A three-year journey

Published 11:54 am Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Axel and Jennifer with 14-month-old Lilli in their LeRoy home. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

LeRoy couple share story of struggling to conceive

Out now: Southern Minnesota “Venus.” See this story and more in the annual women’s magazine.

By Amanda Lillie

Jennifer Gumbel hurried out of the bathroom and to the kitchen of her LeRoy home where her husband, Axel Gumbel, was on the phone with his mother.

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Without missing a beat, Jennifer looked at Axel with reserved excitement and said, “Am I reading this wrong? Look at this pregnancy test — it’s positive!”

It was Mother’s Day in 2010, and the couple had been trying to conceive for three years with only negative pregnancy tests staring back at them. Jennifer had gone through hormone therapy, surgeries and artificial insemination to no avail, but she finally received the news she had been wanting: She and Axel were going to have a baby.

“I almost didn’t want to believe it, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Jennifer said. “Axel was talking to his mom on the phone, and I shoved the test in his face and said, ‘I think I’m reading this wrong.’”

She was reading it correctly, though, as she found out through a blood test at the clinic the next day. Project Baby, as Axel called their three-year journey to conceive, had finally reached a pinnacle.


The first of many roadblocks

Despite Jennifer’s excitement, Axel said he took the news of her pregnancy almost with a grain of salt for fear of another disappointment. The couple had lost a baby to a miscarriage in September 2009, and Axel was worried the same would happen again.

The whole situation was especially fragile to the couple because of the three-year roller coaster ride they had been on while trying to conceive.

The couple decided to try and have a baby after Jennifer graduated from law school in 2007. But what began as potentially exciting skipped menstrual cycles eventually landed Jennifer in the office of a fertility specialist.

“I wasn’t sure if my missed periods were an issue of coming off the birth control and not syncing up, or if I was pregnant,” Jennifer said. “It was a little confusing.”

A visit to the gynecologist revealed that she had a ring of eggs around her ovary; eggs were attempting to travel through her reproductive system to be fertilized, but they were stopping mid-journey.

That’s when the couple, still optimistic, took their first visit to a fertility specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.

“When we saw the fertility doctor for the first time, I thought we were going to go there, he’s going to come up with a plan and like three months later Jen would be pregnant,” Axel said. “They are very optimistic about what they were going to do, so I remember walking out thinking, ‘This is cool. This is finally going to work out.’”


Jennifer Gumbel spends time reading and playing with Lilli in Lilli's bedroom.

Social support

Things didn’t work out, though — at least not the way Axel and Jennifer intended.

Jennifer began giving herself monthly hormone shots as a fertility treatment, and as time went on the syringes and negative pregnancy tests piled up in the couple’s bathroom trash can.

“I couldn’t believe it. We would have a bucket in the bathroom full of syringes,” Axel said.

It had been nearly two years since the couple first began trying to conceive, and Axel thought they needed a support network.

As much as they talked about their fertility struggles after work each day, they were both so weary of the constant failures they were having a difficult time being each other’s backbones.

“After about a couple cycles and it didn’t work, it kind of intensified the need to have some sort of support,” Axel said.

That’s when Axel, who worked as a reporter for a television station at the time, wrote his first Project Baby Update note on Facebook.

“Almost instantly, the response among my Facebook friends was one of, ‘Yeah, we went through that. I know of 50 other people that went through that,’” Axel said. “That type of response got me to start these regular updates.”

At the time, Axel didn’t know that by the time Project Baby Update No. 100 came along, it would carry the good news of the birth of his daughter.


Losing a life

In the summer of 2009, Jennifer elected to have surgery to clear out a slew of tissue in her uterus, potentially caused by endometriosis, and a couple months later she held a positive pregnancy test in her hand.

“I got pregnant in August of 2009. They immediately did the viability test and checked for a heartbeat and there wasn’t any,” Jennifer said. “And then I started having cramps, and I miscarried.”

Jennifer’s miscarriage was the low point of the couple’s fertility journey at that point. Axel said he tried to go back to work for the rest of the day after learning the news, but after about two hours, reality hit.

“Suddenly it sank in,” Axel said. “Literally maybe eight hours earlier I thought I would go in to find out I would be a dad, but now it’s all gone.”

Feeling lost and frustrated, Axel posted a Project Baby Update about the miscarriage on Facebook, and in poured a wave of support.

That’s when the couple started realizing they weren’t the only people who had experienced an in-utero loss; it was just a topic rarely broached.

“(A miscarriage) is just not something that we know how to share, so you don’t realize that other people have gone through it too,” Jennifer said.

“People just kind of hopped on this wave of emotion and were along for the ride,” Axel added.

The doctors’ support also helped the couple accept the miscarriage. Axel said they chose their words carefully when breaking the news, and they never once used the word ‘miscarriage.’

“I appreciated the fact that they never said the word miscarriage. That was key to me,” Axel said. “When you hear the word miscarriage, it’s almost like a death sentence. Instead they said things like they didn’t see a heartbeat, and this egg will probably come out in the next few days.”

“For us, that was a life. That wasn’t just a glob of tissue,” he added.


Axel Gumbel plays with 14-month-old Lilli in the kitchen of their LeRoy home.

Natural timing

By the beginning of 2010, the dozens, maybe hundreds, of attempts to conceive were wearing on Jennifer and Axel. The couple was scheduling their intercourse for when Jennifer was most fertile, and some nights they would lay in bed and cry together, feeling like it would take a miracle for them to have a child.

“It was hard, the scheduled sex stuff,” Axel said. “We would literally lie in bed and be like, ‘Gosh, we have to do this.’ It was rough.”

In testing all options, Axel made a sperm donation. After learning the good news that he was fertile, he and Jennifer opted to try artificial insemination.

“It’s like they’re holding the sperm’s hand the whole time,” Jennifer explained. “And it kind of makes you feel like a dairy cow.”

After three attempts at artificial insemination with no outcome, Jennifer’s fertility doctor suggested in vitro fertilization.

“The doctor said, in a very diplomatic way, that we’re getting to a point where we’re wasting too many eggs,” Jennifer said. “The cycles are hyped up, so you’re running through eggs way faster than you normally would.”

Jennifer’s concerns weren’t just centered on her desire to have a family at this point; she had also decided to run for the Minnesota House of Representatives and was in the midst of launching her campaign.

Not knowing where else to turn, Jennifer stopped all her fertility treatments, and she and Axel watched an informational video about in vitro fertilization.

“After we watched the DVD I looked at Axel and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, at least now,’” Jennifer said. “I had committed to running for office.”

Not only had Jennifer and Axel wanted to conceive as naturally as possible, but the cost of in vitro fertilization is hefty, and the couple wasn’t sure they were ready to invest in something that might not materialize.

“I still didn’t know if I could even carry to full term,” Jennifer said.

In May 2010, the pair visited with an in vitro specialist in Woodbury and drove home to LeRoy with a life-changing, potentially risky decision to make.

The next day — Mother’s Day — Jennifer realized she had missed her menstrual cycle by four days.

Without saying anything to Axel, she took a home pregnancy test.

“I was pretty much convinced I’d never be pregnant, but I decided to check anyway,” Jennifer said. “Axel was talking to his mom on the phone about the in vitro and the cost, and I take the test and the test is positive.”

The next day, Jennifer’s pregnancy was confirmed by a blood test at the clinic. Although Axel said he responded to the good news with guarded optimism, the couple said the pregnancy had a different feel than when Jennifer got pregnant and miscarried.

“I had a million butterflies in my stomach,” Axel said. “It felt different, better this time. I knew it was not a result of any of her hormone shots.”


Crossing the finish line

Despite Axel’s continued worries, Jennifer’s pregnancy went off without a hitch. Axel continued to post Project Baby Updates to Facebook, with some of the posts receiving dozens of “likes” because so many people had become emotionally involved in the couple’s journey to parenthood.

“It almost felt like you were running this marathon, and you hadn’t crossed the finish line but you were in that last mile where you have all the people on the side of the road and they were just cheering,” Axel said. “It felt so darn good with every ultrasound that we had and seeing this baby grow without any issues whatsoever.”

In what seemed like a fitting end to her completely natural pregnancy, Jennifer’s water broke around 3 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2011, just hours before she was scheduled to be induced.

“My dream came true when we pulled up to the emergency room,” Axel said. “We pulled into the parking lot, and I dashed in and said, ‘Nurse, nurse! My wife’s having a baby; I need a wheelchair!’”

Lilli Gumbel was born just four hours after Jennifer and Axel got to the hospital, and nearly four years after they first tried to conceive.

“I felt convinced that God cares about these things and cares about women specifically,” Jennifer said. “That was the one thing I think that got me through.”

“It was all worth it and more,” Axel added. “It changed me as a person. You live for this little being now, and everything else is so far off.