Q&A: Talking Infertility and Art With Fertility Acupuncturist Steve Mavros

An art exhibit coming to Philly aims to get folks talking about the hush-hush topic of infertility.

Infertility is a pretty heavy subject, and heavy topics tend to get the hush-hush treatment when it comes to talking about them. But there’s one guy here in Philly, Steve Mavros, an acupuncturist specializing in fertility, who is looking to get us talking — openly — about the fairly common reproductive issue.

The Healing Arts Center, Mavros’ acupuncture outpost, landed him a Best of Philly award for cosmetic acupuncture, he’s also been busy helping to organize an innovative infertility art exhibit dubbed Cradling Creativity: The ART of Infertilitykicking off Friday, November 3rd, at the Old City Jewish Arts Center and spanning the month of November. The exhibit combines art, medicine and social commentary.

Here, we chatted with Steve Mavros about his his work as a fertility acupuncturist and what folks can expect from The ART of Infertility. Read on for the scoop (and a much-appreciated Sex and the City reference).

Q: So, you’re an acupuncturist who specializes in fertility. What exactly does that mean? What does the process look like?
A: We work with couples and individuals, both women and men, who are either trying on their own to conceive, or work closely with their fertility specialist if they’re doing more advanced treatments like intra-uterine insemination or IVF. Mostly, it involves regular weekly acupuncture treatments, but can also be at very specific times throughout a woman’s cycle. With IVF, for example, we do treatments on-site at their fertility clinic during a crucial time to help raise the chances of success. We also continue treatments through the beginning of pregnancy to help prevent miscarriage.

Why do you think, from your experience, people have such a hard time talking about their experiences with infertility?
Sex and periods: For some reason, especially in America, sex is somehow still a topic that makes people uncomfortable. What’s even more uncomfortable than talking about sex is talking about periods. Just reading that word, I’d bet three-quarters of your male readers just clicked away. Because infertility is not talked about freely, people also don’t realize just how common it is. Did you know one in eight women in the US experience it? Or that one in four pregnancies can end in a miscarriage? One in four! Why is there such a stigma about miscarriage if it’s happening all the time and is often the body doing a good job of only continuing viable pregnancies? Why are we telling patients to hide their pregnancies until week 12 like it’s a secret, and then if they have a miscarriage no one else knows what they’re going through?

How did you get into the field?
It’s funny, when I first graduated I never intended to get into fertility. My first year of practice a patient brought me the first major study showing acupuncture raised the success rates of IVF and brought me with her to her fertility clinic during her IVF cycle. Thankfully, the physician had an open mind and was intrigued enough to even send some of her tougher cases my way. It was great integrating care together and seeing the successes and that just made me want to learn everything about how I could help. A year or two later was that Sex and the City episode where Charlotte does acupuncture to get pregnant and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since.

How does acupuncture affect fertility?
The honest answer is we’re not quite sure how, we just know it does. Research has given us some clues. Acupuncture has been shown to help modulate cortisol which is the so-called “stress hormone” that tends to elevate when someone is going through a stressful period and, boy, is infertility stressful. It’s also been shown to help promote adequate blood flow to the reproductive organs which may help them function better. We’re still in the dark on the rest, but there is good evidence that adding regular acupuncture can raise the likelihood of pregnancy on any given cycle so for now, we’re happy with that. But I would really love for someone to tell me exactly how it works — even if it’s just so I could do my job better.

In your experience, do people typically try acupuncture for infertility before, after or at the same time as IVF?
All of the above. The majority of people I work with are somewhere in the process of working with their doctor and either about to start some form of hormonal treatment or are already in the middle of it. When I first started practicing 16 years ago, I was often people’s last resort so they’d already have been through many IVF cycles and I was the Hail Mary. Thankfully, the word’s gotten out that acupuncture can help, so they seek us out much sooner. And that’s better for everyone as we can do more good the sooner we get the acupuncture working in their system.

Have there been cases, in your experience, in which acupuncture did not help a couple conceive?
Of course. Every treatment has its limitations, and that’s why I have a good relationship with the fertility specialists in the area so we can all work together to give everyone their best possible chance.

You have a podcast “Waiting for Babies.” Why should people give it a listen?
Stories of infertility can be hilarious. Imagine your doctor just told you tonight is the one window you have to conceive and you have to negotiate some sexy time while you’re sharing a room with your brother and his friend at a wedding for the weekend. They can also be heart wrenching, like if your husband, in the middle of injecting hormones in your butt for an IVF cycle stops and tells you that he wants a divorce. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions and, like I do with my patients, I guide the listener throughout, making sure they understand any of the science or fertility jargon so we can get to the heart of the highs and lows of trying to conceive.

The Art of Infertility doesn’t sound like a standard art show experience. What sort of experience should people expect?
Many of the pieces in the show are both beautiful and raw, and were made often while the artist was in the midst of one of the toughest experiences of their lives. Some even integrate the instruments of the process like their many failed pee stick tests or their syringes from hormone injections, while others are classically beautiful pieces of painting and ceramic. One of my faves is a series of comic strips of a woman conquering her fear of giving herself an injection — often a daily occurrence for those going through treatment. You can learn more about The Art of Infertility exhibits and grab your tickets here.

Aside from gaining a better understanding of infertility, what do you hope Philly gets out of The Art of Infertility exhibition?
Community. Infertility is often a silent struggle. You can hear a pin drop in most fertility clinic waiting rooms and yet the person in the chair next to you is one of the few people who knows first hand what you’re going through and could be supportive. So, I’m hoping the artwork will give a visual cue for people to discuss what they’ve gone through and connect via a shared struggle. Plus, for those who don’t really know what it’s like, to get an understanding of how difficult this can be to endure and just how common it is.

How do you see this show decreasing the shame that surrounds infertility?
When people are struggling and in pain, the best first step is for it to be acknowledged and for them to be seen. In sharing that struggle with the public visually with art, audibly with stories on the podcast, or even one on one in a treatment room, that struggle can stop being silent. The more people come forward and tell their story the more the women and men going through it start to realize they’re not alone, and most importantly that they’re not broken; that this is just another facet of the human experience.

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