Keeping hope: UTMB maternal-fetal medicine specialist shares her own journey through infertility

May 22, 2017, 07:56 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
ShannonClark
Dr. Shannon Clarks' entire career revolves around bringing new life into the world. So when the high-risk obstetrician found out she may not be able to conceive children of her own at the age of 40, it was tough news to swallow.

“As a board-certified maternal-fetal medicine specialist, I was medically trained to know the effects of age on a woman’s fertility, but somehow felt it didn’t apply to me—I was healthy,” she said. “Turns out 40 is not the new 30 when it comes to your ovarian reserve and egg quality.”

Originally from Kentucky, Clark and her sister were the first in their family to graduate from high school and college. Highly motivated and focused on pursuing a career in obstetrics and gynecology, Clark’s undergraduate education was followed by more than 11 years of medical training, including a fellowship in maternal- fetal medicine at UTMB.

For a long time, Clark thought it would be fine if she never experienced motherhood herself. Her goals were career-oriented and not much spare time was left for finding a partner. But at 38-years-old, she met her husband—and everything changed.

“My desire to have children became strong,” recalled Clark. “However, I experienced a miscarriage shortly before my 40th birthday and the panic really set in.”

Clark and her husband, René Harris, decided to try in-vitro fertilization, an assisted reproductive technology. Commonly referred to as IVF, the process involves extracting eggs, retrieving a sperm sample and then manually combining the two in a laboratory dish. The embryo(s) are then transferred to the uterus. The couple went through five rounds of IVF in one year without success. It was emotionally, physically and financially taxing for Clark, but she always tried to put her own challenges aside and remain focused on her patients.

“As a high-risk obstetrician, I’ve spent years developing a tough skin, so I think I was pretty good at separating work from my personal life and compartmentalizing everything so it didn’t affect my work,” said Clark. “But sometimes when I went home, it would be hard. All physicians have gone through their own traumatic events, whether it’s infertility or a death in the family, and at the end of the day, we are all still human and are not immune to having it creep in sometimes.”

Throughout it all, Clark and Harris didn’t give up hope. They moved forward with using an egg donor, and Clark’s third embryo transfer resulted in a pregnancy—with twins! As if her journey thus far hadn’t been tough already, her pregnancy wasn’t exactly easy, either.

“Being pregnant with twins is no joke,” said Clark. “I had to be hospitalized and put on bedrest at only 22 weeks, which was way before the twins were viable. I was hospitalized on the same unit where I work—Room 9 in Labor and Delivery—for two months before I delivered. Having twins seems so glamorous and you see celebrities in magazines having twins, but the reality of the situation is that a twin pregnancy is a high-risk pregnancy.”

ShannonClark2At 31 weeks, Clark had an emergency C-section and her son, Remy Vaughn, and daughter, Sydney Renee, were born in September 2016 at UTMB’s Galveston Campus. Although Clark and her husband live in Houston, they were adamant about delivering at UTMB.

“We have a very special obstetrics department here—we take care of a lot of high-risk patients from all over, and I knew that no one was going to take better care of me than my own colleagues,” said Clark.

The twins spent more than a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UTMB, and are now healthy and happy six-month-olds. Clark is grateful to have a happy ending to her journey, and added the whole experience was a “huge eye-opener” that has helped her empathize even more with patients.

“I get it now. I have a whole new appreciation for women who have to be put on bedrest for extended periods of time and the anxiety and stress that comes with it,” said Clark. “And as a physician, I do urgent C-section deliveries all the time, but being on the other side of it, I have a whole new appreciation for that as well. And I understand what it’s like to be a NICU parent and how difficult it is to leave your babies every night.”

Clark’s journey to motherhood is well-documented in her popular blog, babiesafter35.com. She hopes it helps educate, inform and inspire other women and men who are going through their own journeys.

“As women, we are always told to get our Pap smears, our mammograms and to do our well-woman exams, but no one really ever talks to us about our fertility,” she said. “My goal is to be transparent about it because infertility is a reality that a lot of couples face. I want them to know they aren’t alone—and to never give up hope.”