'The moment you play the baby's heartbeat': Local fertility specialist shares what keeps her going

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"The moment you get to play the baby’s heartbeat for a patient or couple makes every hardship in this line of work worthwhile." Photo: Cape Fertility/ Lizle Oosthuizen
"The moment you get to play the baby’s heartbeat for a patient or couple makes every hardship in this line of work worthwhile." Photo: Cape Fertility/ Lizle Oosthuizen

When faced with fertility struggles, having to inject yourself with medication in the middle of the night, taking timed medication or planning when exactly to have sex, just to ensure a pregnancy can be very frustrating, especially if the clock is ticking.

But doctors like Lizle Oosthuizen, who themselves have undergone fertility treatments, are a blessing as they know what it's like for their patients to undergo such processes.

Read: Can using different birth control methods affect your future fertility?

Dr Oosthuizen works as a reproductive medicine specialist at Cape Fertility in Cape Town, in the Western Cape. Her special interests include fertility, endocrinology, and recurrent pregnancy loss.

Her job involves seeing patients, whether single or in a couple, heterosexual or homosexual, cis or transgender, and assisting them in diagnosing and treating underlying fertility problems. 

She explains "This is done through a thorough medical assessment to find the barriers and concerns around conception, and then either identifying a treatable cause, or offering assisted conception treatments."

Dr Oosthuizen says she also sees couples with recurrent pregnancy loss and offer fertility preservation for both men and women. Treatment may involve medication, surgery, ovulation induction, inseminations, IVF, or the use of donor sperm or eggs. 

Also read: Your fertility questions answered by Dr Lizle Oosthuizen

Challenging work

Some of the more difficult days in her line of work include seeing couples with recurrent pregnancy loss, which can be very emotionally challenging and stressful.

Other challenges include, sharing bad news with a patient.

"Sometimes the nature of infertility means there are no guarantees, and you often must share bad news with patients when the treatment did not work," she explains.

Dr Oosthuizen is herself no stranger to some of these processes though, sharing with Parent24 that she has frozen her own eggs too.

"Twice actually," she tells us. "I unfortunately see the true unfiltered reality in my line of work - that as you get older, egg numbers and egg quality decrease. You can’t rely on genetics, good luck or a healthy diet to change this. We are born with all the eggs we will ever have, and they decrease in their quality as we age."

First hand experience 

She says that day after day she hears patients say "I wish I had frozen my eggs when I was younger".

"Knowing this, I opted to freeze my eggs before the age of 35 to give me options at a later stage, should I need them," she says.

"I think the real benefit for me as a doctor, was experiencing the process first hand. I had to take the injections, have the ultrasound, and have the retrieval process. Having gone through this give you a greater understanding and empathy for your patients. You can relate to how they are feeling, and many patients feel it is reassuring to know their doctor has also been through the process." 

Must see: 'They made our marriage unbearable': Surviving infertility with unsupportive family

Baby photos

While she says it's not possible to estimate how many people she has helped over the years, as outcomes vary for different patients, she keeps a board of all the baby photos she is sent. "It reminds me of all the families that have benefited from our care," she tells Parent24. 

She says that what keeps her going is to support her patients through a difficult journey of infertility. "And of course, every positive pregnancy test and every photo of a family you helped to create," she adds.

Looking back, she says, "the moment you get to play the baby's heartbeat for a patient or couple makes every hardship in this line of work worthwhile."

"I also enjoy spreading information and education about infertility and the various associated conditions as I do believe every patient should be as educated about their options as possible," she adds.

Must read: These are the leading causes of infertility in South Africa: why should this worry you?

The pandemic

Dr Oosthuizen explained that the Covid-19 lockdown was very difficult. "Initially, we had to stop all new treatment cycles. This meant postponing the dreams for a lot of couples. Fertility treatment does have financial implications, so many patients were also affected by the loss of income and work," she told us.

"Many international patients travel to our clinic (from both the African continent and abroad), so Covid-19 also impacted their ability to travel to us. Luckily we were able to resume treatment and develop protocols to keep our patients and staff safe."

Dr Oosthuizen explains that during IVF treatment she has to test patients prior to retrieving eggs or doing a surgery. "When the patient unexpectedly tests positive, this is incredibly hard for both them and us as we have to cancel the procedure, "she says.

"At the moment we are also not able to operate due to the bed pressure in hospitals, which although we completely understand and support, is nonetheless very frustrating for patients needing surgery," she adds.

"Covid-19 has also meant we were at work every day seeing patients who may be asymptomatically infected, and this weighs heavily on your mind when you consider going home to your loved ones. Luckily we were able to be vaccinated earlier this year and this reduced some of the stress around this," she says.

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