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Defying the war: Reaching baby dream against all odds in Russia

Marit and Paul had only one more —Āhance left. Photo: Private

They won their battle to fulfill their dream about children ‚ÄĒ in Russia. Photo: Private

VG.no, Norway | 30 March 2024 | Nora Thorp Bj√łrnstad | Fredrik Solstad (Photo) | Translation to English: Anna Svarinskaya

Reaching baby dream against all odds

The sun is shining brightly outside the window when Marit Gj√łlme Dalva wakes up in her hotel bed in St. Petersburg, on 24 February two years ago.

She gets up and notes that her body feels normal after the procedure the day before. It is the eleventh time she and her husband Paul Mason have tried: an artificially fertilized egg will now hopefully become a baby.

This time it has to happen, she thinks. But then the mobile draws her attention. It flashes and vibrates non-stop. The news alerts flow in: Russia's¬†President Putin has launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Marit has just woken up in Russia and there is war. A chill runs down her spine.

- Even though the invasion was announced, it hit like a fist when we were in the middle of it, Marit (38) tells VG today.

This is a story of how hope led Marit and her husband up from the deepest darkness, across the national borders, through a pandemic - and suddenly - into a country at war.

In the hotel room in St. Petersburg, Marit finds the remote control and switches on the TV. She does not understand a word of what is being said, but understands that it is bloody serious.

‚Äď I got so nervous. And then I just thought - Thank goodness we're going home now. We will have to take the rest later.

Just hours later, they are sitting on the plane to Norway, with the embryo in her stomach as a stowaway.

The world was in a deadlock, and we anxiously followed border crossings and news. We just wanted to finish the whole chapter and get home with a sprout of life.

The day after they land in Norway, everything goes very fast.

The West introduces sanctions against Russia. Cancels all flights to and from the country. Blocks money transfers and use of Western bank cards in Russia. Closes national borders. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises Norwegian citizens against all unnecessary travel to the country.

At the same time, it becomes clear that the fertilized egg in Marit's body has not turned into a baby.¬†

In Russia, several embryos are still waiting in the freezer - and her treatment journey is far from being finished.

The couple's last hope still lies with the clinic in St. Petersburg. But can they really go back to Russia that is at war?

- We were quite worried about how it would go on. We tried reading about the situation, talking to people. We would never go there on holiday under such circumstances, says Paul (43).

- We asked ourselves many questions. Was it reasonable to continue?

Photo: Private

The Norwegian - British couple have been ¬†thiking for some time before they came to the conclusion that they want to share their story, a tale of succeeding against all odds.

What they want now - is to give others who are desperately trying to have children a story they themselves wanted to read when everything looked hopeless, all those years they had been longing to become parents.

Paul and Marit had been together already for twelve years and had been married for two years, when in 2015 they decided to try for a child. They were prepared that it might take time, but had no idea what awaited them in the next eight years.¬†

13 insertions of¬†embryos, invisible little sprouts of life that gave hope. Tears, hormones, injections, preparations, then pandemic and war. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

On Facebook in April 2023, Marit writes:"We've really learned that hope is a tenacious bastard, and that it carries you through more than you might think."

Today Freya, the family's little miracle, is seven months old.

Their journey in assisted fertilization started with a visit to the GP in 2017. Marit received the treatment at Rikshospitalet.

- We were supposed to "call for menstruation" in October, I remember. It was just the start of a lot of medical lingo that was a bit strange, and a lot to get used to. You suddenly become very childless, as it were, says Marit.

At home they have a white ring binder where each IVF attempt has been given its own chapter behind stiff cardboard. 13 paragraphs. She calls it "a master's degree in childlessness".

- The worst was the uncertainty. Never knowing if you will actually reach the finish line. With each attempt, there are so many small obstacles you have to overcome.

13 rounds of stimulation, egg retrievals, information about fertilization and how many embryos there were in the end.

- You can get a good message in one moment and think that "now it's turning around!", but then it can be over just as quickly. Uncertainty is essentially the same as insecurity. It's a crazy place to be over time, says Marit.

Photo: Private

The priorities have been tough since the couple realized they needed help to have children. They have not been on vacation since 2016. They have rented out their apartment. All their savings have gone into treatments.

At the start, only Marit and Paul knew. They went through two unsuccessful rounds of attempts at Rikshospitalet.

- We hoped to be able to come home for Christmas with good news. And then it just became ... "Now you just have to hold my hand, mom. It did not work."

When the three publicly funded trials were used up, they went to a private clinic for two years. Again with no positive result.

But the last of their five attempts proved that Marit and Paul could become parents. In February 2021, she became pregnant. Finally, the good news could be shared with friends and family.

But after six weeks they lost the child.

- Then we were like ... "but now we were so close." What do we do now?" Because we had worn out both our hearts and our wallets, says Marit.

Paul takes time to think about it before describing how it felt to be as sad and exhausted as they were at that point.

- It's like you're in a dark room. At first you see nothing, but then you gradually get used to the darkness and start to make out the lines. You get a little further because you have found something to focus on. You see little cracks of light, and¬†there¬†‚Ķ there is hope again.

Hope came when they turned their gaze to the east.

Photo: Private

Marit and Paul had previously considered trying treatment abroad. One of their acquaintances spoke warmly of a clinic in St Petersburg that had a money-back guarantee if they did not have a child after three attempts.

In 2021, the couple decided to save more money and try.¬†

Maybe it's our last stop, we thought. Then we would have tried everything, sort of. When you are as far down as we were, all arrows point east, says Marit.

The O.L.G.A. clinic in St. Petersburg has a reputation for being among the best clinics in the world for couples and womenstruggling to have children.

One of the reasons for that is the rather unusual "baby guarantee" the clinic offers. For around NOK 200,000, the customer gets three rounds of trials. If it does not result in a child in the end, the customer gets the money back.

Photo: Youtube

Although Norway has recently received a more liberal biotechnology law, some methods are allowed in Russia that are still ¬†not used here. Marit and Paul were offered genetic testing of the embryos' viability, so-called PGT-A, before the embryos were inserted into the uterus.

Marit also received a course of antibiotics after the traces of ¬†Pfeiffer's disease were found in her body. The medicines she took, by the way, had many of the same active ingredients as those you get in Norway. The "baby guarantee" has been met with skepticism by Norwegian fertility specialists, according to TV2.¬†

Marit and Paul, on the other hand, got a good impression of the clinic in St. Petersburg from the very start. The employees were seen as very dedicated, hardworking and full of enthusiasm and care. Communication went seamlessly, say Marit and Paul.¬†

The couple got their own personal nurse who sent daily messages on WhatsApp, sometimes just to hear how things were going.

Photo: Private

Already after the first attempt it was a success. They were up in the clouds. Her whole life changed when Marit carried the baby they called "Rakker'n".

But the happiness only lasted for 13 weeks. Marit miscarried after an accidental and serious infection. Paul himself had to receive the little fetus in the emergency room toilet; when they did not receive medical attention in time. The ambulance service has investigated ¬†the case and issued an apology to the couple.

Talking about this trauma still evokes strong emotions in Marit and Paul.

- The fact that I could feel his weight in my hand made it so real. We had made this tiny little baby, says Paul, clearlydeeply moved.

There and then the darkness felt endless.

- It's like the ladder game. You move straight back to the start.

Photo: Private

For a long time, Marit had prepared that a day might come when her husband would no longer want her, when the pain would be too great to keep trying.

She remembers him saying: "Marit, next time... if it doesn't work out then..."

- I thought that he would say "now it's coming, now it's over", she says.

Then she hears Paul say, "When can we try again?"

When they tell about it, tears are rolling down their cheeks.

- Then it was just: "Get on the horse! When can we travel again?‚ÄĚ If ¬†the hope is there, you can endure quite a lot, says Marit.

In the hotel room in St. Petersburg in February 2022, she first experienced the shock of the outbreak of war, and then the loss of another embryo right after returning to Norway.

When they started the treatment in Russia, it was the pandemic that constantly complicated the treatment abroad.

Now the pandemic and challenges with covid tests, entry requirements and quarantine hotels paled against traveling back to a country that had declared war on its nearest neighbour.

- The development was tragic, what were we to do? We had to try to just stay focused, says Marit.

After careful consideration, they decided on completing treatment in St. Petersburg.

- We had already entered into an agreement with them. We chose to follow our dreams and wishes, says Marit.

- Seen in the light of a war, our project was small, but in our life it was everything.

The Russian border bridge¬† will become a symbol of everything that now stands before them.

Photo: AP/NTB

After the clinic arranges medical visas, Marit and Paul nervously embark on their first journey into sanctioned Russia.

They are not alone. Since the invasion two years ago, 87 Norwegian women have received treatment at the fertility clinic in St. Petersburg, writes Dr. Olga Zaytseff in an e-mail to VG.

In May 2022, Paul and Marit travelled with NOK 20,000 in folded dollar bills in their bags, because Western bank cards could no longer be used in Russia.

They fly from Norway to Tallinn and hop on in a primitive bus to the border town of Narva. From here, the plan is to walk across the bridge that leads to Russian town Ivangorod.

But they didn‚Äôt manage to get that far.

Photo: Private

At the border they are stopped by the guards who believe they do not have the correct papers. The disappointment is enormous as they finally have to give up, get on a bus back to Tallinn and fly home to Torp.

- Then it was good to come to my mother, hold her hand and just laugh. She has been an invaluable supporter for both of us, says Marit.

Marit and Paul use the summer months to gather new courage, new eggs that can be fertilised and money for another trip to Russia.

The sixth journey to the border is the second since the war broke out. They hope to be allowed to enter into the country.

This time they are taking a train to Estonian Narva. Marit gets a thumbs up in the control and can go to clinic's representative, who is waiting by taxi in Ivangorod, Russia.

Photo: Private

Marit is a little stressed about the contents of the bag she is traveling with: an ovulation syringe that absolutely must be kept in cold and does not tolerate any delays.

- I had my stomach full with expensive hormonal treatment and full of eggs that we had to take out. Now I just needed to get to the doctors. And I needed Paul.

But he's stuck with the border guards, who don't like his British passport at all. The mobile is searched. Paul is interviewed and stressed while the clock is ticking. On the Russian side, Marit stands with her belly full of¬†follicles.

After three hours, Paul finally crosses the border. This time they arrive safely in St. Petersburg. But on the road, medicine has become hot.

There were no embryos this time either.

Now they only have one attempt left for egg retrieval at the O.L.G.A. Clinic.

In the diary, Marit writes October. For the seventh time, she leaves Oslo for St. Petersburg.

Photo: Private

On the battlefield, the war has escalated. Russia has sent missiles over Ukraine's capital Kyiv. There are reports of bloody battles and heavy losses on both sides. The situation is chaotic and dramatic.¬†

At the border between Russia and Estonia, Paul and Marit are once again on the opposite sides of the border bridge. This time Paul is held back even longer.¬†

- I waited alone on the Russian side. It was completely dark. It was raining and the windows of our taxi with its engine off¬† were foggy. There was no further conversation with the driver, recalls Marit.

- Only after four hours Paul did arrive, and we were driven towards St. Petersburg with pounding trance music in the car.

She remembers that the autumn leaves in the city's many parks were yellow. And she will never forget that the egg retrieval was successful.

Photo: Private

In January, Marit travelled again, alone, to have the embryo transferred.

- For three months we were very nervous. But then it became more and more real. Since then, things have sort of just turned around, she says.

- It's still a bit difficult to talk about, but the anxiety I carried for many years is no longer there.

On September 13, 2023, Freya is born.

Photo: Private

The cheerful baby has been named after the goddess of fertility. All the setbacks and ordeals along the way have faded away in front of their seven-month-old girl.

She stretches herself up with a proud grin on the parquet floor at home on T√łyen in Oslo.

- Freya is hope itself, she is everything we have ever wanted. A completely unusual and at the same time completely ordinary child. Our child.

The journey here has been long. But Marit and Paul are clear that everyone in the same situation must know their own limit for when enough is enough.

- There is no competition in holding out the longest, she says.

- We were lucky to get along with our emotions - and thanks to that, ride this roller coaster. ¬†But no one gets a prize for tears.¬†

Timeline: Marit and Paul's long journey

2015: Paul and Marit start trying to have children.

2017: They seek health care for assisted fertilization.

2018: In January, IVF treatment starts at Rikshospitalet.

2019: Late in the spring, the three rounds of trials in the public healthcare system are "used up". In the autumn, they start treatment at a private clinic in Norway.

2020: Repeated attempts in the private sector. There will be five attempts in total in the years 2019 ‚Äď 2021.

2021: Marit becomes pregnant for the first time in Norway, but loses the embryo in week six.

2021: Travel in April on the first trip to Russia, and the first attempt at the O.L.G.A. clinic in St. Petersburg. The second trip for hysteroscopy in June and embryo transfer in August.

2022: Next attempt at the O.L.G.A. clinic as Russia invades neighboring Ukraine and war breaks out. New failed attempts in May and July before succeeding in October.

2023: The embryo that will become Freya is transferred in January in the O.L.G.A. clinic.

2023: 13 September Freya is born in Oslo.

 

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