Dr. Randine Lewis
Randine Lewis: Her Story
From Infertility to Motherhood
I was born to Scandinavian parents and grew up in northern Minnesota. My family included two older twin sisters and a younger brother. My father was a Lutheran minister, and my mother the director of special education in Duluth. I was always very family oriented. For as long as I can remember, I wanted a family of my own. Having children just seemed a part of my destiny. Although I was a tomboy and didn’t play house or typical girls’ games, I still had a strong desire to have a child. I loved children, I loved to baby-sit, and I cherished the innocence of babies and small children. I knew I would be a mom someday.
In the fifth grade, our class project was an autobiography. We were to write the story of our imagined future. I saw myself working as a roller-skating waitress in the A&W diner, living happily ever after with my handsome husband and three beautiful children on a ranch in Montana. Make sure you get that visual, because although I did end up having three children, the rest of it is a far cry from how things turned out. My children are seventeen years apart in age. And they didn’t come easily.
My parents couldn’t afford to pay for my education, so at eighteen I joined the Air Force. I moved to Italy, married at age twenty, and six months later, through no effort or concentrated planning, I was with child. My pregnancy transformed me. My life had never had such meaning. The miracle of this child growing in me was beyond words. I gave birth to the joy of my life: my beautiful daughter, Theresa. My marriage, however, was another story. My husband and I had lost our passion for each other, and the partnership ended.
When my marriage was over, I turned my sights toward a professional goal. The zeal I felt for the miracle of pregnancy never left me, and I planned to strive for a career in medicine—maybe an OB/Gyn. Theresa was in third grade when I was accepted into medical school. My studies were intense and required maternal sacrifice, but I revered the study of the workings of human physiology. I had found my passion in what was to be my life’s work.
Upon completion of the academic portion of medical school, I met Ed, a physician from Texas. Our friendship turned to love, and we decided to share our lives together. I began a new chapter in my life with a man I adored in Houston, where I began working as a medical consultant. We decided that before I went into a fast paced medical practice, we were going to start a family of our own. Okay, I wanted to increase our family; Ed was somewhat indifferent to the prospect and was content with our lives as they were. Yet the yearning to bear another child grew, and before long became an obsession.
At the same time I was experiencing hormonal problems. My joints ached, I had lower back and knee pain, I had to urinate frequently, I had night sweats, I was experiencing hair loss and my periods were extremely irregular and sometimes nonexistent. A medical work-up revealed my estrogen and progesterone levels were alarmingly low, resulting in my inability to conceive. The doctor recommended that I take Clomid, a drug designed to hyperstimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce more eggs, thus increasing the chances of pregnancy. This advice seemed wrong to me; what about the underlying problem? Was it not unwise to hyperstimulate my ovaries when the problem obviously resided in my whole hormonal system? Ed was also against this prospect. During his medical training he had seen firsthand the sometimes very unfortunate outcome of multiple births: fetal distress and often fetal death; one- and two-pound babies barely kept alive on life support, only to be irreparably harmed for life.
In my desperation I would have subjected myself to any medical procedure in order to become pregnant, it seemed that the whole universe was against this proposition. I eventually became convinced that the only solution was for me to solve my own hormonal problem. But I could recall very little practical information from my medical training—for the very good reason that it was never provided! We learned about gynecological diseases but nothing about gynecological health, and even less about reproductive wellbeing. I started reading everything I could find. I spent hours researching at the library, at bookstores, and using medical search engines. I began to eat healthily, exercise consistently, while devouring every book ever written on how to conceive naturally. Gradually, over time and as I became more educated on health and wellbeing, I stopped drinking alcohol, gave up smoking, quit caffeine, stopped drinking diet soda, sugar, milk and eventually gave up meat. I was on a strict vegan diet; I drank a shot of wheat grass every day and took a plethora of nutritional supplements.
In one book, I read that acupuncture could treat infertility. While I discounted this as a little farfetched, it nonetheless intrigued me. The search was on. I began to seek out Chinese practitioners. I found one acupuncture general practitioner, another who specialized in both acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and one who spe¬cialized in herbal medicine for gynecology. I went to all three! And on my own, I began to research herbal fertility remedies.
I shopped only at an upscale health food supermarket specializing in organic foods. I began taking herbs like Wild Yam, Vitex, and other reproductive herbal tonics. I made teas, tinctures, and other concoctions, each one smelling and tasting worse than the other. I brewed up mixtures of raw Chinese herbs on the stove every day. My house began to smell like a Chinese herbal pharmacy. I plugged my nose and choked down my special herbal potions every day.
But still I couldn’t get pregnant. I was becoming more and more desperate and I was reaching for anything. I stood on my head, put pillows under my hips during sex, waited and prayed a lot. Each month was a cycle of anticipation and despair. I almost developed an addiction to home pregnancy tests. At the first notion of a potential symptom of pregnancy (a twinge in the uterus, especially tender breasts, nausea), I would buy just one early pregnancy test, and promise myself if it was negative I wouldn’t buy another one. But each time I was let down. I began to detest the appearance of the single pink line, only to try again the next morning.
Every outing was a reminder of what I couldn’t have. I began to resent the drivers of the minivans that occupied the “Stork Club” parking spaces at the supermarket. It felt like I was the only one who wasn’t allowed to join this club. (There seems to be a universal phenomenon—when you’re desperately trying to get pregnant every woman around you will get pregnant seemingly by accident.) I noticed homeless women with swollen bellies, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. Couldn’t I provide a better home for a child? Life was so unfair. Every aspect of my being was challenged: my self-worth, my femininity, my profession, my marriage, my faith.
In the meantime, however, I noticed changes occurring within my body. My hair no longer fell out. My joints stopped hurting. I had more energy, and generally just felt better. Three months later, I became pregnant with Kyra. I was beyond delight. In just three months my body was in balance! I became fascinated with Oriental medicine. There was an enormous divide between Eastern and Western medicine, and I needed to understand this noninvasive, healthy way of thinking. I matriculated at Chinese medical school at night and finished the four-year program in two and a half years. I took up the study of Tai Qi and Qi Gong, Eastern exercises designed to help achieve balance and inner harmony. My friends and family stood by, amazed. Give up a career in “real” medicine to pursue this gibberish? But I was focused and on a mission. I had experienced the efficacy of this novel form of medicine first hand, and I wanted to know how and why it worked. More importantly, I wanted to help other women who were challenged with infertility.
When I finished my training, however, I still didn’t feel like I knew enough Chinese medicine to apply it effectively to others. So I took my family to a city on the eastern coast of China where I worked in a hospital of traditional Chinese medicine, concentrating on the study of acupuncture and the internal application of Chinese medicine. This particular hospital had departments much like any American hospital—neurological, cardiovascular, dermatology, emergency medicine. The diagnostic equipment was similar; the difference was that every patient—inpatient and outpatient—was treated only with acupuncture or herbs. This practice was like nothing I had ever imagined before. Although I’d like to paint a picture of this experience as being beautiful and exotic, in truth the hospital lacked central heating and wasn’t as clean as I could have wished. But all the doctors, including me, worked exceptionally hard. I saw up to forty patients each day, and the system was extremely efficient and friendly.
My internship focused on patients with gynecological problems, especially infertility. (Chinese women are usually alerted to any conception difficulties by their thirties at the latest. This health impairment is taken very seriously and addressed straight away.) I had to treat enough patients until Chinese medical philosophy infiltrated my bones and became second nature. I saw as many patients as I could, assessing their patterns, evaluating their pulses and viewing the appearance of their tongues. They would line up down the hallway waiting their turn with the doctor. As different as this routine was from the American hospital system, it worked.
If, for example, a woman who had been unable to become pregnant, had a history of pelvic inflammatory disease, the gynecologist might speculate there was possible tubal blockage. The doctor would then take the patient into an examining room and perform a pelvic exam, followed by a radiographic evaluation of her fallopian tubes (hysterosalpingogram.) If the tubes were found partially obstructed, the doctor might order the hospital pharmacy to brew up a decoction of herbal medicine in liquid form to inject into the fallopian tubes to open them and heal the adhesive tissue.
Most patients came for diagnosis and herbal prescriptions; others came for acupuncture. Some treatment rooms held eight to ten beds to accommodate the mass of patients, yet each individual received complete attention from her physician. The patients would converse amongst themselves and with the doctors during their treatments, and it seemed they truly enjoyed their weekly outings to the hospital. I learned a very different approach to health care: here, the doctors and patients were a team. Upon returning from China, I opened up my own clinic in Houston specializing in gynecology. I did my own research and earned a Ph.D., completing my dissertation on addressing and treating fertility issues with traditional Chinese medicine. Although I was learning to love Chinese medicine, helping women conceive was my real passion.
Loss and Rebirth - Learning to Let Go
After Kyra’s birth, I never resumed any type of birth control, although I did resume my normal unhealthy American lifestyle. A couple years later the idea of having another baby emerged. I began eating healthfully, changing my exercise routine, taking my basal body temperature, taking vitamins and herbs. This time I became pregnant rather quickly, completing my dream to have three children. Nine weeks later, I woke up one morning and knew that I had lost the baby. My breasts were no longer tender and I just didn’t feel pregnant anymore. I called my obstetrician, who reassured me that everything was fine. My subjective signs were not clinically significant, he said, but I could come in for reassurance. My instincts had been right: the blood test showed my hCG dropping and the ultrasound showed no heartbeat. I miscarried at ten weeks.
I was devastated. This was too great a loss to bear. My whole life had become focused on fertility, but I couldn’t handle the loss of my own child. I went through the stages of grief—denial, anger, then got stuck in the sadness and grief. This couldn’t be happening to me. Nobody, not even my husband, understood. My friends and family stood by and urged me to “get on with my life.” But I was grieving the loss of my child. This was more than a material loss—a part of my soul had died. I was ashamed to talk to anyone and knew no way to deal with this all encompassing despair. I went in for a D&C on Christmas Eve. My doctor gave me pain pills for the recovery period. Although the physical pain was nominal, the emotional pain was intolerable. I took enough pills to make me completely numb. Reality would have to wait. For the next month, I barely functioned. I continued to take herbs and had a few acupuncture treatments, but in truth I felt shut down both mentally and emotionally.
Thankfully, I got pregnant again in February. However, when my hCG tests started dropping again, I feared the worst. I knew that I couldn’t go through the agony of losing another baby. On the way to my scheduled ultrasound I was petrified that my baby would be gone. I couldn’t comprehend why I was being put through these trials. My greatest fear was that perhaps I wasn’t meant to have another child. I changed my prayers and pleaded for the strength to get through this, rather than to make it turn out the way I wanted it. The thought, Maybe my losses could help someone else, gave me some peace. All of a sudden I knew that everything would be all right no matter what the outcome of the ultrasound. A stoic composure overtook me and I went to my appointment with a new sense of strength. My eyes were glued to the ultrasound screen as my doctor repositioned the wand looking for the fetus, and there it was - with a heartbeat! Life was worth living again. Six weeks later my amniocentesis was normal. I was going to have a boy. My boy!
I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Five months into my pregnancy I started bleeding, heavily. I was diagnosed with placenta and vaso previa, which meant that the placement of the placenta was too low, over the cervical opening. When the uterus expanded to accommodate the growing baby, a large vessel would start to hemorrhage. My apprehension overrode any self-healing techniques, and I fell into a helpless reliance on hospital care. I was ordered on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy. I lied flat on my back for almost three months, unable to do anything but watch sitcoms on TV. I couldn’t endure the concentration it took to read, to study, or to think.
At thirty-two weeks, the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Lars was born via emergency Caesarean eight weeks prematurely; his cord was knotted and wrapped around his neck three times. The little guy overcame some big obstacles to get here! He spent two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, but it seemed like an eternity. Today Lars is perfectly healthy. To me it was one more experience I could draw on to benefit other women struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss.
What I learned from my own struggles and eventual successes was that I had to take charge of my own fertility. Western medicine had misled me into thinking I was infertile or somehow “broken.” But I wasn’t infertile: I was imbalanced. To heal myself, I had to open my mind to other ways of thinking based on a concept of wellness, and then applying practical aspects of physiology, endocrinology and emotional health. Most important, I had to look at my body as an ally rather than an enemy, as something that needed nurturing and support in order to support the growth of a child inside it.
From the mire of agony, loss, and despair in my own fertility struggles arose a compassion and determination to do everything I could to make sure other women would not have to go through such events without the support of everything that medicine—Western or Eastern—has to offer.
Today I can give my rocky path toward motherhood its proper meaning. My fertility challenge was not a medical condition: it was a lack of reproductive and hormonal balance. I don’t accept that I was being spiritually punished or rewarded. What I believe is that I was being challenged, sometimes beyond my capacity to bear it. It was the hardest test of my life. But today when I meet the complexities of parenting or any other difficulty in my life, I know that the experiences I went through give me strength. I am a better parent and a better practitioner because of my fertility struggles. My journey changed my career, as well as my life. My hope is that this book will do the same for you. I hope it will be a valued friend and guide for you as you walk your own path toward creating the child you desire. I hope it will provide ideas, treatments, and solutions that are outside what you may have heard from your Western medical doctor, and that they will open you up to a more natural and supportive way of bringing a baby into your womb. We in the West may not be familiar with these techniques, but they have worked for millions of women for thousands of years. They are designed to promote greater health and wellbeing for our bodies and souls. They work with nature to allow us to do what nature intended: to make us fruitful and ready to cherish a child.
I can’t know the pain you may have experienced in your quest for conception. I can only guess what you have gone through—the disappointment, the frustration, the hope and the hopelessness of each negative pregnancy test. Perhaps you, like me, have felt the heartbreak of conceiving and losing a child. Perhaps, like me, you have panicked and given the power over your own body to doctors in the hope that somehow they will make everything better. I don’t have any answers as to why we have been chosen to undertake such a painful journey. I have come to believe that perhaps the souls of my unborn children and those that I lost were preparing the way. Perhaps every negative preg¬nancy test was their decree that their home wasn’t quite ready. Perhaps every couple that faces the struggles of infertility is being guided by a more advanced soul who is molding his or her new parents.
I don’t have the answers for why we must go through such struggles to bring our children into the world. But I do know that when we look into our babies’ faces, they will never have to wonder if they were really wanted. Ours are the children who, no matter how they came to us, will look at their parents and know, from the deepest place in their hearts, how much we cherish them, and how we labored to give them life. And in that there is no greater security, and no greater gift.