‘Just keep going’

Miller family celebrates birth of son by IVF

When Rachel Miller was handed her newborn baby boy for the first time after delivery, she finally felt like she could breathe again.

After the loss of their son Sutton James Miller in 2019 to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, Rachel and Vernon Miller didn’t know if they would be parents again. When they learned of Rachel’s secondary infertility diagnosis, their hopes of parenting a child became another obstacle for the pair to overcome. With the medical guidance of Dr. Katie Ostrom and her clinic, on Sept. 19, 2021, Rachel and Vernon Miller became parents to Tripp Woodruff Miller, the first baby born from in vitro fertilization in Homer.

“We’re so excited to be parents again,” Rachel Miller said.

Now one month old, Rachel says Tripp is quickly growing into his own person and is bringing so much joy into their lives.

“He’s perfect! He’s absolutely perfect,” Rachel Miller said about Tripp. “He sleeps through the night and is making all of his milestones at all of his appointments. He’s just amazing.”

Rachel Miller shared their experience to get pregnant again was faced with many physical and emotional challenges, but their love for Sutton and who they were as parents together helped them decide to bring another life into the world. From the loss of their first son, to a secondary infertility diagnosis, to suffering a stroke during the beginning of her IVF treatment, Rachel Miller says it is a blessing they are where they are now.

“We have endured the worst thing that people can endure on this earth and we turned toward each other and said we’re going to get through this just like we have everything else,” Rachel Miller said.

The couple decided that they were not going to live in the grief and loss of their child and began focusing on being parents again. “We are going to put our heart and all of our effort into this next chapter here, and we’re going to be positive about this,” she said.

Getting pregnant a second time didn’t come as easy as they originally expected. After six months of seeking basic fertility treatments, Rachel and Vernon Miller were losing hope with every negative pregnancy test.

“Every single time, it looked perfect. Every single time, the timing was great and wonderful, the eggs looked perfect,” Rachel Miller explained. “And every single time it would just fail. We went through six months of that and were getting extremely discouraged.”

“As a woman, you feel guilty because you know your body can do this but even science can’t tell you what’s going on,” she continued.

After the fertility therapy wasn’t enough to help the couple get pregnant, Ostrom recommended bringing a specialist in from Hawaii to begin IVF with the Millers. Ostrom explained that Rachel Miller was the perfect candidate for IVF because she had previously had a successful pregnancy and birth before her unexplained infertility diagnosis.

“Couples like Rachel and Vernon, they had one of the most devastating things — all pregnancy loss is devastating — but to have been attached to a baby for six months and lose them, sometimes the system just won’t turn on again,” Ostrom said. “… We worked for a year doing basic fertility (treatments). They (had gotten) pregnant spontaneously, but then to have the need for IVF and to have it here in their backyard was amazing for them.”

In vitro fertilization, or IVF, treatments help people with a uterus conceive a child by fertilizing the egg in a lab and then transferring the fertilized egg, or embryo, into the uterus through the cervix. According to UCLA Health, 15% of couples trying to conceive struggle with infertility. Approximately 1.9% of all babies born in the U.S. every year are conceived using assisted reproductive technology, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While success rates vary from clinic to clinic because of treatment approaches and the patient’s medical conditions, Ostrom explained, IVF is the most effective treatment for patients trying to conceive.

Ostrom’s fertility, obstetrics and gynecology clinic opened one year ago and hosts a fertility week each quarter to begin IVF treatments. The clinic is capable of performing IVF from beginning to birth. So far, Tripp is the first baby to be born from a treatment that began at the clinic, but Ostrom says three more couples are currently pregnant and 12 new couples will begin treatments during the upcoming fertility week in November.

“We are so excited to offer this service and make it feasible for women all over Alaska to come and see us,” Ostrom said about the clinic.

IVF treatments begin by stimulating the ovaries with synthetic hormones to produce multiple eggs for retrieval for about two weeks, Ostrom explained. Patients will undergo ultrasounds and hormone testing before the retrieval to ensure they are ready for the eggs to be harvested. After the retrieval, the egg is fertilized and incubated for five days before viable embryos can be placed into the cervix or frozen for later use.

“The IVF process is very intense,” Ostrom said. “For women who go through IVF, it’s a horrendous up, down, joys and sorrows cycle constantly. Helping patients through that has been a lot of joy, but it’s also tough.”

For Rachel Miller, her IVF process was unexpectedly delayed after the egg retrieval due to a stroke. Doctors found a large blood clot in her brain, and after undergoing surgery to fix the clot, it was determined she had a genetic blood clotting disorder. The couple soon became fearful all of the strides they made during the beginning stages of IVF were for naught. However, after a successful recovery from surgery, the couple was confidently able to move forward with the embryo transfer.

The 10 days waiting to find out if the embryo took and she was pregnant were painstakingly long, Rachel Miller said.

“When you go through IVF, it’s very, very detailed. You are so much a part of the process because you go from having this five-day-old embryo that you’re looking at placed. For those next 10 days, you’re basically just holding your breath and watching every single step… Every twinge you feel, you’re like, is this it?”

Unfortunately for the pair, Vernon Miller was sent for work on the North Slope the day after the transfer, leaving Rachel Miller by herself. She chose not to take an at-home pregnancy test after the embryo was transferred to keep from driving herself crazy hoping for two pink lines, so when the blood test at the hospital came back positive with strong numbers, she couldn’t wait to tell her husband.

“It was one of those life changing moments. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I still remember every single emotion of I get to call my husband and tell him that I am pregnant and that we’re going to be parents again,” Rachel Miller said. “In that moment, our hearts felt like part of it came back again because we had had some much grief, so much loss, so much frustration, and so much waiting with the pandemic. I think that everyone in Homer could hear because it was just a feeling of screaming joy and tears of I can’t believe this.”

Throughout her pregnancy, the reassurance they received from the high risk specialists and each milestone they successfully passed allowed them to feel more and more excited about Tripp growing.

“When we got to five weeks and six days, we got to see the heartbeat, and that is a huge, huge milestone that you get to see. Actually physically getting to see that flicker on the screen was incredible. It was a surreal moment because we just took this little round embryo and we could see it was really becoming a baby,” Rachel Miller said. “I get to see this kid from five days until the end. Getting to have that excitement again, letting that excitement and happiness back in to your world is something you can’t describe.”

The day Tripp was born, she said it was like new life was breathed into her as she held her new son.

“It was like I was able to breathe again. It felt like I was able to take the first breath that I had been holding since we lost Sutton,” Rachel Miller said. “When my husband got to deliver him, laid Tripp on my chest and I got to look at him, I was able to breathe. It was the finish line. It was all of the struggles, all of the emotions that had gone into this, all of the people who had cheered us on and had been so kind and understanding — it was a breath.”

Rachel said if it hadn’t been for Ostrom and her staff bringing IVF to Homer, she doesn’t know where they would be.

“Her taking that initiative and having it in her heart to get every woman (who wants to be) pregnant despite the manner of her getting pregnant is the reason why I’m holding a baby in my arms right now,” she said.

Rachel shared that being able to successfully complete her IVF treatments from start to finish in Homer means there are now more options for people in Alaska suffering from infertility to have successful pregnancies without having to travel to the Lower 48.

“It is exciting to be able to share that bit of hope with them,” she said.

In everything the Millers have dealt with, they shared their faith has helped lead them forward through every trial.

“We both found that if you have faith and you have something to believe in and there is a higher power in that, then it helps,” Rachel Miler said. “That’s what works for us. We feel his brother’s presence with us, we see it everyday in different moments, and we know that at the end of all of this, we will be together again. In the meantime, we’re going to be thankful for the blessings that we do have.”

While losing Sutton and then facing infertility were two of the hardest challenges to endure, the couple decided that for the sake of their lost child, themselves and every other couple struggling with infertility, they would share their experience.

“We’ve been open with (our infertility). We’ve been open on our Facebook and to anyone that wants to talk about it because it’s one of those things that people don’t want to talk about, especially when you have secondary infertility,” Rachel Miller said. “People are always like ‘why haven’t you had another baby? Are you guys trying for another baby?’ They know what happened with our first son, so it was one of those things from the very beginning that we decided to be very open about once we knew about it because it’s very hard to navigate life and act like there is nothing wrong.”

With 15% of couples trying to conceive struggling with infertility, the Millers knew their story would help others feel more comfortable sharing their own loss and bring awareness to IVF treatments.

One of the most difficult challenges Rachel Miller said they faced was emotionally dealing with comments from other people concerning her reproductive health when they were struggling to understand it themselves.

“We had tried to stay as positive as we could and hearing from everyone ‘Oh, just relax, don’t think about it,’ all of the things normal people say and don’t realize how hurtful those words can be to you,” Rachel Miller said. “As you get older, people expect for you to be able to have another child, but it was a very, very hard thing for both of us because we knew we were great parents before and we wanted to be great parents again. So we didn’t understand why this was happening.”

Ultimately, she says be kind and considerate to others when asking about things like pregnancy because you never know what that person may be struggling with.

“Be kind whenever you’re asking about pregnancies or children,” Rachel Miller said. “Through this process of everything that we’ve gone through, I have found that I don’t ask those specific questions because you never know what someone is going through. That can take them to some places that are very harmful and you never know what people are going through.”

When asked what advice she had for other couples suffering from infertility, Rachel had three words to share, “just keep going.”

“It isn’t an easy process dealing with loss or infertility. You’ve got to just keep going,” she encouraged others. “Find your inner strength whether you’re doing this process by yourself, with your partner, with your husband, whomever you’re doing this with, just keep going. Get to that next step, get to that next appointment, and take it day by day, shot by shot, pill by pill and think about the end where there is going to be a child. Celebrate that.”

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.