SIOUX CITY | The storm door opens and Tuff Tonga's small bare feet hit the pavement.

The 18-month-old is off and running down the sidewalk as his dad, Spetlar Tonga, chases after him. He whisks the boy up into the air.

Inside their Morningside ranch, Tuff picks up a spongy football and chucks it. He rolls on the beige carpet in front of a shelving unit bursting with books and toys. A set of mini golf clubs are strewn on the floor. A plastic ball popping elephant rests nearby.

Tuff is the center of Sheenah and Spetlar Tonga's world.

"It's hard to remember life before him, actually. I don't miss any of the other stuff we used to do," Sheenah says. "I really don't remember what it was like before having a baby."

Sheenah initially wanted two children. Spetlar, who has seven brothers and sisters, says he envisioned four or five.

After seven years and four rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) the Tongas had their "miracle baby." Both agree one child is a good number.

"We had prayed about it -- whether or not we should've tried it the fourth time," Sheenah recalls as Tuff babbles "da da da da." "When it worked it was just one of those moments. We had waited for it for so long."

The Tongas want to help other couples struggling with infertility. They'll host Camp Tuff Love, a football camp for fifth through twelfth-graders July 10 and 11 at Lawton-Bronson High School.

Spetlar, a retired Sioux City Bandits linebacker, will teach position skills during the camp. Participants will also learn about the importance of character and scholastic achievement. Tonga helped lead the Bandits to back-to-back American Professional Football League titles in 2011 and 2012.

"The majority of the proceeds will go to help those that are here in the Siouxland community that are going through the same process," Spetlar says. "It's a great way to also teach the kids football but have a better outcome with the money."


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.7 million U.S. women ages 15 to 44 are unable to get pregnant or carry a baby to term. The CDC says 7.4 million women in that age group have used infertility services.

"It's draining in all aspects of the word -- physically, financially, emotionally, everything," Sheenah says of IVF.

The Tongas had been married two years when Sheenah saw her OB/GYN for some initial fertility testing. She previously became pregnant naturally, but miscarried.

They were referred to Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine in Omaha in 2010. Doctors never did pinpoint a reason why the couple couldn't have a baby.

"It was hard just because we had a lot of friends that had just gotten married and it seemed like a few months later they were telling everybody that they were expecting," Sheenah says. "It was one of those things where you want to be happy for them and you are, but you also start to wonder why it's happening for them and not for you."

The Tongas considered adopting a child, but Sheenah said it didn't feel right at the time. They decided to give IVF a try in 2011.

The procedure involves extracting eggs from the mother. Those eggs are fertilized with the father's sperm in a Petri dish in a laboratory. After the embryos form they are placed in the uterus.

"Technically at that fifth day you're pregnant," Sheenah explains. "It just depends on whether the baby decides to stick."

On average, a cycle of IVF costs around $12,000. Insurance coverage for fertility treatment varies. Some companies might not cover IVF at all, while others may cap reimbursement.

Sheenah became pregnant after a cycle of IVF in June 2012 and then miscarried. Another time the embryos didn't take. At one point the couple decided not to try again for six months.

"It's tough for us hearing another doctor say it didn't take or hearing a negative result. I would always tell her, 'Listen, if you're done, I'm done,'" Spetlar says. "Hearing her breaking down crying made it harder for me."

A fourth cycle of IVF produced a different result. One of four implanted embryos took. Tuff was delivered Nov. 22, 2013, via C-section. The healthy boy weighed 9 pounds, 12 ounces.

"Through my whole pregnancy I worried, 'Was he going to be healthy?'" Sheenah says. "I still worry about him to this day. As a parent, I don't think your worries are ever over."

The Tongas are encouraging other couples struggling with infertility to reach out for help and support, something Sheenah said she and her husband were nervous about doing at first.

"I think a lot of people are embarrassed at the beginning, but it's not anything to be embarrassed about," she says. "I didn't realize it until we got further down our journey how many of my friends and family and just people that we knew in the community that had trouble starting a family."

The Tongas won't try for another child via IVF.

"We're blessed with one happy baby," Sheenah says. "I think this was the answer to our prayers."


Health and Lifestyles reporter

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