Jill Smolowe
June 26, 2000 12:00 PM

Around noon on June 8, Dr. Ronald Ackerman left his office in West Palm Beach and headed for the Jupiter, Fla., estate of Celine Dion, his most celebrated client. The day before, the gynecologist had conducted the test that would answer the pop diva’s most pressing question: Am I pregnant? But Ackerman had promised Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, the Manhattan fertility specialist who had completed Dion’s in vitro fertilization procedure 11 days earlier, that they would supply the answer together. Now Ackerman phoned from the car to let Dion, 32, his patient of three years, know he was on the way. But her husband and manager, René Angélil, 58, grabbed the phone and asked, “Isn’t this the day you’re supposed to do the pregnancy test?” Says Ackerman, laughing, “Thank God my phone cut out.”

After winding through the gated yacht-and-country-club community of Admirals Cove, Ackerman pulled up in front of the couple’s $4.7-million, 17,700-sq.-ft. mansion. By now it was almost 1 p.m., time for the planned call. While Dion and Angélil gathered in the kitchen with Dion’s older sister Linda, 40, and her husband, Alain, Ackerman got Rosenwaks on a speaker phone. “I said, ‘Ready, Zev?’ and then, boom, we told them: ‘Congratulations, you’re pregnant!’ ” First Dion burst into tears, then Angélil, and then everyone started hugging. “I’ve delivered thousands of babies and seen parents in incredible emotional states,” says Ackerman. “This ranks in the Top 10 most incredible moments I’ve ever seen.”

While many couples, fearing a miscarriage, prudently wait up to three months before sharing the joyous news, this pair, who had been trying to conceive throughout their five-year marriage, felt they did not have the luxury of time. From the moment Dion received the long-awaited word, the French-Canadian chanteuse, who divides her time between Florida and Quebec, was in a race against the tabloids to break the news to her fans. “There’s no hiding happiness,” she said in a statement the next day. “We can’t keep something so big, so wonderful, a secret just for us. This time it’s for real—I’m pregnant.”

The silky-throated superstar also had happy news to share about her husband, who discovered Dion when she was 12 and has managed her career ever since. Diagnosed with cancer in his neck in March ’99, Angélil was given a clean bill of health by his doctor just hours before the couple learned of the pregnancy. “For me,” Dion said, “this is still what counts most.”

Before alerting the rest of the world, Dion phoned her parents, retired butcher Adhémar, 77, and TV cooking-show host Thérèse, 73, at their home outside Montreal. “My mother is extremely happy and emotional,” says Liette Dion, 50, one of Celine’s 13 older siblings. “Her baby is having a baby!” Celine then called each of her brothers and sisters, most of whom work for one of her enterprises. For Liette, who says, “I cried, I shouted,” the news was all the sweeter because, since January, Celine has been on an indefinite leave from the 20-year career that has earned her five Grammys and produced more than 100 million worldwide album sales—all in hopes of starting a family. “When she stopped working,” says Liette, “it was exactly for this, to have a baby.”

Rumors of a pregnancy first surfaced in January, when the National Enquirerincorrectly reported that Dion was pregnant with twins. Citing “significant emotional distress,” the pop queen slapped the tabloid with a still-pending $20 million lawsuit and told fans, “I only wish it was true, and I hope and pray that someday it will be.” Speculation resumed late last month after Dion issued a statement that “two small surgical procedures…have forced me to remain in bed for several weeks” and would prohibit her from singing at the May 31 funeral of French-Canadian hockey legend Maurice Richard, 78.

Now Dion, who has slipped from view since her farewell Millennium Eve concert in Montreal, is permitting Drs. Rosenwaks, 53, and Ackerman, 47, to explain her medical goings-on of the past few months. The couple’s candor about their infertility problems, which Rosenwaks calls “courageous,” is in keeping with the bond Dion enjoys with her fans. As she said last year, “I share my whole life with the audience. They know everything about me.”

Even devoted Dionophiles may not know, however, that the failure to conceive had not dispirited the determined pair. “They’re very fatalistic,” says Ackerman. “They thought, ‘If it’s not now, it will be later, and if it’s not later, that will still be fine.’ ” According to Ackerman, after Dion and Angélil renewed their wedding vows last January in a Las Vegas ceremony, they “started getting very serious about proceeding” with a high-tech intervention that can cost in the range of $14,000.

The need for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) became apparent back in the spring of ’99, not long after Angélil was diagnosed with cancer. Concerned about potential side effects from his pending treatment, which would eventually involve 38 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, the couple decided to freeze some of Angélil’s sperm for use one or more times in the future. Tests conducted prior to the freezing showed that Angélil’s sperm was low in both density and movement. Noting that Angélil had never before been tested, while repeated tests had shown Dion to have “very, very healthy ovaries,” Ackerman speculates that “there’s a good chance René’s sperm count has been the problem since they were married.”

Those findings convinced Ackerman that the couple would need to pursue in vitro fertilization (IVF) through Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), a process that involves isolating a single sperm and injecting it into the body of an egg with a microneedle. A year later, acting on Ackerman’s advice, the couple met with his former colleague Rosenwaks, one of the country’s leading fertility experts, at Manhattan’s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at the New York Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

From the start Rosenwaks believed that Dion and Angélil were “ideal candidates” for IVF and ICSI. “Fertility very much depends on the female partner’s age,” he says. He told Dion there was a better than 95 percent chance that he would be able to transfer fertilized eggs into her uterus. He put her chances of getting pregnant at 60 to 65 percent. He found both Dion and Angélil “quite excited and enthusiastic about going through the process and, of course, very hopeful that it would work.”

Even so, the couple had to face some tough realities. Only 28 percent of women who try IVF succeed in having a baby. For achieving a pregnancy on a first cycle of IVF, the odds are just one in four. As Rosenwaks cautioned the pair, “There are no guarantees.” The couple chose to proceed. Last winter, when Angélil was asked if they were considering adoption, he said, “Right now, we’re thinking of having a child. We want to put all our positive thoughts on that.”

In early May, Dion began giving herself daily injections of Lupron, a drug used to prepare the body for IVF. Unlike some women, Dion experienced no hot flashes from the estrogen-suppressing drug, which prevents premature ovulation. By mid-May she was back in New York to begin the next step: seven to 10 days of ovary stimulation through daily hormone injections. “If we stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs,” Rosenwaks explains, “we have a better chance of achieving success.” To avoid overstimulating the ovaries, the results were closely monitored by repeated ultrasound and blood tests.

Through it all, says Rosenwaks, Dion “was a wonderful patient. She was very, very interested in what was going on and very participatory.” So was Angélil. The father of three grown children by two prior marriages, he accompanied Dion to most of her appointments. “They were a very down-to-earth, very nice couple,” says Rosenwaks. Adds Ackerman: “Celine never complains.”

When Dion’s eggs reached “a certain critical size,” says Rosenwaks, she was injected with another hormone, “which in effect causes final egg maturation to take place.” About 35 hours later, on May 25, as Dion lay sedated for 20 minutes, 18 eggs were retrieved with a needle, a procedure that involves minimal risk. When she came to, says Ackerman, “she had this enormous smile on her face.” The next day she flew to her parents’ home to recuperate and begin taking progesterone, a hormone that improves both the lining of the uterus and the likelihood that the fertilized egg will implant. Meanwhile, an embryologist at the reproduction laboratory utilized the six-year-old ICSI technology to inject a single sperm into each of Dion’s mature eggs. “We look for fertilization a day after the injection,” says Rosenwaks, “then allow those embryos to develop in vitro, in an incubator.”

On May 28 Dion returned to the center, and while she again lay sedated, fertilized eggs were transferred into her uterus. Though Rosenwaks will not say how many eggs were transferred, he did allow that “we would not put in more than three,” given that each could become a baby. He estimates that Dion has a “30 to 40 percent chance” of having a multiple birth. Ten days later, after two blood tests, Ackerman concluded that Dion was pregnant.

Now, like every expectant mom, Dion must wait—and hope. In late June, Rosenwaks says, if an ultrasound indicates the fetus is developing normally, she will have a 90 to 95 percent chance of carrying the baby to term. (In the broader population, roughly 20 percent of all pregnancies result in spontaneous miscarriage.) Ackerman, whose practice will handle the delivery, predicts that Dion will deliver in mid-February if she is carrying one child, two to four weeks earlier if she’s carrying multiples.

He notes that the willowy 5’7″, 115-lb. singer, who wears a size-2 dress, “is in great shape for a pregnancy.” He says that her thinness is not the result of an unhealthy diet, but rather reflects her “great metabolism.” Dion is taking no chances, cutting way back on physical exertion, stress, travel—even her beloved golf—for at least the next eight weeks or so. “Celine is 100 percent dedicated to having a healthy baby,” says Ackerman.

“She’ll be a great mother,” says her oldest sister, Denise Dion Dodier, 53. “She has the soul of a mother.” That sentiment is echoed by many who know the singer. “When we were young, she took care of everyone,” says Chantal Fiset, 32, who went to school with Dion in the French-speaking working-class town of Charlemagne (population: 5,598), Quebec. Affirms sister Liette, whose daughter Karine Menard was very close to her Aunt Celine before she died of cystic fibrosis in 1993 at age 16: “Since she was little, she wanted to have a baby.” Denise adds, “We have more than 30 grandchildren in the family now, so Celine always has a baby in her arms.”

Dion’s affection for children is apparent to the residents of Jupiter. When parents try to wave away the youngsters who approach her at Admirals Cove’s golf course clubhouse, she protests, “No, no, these are my fans!” Last Halloween she answered’ her door to greet trick-or-treaters. The prior spring she paid a surprise visit to local Lighthouse Elementary School to sign autographs.

While it remains to be seen how Dion will fill her time during her pregnancy, local residents have some hunches. The Dion they know loves to prowl the posh shops in the Gardens Mall and along Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. A favorite haunt is Saks, where her face is familiar at the Chanel counter. “She told me that all these years, she’s had a stylist doing her makeup, but now that she’s on her hiatus, she needs to learn to do it herself,” says makeup specialist Lynda Kaufman. “She laughed about it. She’s very charming.”

And at the moment, very happy. “In three weeks, if all goes well, we’ll hear the heart of our baby beating in my tummy,” she enthused in her statement. Friends say Dion will be delighted if she hears more than one heartbeat. “She definitely wants to have more than one,” says Sheila Stotts, her haircutter. But even with all the excitement, Dion is not losing sight of the gift she has already received in her husband’s recovered health. As for the future, Dion said in her announcement, “We know how fragile this new life is. But we know that, whatever happens, life has already won.”

Jill Smolowe

Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Jennifer Longley in Montreal, Don Sider and Lori Rozsa in Jupiter, Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

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