per cent of conceiving naturally but I was clinging to hope.. and I said to my doctor and husband, just give me until I'm 41.. then do whatever you need to keep the endo at bay."
It gave her just six cycles - six more chances only to conceive.
Miraculously, Alice fell pregnant naturally for the first time ever in her life - at age 40.5 after her final endo surgery.
"I couldn't believe it," she reveals. "I still can't. When I told my husband, I was crying so much he thought something really terrible had happened."
After all that she endured, Alice's passion and energy is now being pushed directly back into the Amber Network - with the hope of helping other people on their IVF journey.
One in six Aussie couples experience fertility problems.
"I want the website to be a place where people feel nurtured, safe, comfortable and normal," the mum-of-one explains.
"When you are going through IVF you don't feel normal - you are often hating on yourself and thinking you must be a 'failure'.
I want to normalise the experience - I want the website to be a place where you can come and remove all those negative thoughts and feel warm and nurtured."
There's nothing more important than feeling informed and empowered, particularly when your physical health is under so much stress and you are making such emotional decisions."?
And Alice's biggest advice to those about to undergo IVF or who are in the thick of it?
"See a psychologist and marriage counselor up-front, because your mrriage will take a beating, and see a financial planner," she urges
To access The Amber Network's resources and community, visit theambernetwork.com.au?
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