Like most girls, Ashley (Weisenburger) Gardner started her menstrual cycle when she was about 13 years old.
Along with it came the usual change in her hormones and, when she was 15, an unusual -- and excruciating -- pain in her abdomen.
“I went to the doctor and he told me it’s just part of being a woman,” she said. “In not so many words, he said buck up, it’s not a big deal, everyone goes through it.”
During the next couple of years, Ashley gritted through the pain, often inconsolable two or three days a month when she was hit with the worst of the pain.
“I wouldn’t go to school. I wouldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “It hurt too bad to even straighten my body out. It felt like everything was ripping.”
Her complaints took her back to the doctor, who would give her a shot for the pain each month.
“I remembering saying I don’t want pain medication I want this fixed,” Ashley said. “I don’t want to just put a Band-Aid over it. There is something wrong.”
But doctors didn’t find -- or look for -- anything wrong, so she lived with the pain.
Searching for answers
In August 2005, 18-year-old Ashley married Tyson Gardner. The two spent their first year of marriage getting to know each other and strengthening their relationship.
In year two they decided to start trying to have a family.
With still no baby in sight as they were approaching year three, the couple consulted with their doctor.
“He said oh you’re young, it’s fine, sometimes it just takes time,” Ashley said. “We were told it was no big deal.”
It was really frustrating to hear the doctor brush it off, Tyson remembers. To go through that first year of infertility, which seems like nothing now, was really frustrating.
So they kept trying for another six months, until Ashley talked to a friend who was struggling with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which a woman has an imbalance of hormones that often affect fertility.
“I started looking into PCOS and it wasn’t quite matching up with what I had,” Ashley said.
But then endometriosis, a disorder in which displaced tissue grows outside a woman’s uterus, came up in a related search.
“I clicked on it and I had every symptom on the whole entire list,” Ashley said. “It wasn’t just a few it was every single thing.”
She spent hours poring over articles on the Internet, learning the cause of endometriosis as well as how to treat and prevent it.
“I took the information to my doctor and told him about my research,” Ashley said. “He told me no you’re fine. Everything is fine.”
Tired of getting the same answer, she decided to find another doctor and over the next few years saw several.
“Each doctor didn’t believe me,” Ashley said.
Instead they’d want to test her thyroid or start with something small Ashley knew wasn’t the problem.
“The frustrating thing for me was that I had done so much research on it and I knew what it was doing to me,” Ashley said of the endometriosis. “I knew it was just going rampant in there and was getting me so much further away from ever being able to have a baby. Yet no one would believe me. No one would fix it.”
So they took a break and gave up on doctor visits for a while.
Surviving the shame
In the meantime, the couple dealt with questions from family, friends and even strangers who wondered when they would have kids.
“People would say a lot of insensitive things, not because they mean to just because they don’t know. It’s not talked about,” Ashley said. “I can’t tell you how many times I went home crying because people were so insensitive.”
Tyson is the oldest of 10 and says infertility was a word he didn’t even know.
“It was really confusing,” he said.
And hard. Friends and family would joke and ask if they were “doing it right.”
“We got a lot of ignorant comments,” Tyson remembers. “People just don’t understand infertility.”
His thick skin helped him through, but Ashley often internalized the pain.
“There’s a lot of shame in infertility,” she said. “I’d wonder, why isn’t my body working? What’s wrong with me? No one believes me. No doctor will diagnose me. Maybe I’m crazy. Am I not good enough? Is God punishing me? Maybe he doesn't think I’m fit to be a mother.”
Finally a diagnosis
In September 2012, the Gardners finally found a doctor who listened. They were referred to Julie Grover, a Provo doctor who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.
“During my first exam she said you for sure have endometriosis,” Ashley remembers.
Within weeks she underwent surgery.
The laparoscopy verified that Ashley had endometriosis -- something that can’t yet be confirmed without surgery. But it also confirmed that she had had it for a while, and it has spread into stage three or four.
The doctor cleaned out as much scar tissue as she could, and the couple was encouraged to try again for the next six months, the amount of time it takes for the scar tissue to build back up.
With still no baby, the Gardners were told that their next option was to see a fertility specialist.
In the summer of 2013, they began four consecutive months of intrauterine insemination, a type of artificial insemination often referred to as an IUI.
“IUI are extremely difficult to go through,” Ashley said. “I can honestly tell you an IUI is way more difficult than IVF, for me at least.”
The couple not only felt physical stress from doctor appointments and invasive testing, but emotional stress from hopes, expectations and, of course, medication.
“I want to cry even thinking about it right now,” Ashley said. “Literally within a 60 second period you feel happy, you’re crying, you’re sad, you’re screaming, you’re yelling and then back to crying again. You have no control. It’s brutal. Clomid is brutal. If you know someone on Clomid just give them a hug because it is so hard to go through.”
The first failed attempt was hard, but with each failure the couple grew more depressed.
“I was beaten and I was done,” Ashley said. “I threw my hands up and said I’m never going to have kids. I give up.”
Up to that point, they had paid about $4,000 out-of-pocket for the IUIs, as well as thousands more for co-payments, semen analyses, medications, testing and other procedures not covered by insurance.
“That was a very frustrating year for us,” Tyson said. “2013 was a hard year.”
After a break, Ashley agreed to give it one last shot. Their final option was in vitro fertilization or adoption.
“I’ve seen both sides,” Ashley said. “Neither are cheap and neither are easy.”
So they started saving. Earlier that summer, Ashley had written a blogpost about their situation, finally sharing their struggles with the world. The positive response they saw was surprising, and the amount of friends who shared similar struggles was astounding.
“You think you’re so alone because no one talks about it,” Ashley said. “People I thought never in a million years had issues were struggling with it. I’d been missing out on a support system I desperately needed. I didn’t know I needed it. I thought I was strong enough to handle it with just me and Tyson on our own.”
With that kind of support, within weeks Ashley started a small business selling homemade headbands to raise money for their fertility treatment costs.
The money she earned went toward first their IUIs and then later toward IVF.
With money in the bank, the couple decided to do one round of IVF. If they were unsuccessful, they’d focus on adoption.
“We were very, very lucky to get pregnant on our first try,” Ashley said. “We’re grateful for that.”
Becoming the Gardner Quad Squad
In June 2014, Ashley had two embryos implanted in her womb. In July the couple learned both eggs had split and stuck, giving them two sets of identical twins. On Dec. 28, at 29.5 weeks pregnant, Ashley delivered four baby girls.
Now nearly two months old, the babies are working hard to gain weight and go home.
“We learned over time that things don't happen on our time,” Tyson said. “We had to struggle with that for many years but today we know why. It came better than we could have ever imagined. Aren’t we grateful it didn't happen how we wanted it and when we wanted it? It happened in God’s time and that was better.”
He noted the compassion, empathy and understanding they’ve gained along the way.
“I can truly, honestly say, looking back into the infertility storm, that I am 100 percent grateful for the trial of infertility,” Ashley said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It made me into who I am; it has shaped us into who we are. As hard as it was to go through, I can honestly say I’m grateful for it. We wouldn't be where we are today without it.”
With hundreds of thousands of Facebook friends from around the world, the couple hopes their story will give strength to those who struggle with infertility.
“I hope to give people a little bit of power to have the courage to come out and talk about it,” Ashley said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of.”