July 13, 2007

Infertility support group to assist couples

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Michele Martens, M.S.N., R.N., left, and Lucy Koroma, M.S.N., R.N., are forming a support group of couples undergoing infertility treatment. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Infertility support group to assist couples

Couples who undergo infertility treatment often find the road both arduous and lonely.

Although the woman and her partner receive ample information about the medical side of treatments like in vitro fertilization, for example, they can often be unprepared for the anxiety and depression that can accompany the path to either parenthood or child-free living.

Two Vanderbilt nurse practitioners are forming a support group for couples in the Nashville community who are undergoing infertility treatment.

The Fertile Hope Center for Healing is a 12-week program based on the mind-body connection, combining lecture, relaxation and visualization techniques, peer support and yoga — all with the goal of enhancing fertility.

The support group, which will meet for about two and one-half hours, one evening a week at Vanderbilt's Center for Integrative Health on West End Avenue, came about after a conversation between Lucy Koroma, M.S.N., R.N., a women's health nurse practitioner in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Michele Martens, M.S.N., R.N., a psychiatric mental health clinical nurse with the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

The two had the same concern — about the lack of psycho-social support for women undergoing infertility treatment — and decided to do something about it. They came up with a plan, which was approved by Nancy Chescheir, M.D., chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

“Infertility is a very lonely journey you go through with your partner. It's a lonely process, both during and afterward,” says Koroma, who worked for a fertility clinic in Boston before moving to Nashville. “The inability to conceive, or having trouble conceiving, is very anxiety-provoking and couples often don't like to talk about it, even afterward.”

About one in 10 American couples is infertile. There are an estimated 6.1 million women age 15-44 with impaired ability to have children. Research has found that stress not only diminishes a person's quality of life, but also the ability of the body to function normally and efficiently, Martens said. Being worried and upset can hinder fertility, and alleviating stress can increase a woman's chances of conceiving.

Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, comparing women in mind-body programs with those receiving only routine medical care, has shown that pregnancy and delivery rates were nearly three times higher among the women who receive the additional support. In another study, Turkish researchers found that couples attempting in vitro fertilization achieved a 43 percent pregnancy rate when their treatment included psychological help, while the group not receiving psycho-social intervention achieved pregnancy rates of 17 percent.

Martens brings personal experience to the program. In addition to her mental health expertise, she and her husband have been navigating what she calls the “fertility maze” since 2002.

“When Lucy and I met, we found that we both have the same passion,” Martens said. “Obviously, she doesn't have the same life experience as I do, as far as my fertility journey, but we met and decided we wanted to change things here in Nashville.”

The groups will be limited to 12 participants and sessions will be repeated four to five times a year. Most of the sessions are women-centered, however, there will be one two-hour session for partners of the women. The group participants can also opt for individual and couple therapy.

“It's a couple's condition, therefore both need to go through some sort of therapy,” Koroma said. “Primarily the woman is going to be the one invested in the anxiety piece of this, but men can go through anxiety and depression as well.”