Mother’s Day: Years Of Fertility Struggles Pay Off With Baby Boy For Old Forge Couple
Two pink lines.
Leslie Ricci noticed the pregnancy test in the bathroom garbage. She had taken it that morning — one of the estimated 150 tests she took over the preceding 10 years — and, just like the others, had thrown it away when she thought it was negative.
That night though — Oct. 25, 2017 — was different. The test displayed two solid pink lines.
Ricci stared at the results she had waited to see for years. All the doctors appointments, specialist visits, medications, blood work, ultrasounds, hours of research, tears shed and time spent wondering if she would ever be a mom came down to those two pink lines. She took eight more tests that night to be sure, and each test returned a positive result.
“I thought I was going crazy,” Ricci, 37, said on a spring afternoon in the Old Forge home she shares with her husband and high school sweetheart, Ron, 35. “So much went into that moment, and it almost didn’t feel real.”
Today, their 11-month-old son, Ronald Beaux Ricci IV, played with all kinds of toys while climbing and crawling from his mom’s lap to his dad’s. “RonBo,” as he’s affectionately called by those close to him, held on to his “Muppets” Animal toy, his favorite stuffed plush to snuggle with, while YouTube songs played in the background.
“‘Down by the Bay’ is his jam,” Leslie Ricci said.
The boy took a bottle while his dad rocked him, and Leslie Ricci watched her son’s big blue eyes start to sleepily close.
“It’s still sometimes unbelievable to me. ... I’m still in awe when I look at him,” she said. “He was worth every year, month, week, day, hour, minute, second waiting for him. He was totally worth it.”
Sharing the journey
Leslie and Ron Ricci’s romance began almost 20 years ago at Mid Valley Secondary Center, where he caught the eye of then-Leslie Kaczmarek, in a general business class. By 2003, they officially were a couple, and by 2006, they had married.
As young newlyweds — Leslie Ricci was 24, and Ron Ricci was 22 — they weren’t concerned with trying to start a family. Around 2009, that had changed, but the years went by, and a baby never came.
“I did all the things that say to do to increase your fertility,” Leslie Ricci said. “I quit smoking. I lost that magic percentage of weight that they say (you need) to regain your fertility. I did that several times. And just nothing was working.”
Dozens of trial-and-error methods as well as emotional and financial stress dotted the couple’s long journey. While they weren’t alone, Leslie Ricci saw a stigma around infertility, so, in 2015, she shared her story through social media. Her first Facebook post detailing their struggles garnered messages from women sharing their own woes. She kept documenting every part of her story — from each devastating failed treatment to the joyful maternity photos from when their baby boy finally was on the way — and joined online communities filled with those experiencing the same things as her.
“It was really therapeutic for me, and it made the experience as bearable as it could be,” Leslie Ricci said. “We thought it was really important because not everyone could be as open, and I just wanted to be brave with my story so other women could feel free to be brave with theirs.”
Leslie Ricci said her doctors believe she has polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, a hormonal imbalance that can interfere with normal ovulation. In 2016, her gynecologist had her try Clomid, a fertility drug that helps the brain produce more follicle-stimulating hormone, or FSH, which increases the chance of ovulation.
After four or five rounds of that failed, Leslie Ricci was referred to a reproductive endocrinologist, Dr. Jennifer Gell, who put her on a few more rounds of the drug. They didn’t work either, and so her doctor suggested trying intrauterine insemination, or IUI, which required Follistim, an at-home shot administered into her stomach that pumped FSH right into the system. All three rounds of IUIs failed.
Gell wasn’t willing to try any more rounds, and the Riccis’ insurance coverage was exhausted. Follistim cost $600 per vial, and the couple was going through one vial about every three days.
The final effort would be in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which can cost up to $25,000 per cycle altogether. Their insurance would not cover IVF, and the Riccis couldn’t afford it.
“I was feeling pretty sad and depressed at that point,” Leslie Ricci said.
Her husband was crushed, too, especially since he couldn’t do anything more to help her.
“There’s not too much you can do besides offering support,” Ron Ricci said. “That’s kind of the hardest part of the whole thing ... seeing (her) suffer, and besides offering a shoulder to cry on, there’s nothing you can really do. It’s tough to watch someone you love go through that. You just have to keep going.”
Friends and family were there for them, as well. Ashley Salerno and her fiance, Phil Scavo, have known the Riccis for almost a decade, and Leslie Ricci confided in Salerno each step of the way.
“We would always say no one deserves to be parents more than Leslie and Ron,” Salerno said. “They’re the most giving people and have so much love to give. They would make the best parents. It just wasn’t fair.”
The Riccis began looking at other avenues, such as adoption — which came with its own set of challenges — before Leslie Ricci decided to try to lose more weight. Both she and her husband went on the ketogenic diet, a high-fat, adequate-protein and low-carbohydrate plan that forces the body to burn fats rather than carbs. This helped her drop several pounds, and she called Gell to try something new. This was the last possible effort the couple could afford, financially and emotionally.
She completed two rounds of Letrozole, a breast cancer drug also used for fertility treatments that boosts FSH production, and neither round worked. But the third one did.
“It was completely surreal,” Leslie Ricci said. “We had waited for it for so long, and it was finally here.”
On Christmas Day, the Riccis shared their pregnancy announcement with the help of their favorite band, Patent Pending. They posed with the band members, who have become their friends over the years, holding a banner with lyrics to the group’s song, “Another Day” — with a twist: “Lived for love. Never gave in. Never gave up. Now our little punk is pending. July 2018.”
“Our phones blew up for the next like 24 hours,” Leslie Ricci said, laughing.
While one journey ended, another had just begun. Already classified with a geriatric pregnancy since Leslie Ricci was older than 35, doctors noticed her blood pressure also was high. By 36 weeks, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia and had to have an emergency C-section. On June 12, 2018, at 11:22 p.m., their baby boy was born. The whole time, Leslie Ricci focused on the thought that the two must make it out alive.
“I went through all of this and, at the end, I have this problem that could have killed him or I or both of us,” she said. “So when I heard him cry, it was like the best feeling in the world.”
RonBo spent five days in the neonatal intensive care unit to even out his glucose levels before the Riccis were cleared to take him home.
From patient to advocate
Within the struggle, Leslie Ricci learned about herself and the strength of their marriage. After years spent talking about wanting to be parents, everything they’ve gone through ended up making them into the parents they always wanted to be.
Leslie Ricci wants to continue her advocacy about infertility. When she needed it, she turned to community of women she met online. They swapped information about the drugs they were trying as well as what worked and what didn’t.
“It helped to have other women,” she said. “I think until you’re going through something like that, people could sympathize with you, but they can’t really empathize with you until you’ve stood in those shoes.”
Leslie Ricci also did her own research — she believes the ketogenic diet played a role in her pregnancy — and learned the importance of advocating for herself as a patient. She hopes to translate those experiences into face-to-face connections and start a local or regional support group for those struggling to get pregnant or who cannot stay pregnant.
“If my story can help one person, one couple, that’s all that matters to me,” Leslie Ricci said. “I look at (my son), and I know we’re so fortunate. I want to help as many women as I can.”
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Infertility can leave couples emotionally and financially exhausted, but treatment options and support can help.
About 9% of men and about 11% of women of reproductive age in the United States have experienced fertility problems, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Infertility means being unable to conceive after one year of trying, or after six months of trying if the woman is 35 or older, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. After a year of trying to conceive, a couple should contact an obstetrician and gynecologist, said Sonam Patel, a second-year medical resident at the Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, Scranton. From there, both partners might be tested before being referred to a reproductive endocrinologist who specializes in fertility.
Of couples trying to conceive, one-third will need intervention for the female partner, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, a hormonal disorder that can interfere with normal ovulation, is the most common cause of female infertility, the office noted. Other causes include primary ovarian insufficiency, blocked fallopian tubes, physical problems with the uterus and uterine fibroids.
Another third of infertility cases occur because of the male partner, according to the women’s health office. In men, infertility can result from having too few sperm, no sperm, problems with sperm movement or varicocele, a vein enlargement that affects the number or shape of sperm.
A mixture of male and female problems and unknown problems cause the other cases of infertility, the women’s health office noted.
While fertility declines with age in both sexes, the effects of age are much greater in women, according to a committee study by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. Women in their 30s are about half as fertile as they were in their early 20s, and their chance of conception declines significantly after age 35.
In both sexes, infertility can be treated by medicine, surgery, artificial insemination or assisted reproductive technology, and most of the time, these methods are combined.
While some methods — such as in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body — can cost up to $25,000, Patel said, couples first should explore more affordable options or ones their insurance covers, such as medications or intrauterine insemination.
“I think people think ‘fertility’ and think ‘IVF. That’s too expensive,’” Patel said. “There are more options that can be more feasible. It’s not just IVF.”
Dr. Brian Wilcox, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Physicians Health Alliance, sees couples facing fertility issues in his practice but also lived it. He and his wife adopted their two children 20 years ago after years of trying different methods to conceive. Also an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, Wilcox said infertility is devastating and isolating. Frustratingly, many cases of infertility are caused by reasons doctors cannot pinpoint.
“The emotional part is huge because (pregnancy is) a huge desire for most women,” he said. “It’s an incredible desire that so many women have, that maternal instinct. ... For women who are trying and cannot get pregnant, it’s devastating. I’ve had so many patients use that word: devastating.”
Many times, couples find solace in sharing their stories with others with similar experiences, Wilcox said, noting that society still has trouble taking about fertility issues.
“There’s this grieving process when couples are trying to get pregnant and can’t,” he said. “When someone dies in a family, there’s these societal things we do to all come together. ... When someone can’t conceive, there’s this huge loss, and we don’t treat that in the same way.”
While many support groups focus on women, Patel said, men struggle with fertility issues, too.
“There’s this myth (that) infertility is a woman’s issue, but even if the man is not the one with fertility problems, that emotional part is still there,” she said. “He is right there, going through it all, too. I think we expect men to be strong and not feel emotional, but it’s just as devastating.”
When couples who have fought to conceive finally become pregnant, it’s a joyful moment for everyone involved — including the doctors and specialists.
“It feels gratifying to be part of that happiness,” Wilcox said. “You start wanting it for them as much as they want it for themselves. You know how much it means to them, how they would do anything. It’s just a happy moment to be a part of.”
— GIA MAZUR