Shine Fertility: Support for People Experiencing Infertility

If you’re fortunate enough to live in Chicagoland, you have more than Lou Malnatti’s pizza, Garrett’s Chicago Mix Popcorn, and the Magnificent Mile at your fingertips. You also have Shine Fertility. And to tell the truth, I’m a little jealous. When Patrick and I experienced infertility, there was no formal support group in our area. So, Chicago, treasure this resource!

Shine1Katie O’Connor founded this support, education, and advocacy group after she and her husband experienced infertility. She estimates that 90% of her group’s members are women, though Shine has some couples events throughout the year. So far, Shine Fertility has had 40 graduates, and 58 women are currently active in mentoring, support meetings, and virtual meetings,

I recently had the great opportunity to ask Katie some questions about her group.

Tegan: Why did you decide to start your own support organization after experiencing infertility?

Katie: Shine was born from my personal journey through infertility.  When I was going through my own struggle, I realized what an island I was on.  I wasn’t a part of the pregnancy groups and I also wasn’t a part of the new mom clubs, I was stuck in the middle, alone.  I thought there needs to be a group for the “secret sorority” of women struggling through infertility.

The waiting room at my fertility clinic was packed, yet no one talked, no one shared stories of struggle or success.  It was depressing.  I was lucky to reconnect with an old high school friend who was also going through infertility and we were each other’s support system (along with our husbands).

I thought when going through a difficult time, it helps to talk through it with others experiencing the same thing.  I developed Shine as one part support and one part education on overall women’s health and fertility.  Since growing into a non-profit we’ve added in the advocacy part!  Our first event was in June of 2012. We hosted a panel of women (my friends) sharing their personal stories of overcoming infertility, their advice, their successes, and their hard times.  It was amazing, and from that, the group grew, and the rest is in the past!

Tegan: Your goal is to help couples who are struggling with infertility. Yet, I imagine you must get a great deal out of this work. In what ways has founding this organization helped you?

Katie: Here is a Shine testimonial that hits me at the heart strings every time I read it!

“I was at an all-time low…But when I went to my first meeting, I met other women that were at different stages of their journey. This was a place where I found myself finding it easy to finally release and cry, in front of women I didn’t know, about my struggles. And, they understood. And cried with me.  It was a venue where I could mourn for my past losses and cry for my helplessness in going forward. I wanted to give up, but leaving these meetings, I knew I couldn’t.  The meetings are casual and welcoming, and they bring in fabulous guest speakers.  In fact, I met my fertility doctor who I found success with through Shine. I am thankful I was introduced to Shine, it was exactly what I needed.  It made me realize I wasn’t alone, and gave me the strength to keep going.” ~ Shine “graduate”

This particular member had endured several failed IVF rounds, and you could feel it was wearing her down.  But I still remember when she called me to meet for coffee.  We sat down, and before we could even say hi, she pulled out TWO ultrasound pictures and showed me her twin baby girls.  We both cried, and hugged, and cried some more (in joy).  I was one of the FIRST people she told and I was so honored to have been a part of her journey and be trusted with this special news.

Tegan: When people first connect with your program, are they generally relieved to have found a support group or are they hesitant because they aren’t sure how much they want to share with others?

Katie: Both – for a person who has an easy time sharing, you can see the tension release as they talk, their shoulders melt, they start to smile, and overall seem less stressed, just by opening up to the group about what they are going through, and knowing the others in the room are going through the same thing.  Others sit more silent for a few sessions or more, then finally open up, and sometimes there is an emotional release too. People cry, laugh, we’ve experienced it all!  I am just happy women feel they can come to a group session and have it  be whatever THEY need!  And for those who just don’t feel comfortable in the group setting, we have our Fertility Friends mentoring program which is one-on-one support; infertility “graduates” supporting those just starting their journey!

Shine Fertility board members Mariann Madden, Courtney Marincsin, and founder Katie O'Connor

Shine Fertility board members Mariann Madden, Courtney Marincsin, and founder Katie O’Connor

Tegan: Why is emotional support so important to people who are going through infertility?

Katie: Infertility treatments are taxing, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  You feel less of yourself, and you can feel like less of a woman. According to Harvard Medical School, “women with infertility felt as anxious or depressed as those diagnosed with cancer, hypertension, or recovering from a heart attack.”

Pregnancy rates actually go up 25% when patients receive support services. Our Shine sessions are designed to be comfortable and welcoming, a place to feel secure sharing your thoughts and asking questions.  The goal is to create a community that allows individuals to laugh and cry, side by side, while celebrating the successes and battling the challenges of infertility, as well as provide members with the knowledge to feel empowered throughout their journey. Sometimes all you need is to feel understood, surrounded by individuals going through the same thing, sharing your story and realizing you are not alone!

Tegan: What changes need to occur to increase awareness and support for couples going through infertility?

Katie: We need to get people talking about it!  I was an open book while we struggled with infertility because it helped me to have the people around me know what I was going through.  But I know that isn’t easy for everyone.  The more people open up and share their story, the more people will realize they aren’t alone, that they don’t have to suffer in silence.  We need to end the stigma that is associated with infertility, and create a movement similar to the movement that breast cancer had decades ago that now has the general public informed and educated on the disease.

Tegan: What are the misconceptions about infertility that irritate you the most?

Katie: Saying “just relax,” you’ll get pregnant. If only it were that easy! There is no question that high stress is associated with infertility, and that infertility is associated with lots of stress. While the exact biology of how stress might come into play is not fully understood, substances such as cortisol, epinephrine, melatonin, opioids, and others are known to affect stress and reproduction.

Also that it’s just a “woman’s problem,” is frustrating! In actuality 30% of the time it’s the woman, 30% of the time it’s the man, and 40% of the time it’s a combination of both.

Tegan: What’s the single most important fact you want to emphasize to people who are going through this medical struggle?

Katie: That it’s not their fault! Women put so much pressure on themselves, so much blame, and guilt.  Infertility is a diagnosis, a “disease”, not something you caused on yourself.  There are organizations like Shine here to help and be a support system for them as they travel through their journey!

Top image via Flickr by PineappleAndCoconut

All other images provided by Katie O’Connor

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