Egg Donations: A Honolulu Woman's Story
A Good Egg: Why one Honolulu woman has donated her eggs, six times.
I am vegan. I am a Harvard graduate, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, a former counselor who has worked with severely emotionally disturbed teenage girls. I am a woman who spends hours running alone in the mountains. I am an amateur photographer who turns her lens out into the world. I am a writer always trying to slow her synaptic shutter and let in more light. Today, in an upper-middle-class Honolulu suburb far from the Third World, I am a baker and a cook at Kale’s Natural Foods.
I am also an egg donor, a 32-year-old woman who has never been pregnant, but who has given her genetic material to strangers six times.
Number of cities: five.
Number of couples: six.
Number of children I’ve helped create: unknown.
I’m entering my last two donation cycles. As I write this, I’m in the Bay Area, belly swollen with enlarged follicles, waiting for them to be just the right size, so that a doctor can remove as many as possible, and two fathers can create a family. I may never see these children, they will have only my DNA. I am not their mother. I am just one variable in a complex reproductive equation. A donor coordinator in one clinic told me: Once a woman donates more than four times, they question her intentions. What are my intentions? What should they be? Will giving make me more, or less, whole?
The first time I donated, I was 28. I had recently left the Peace Corps for a brilliant man who wooed me with his words and suddenly made volunteering in a developing country with impoverished youth seem very meaningless. Sorry, orphans, love conquers all, except poverty.
We were both from Hawaii, but were living in Seattle. Our lives could be broken down as such: 70 percent life paralysis due to unemployment/depression, 29 percent inspired writing/creating/performing together, 1 percent walking the dog I brought back from the Peace Corps.
As an Ivy League graduate, I knew I could donate my eggs to a couple hoping that my DNA would result in a doctor, lawyer or social-media billionaire. I knew that donating my eggs could do something we were having a hard time doing ourselves: pay the bills.
My first donation, in 2008, was quick: I answered an ad seeking egg donors on the back of The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper. The fertility clinic was located in a modern, sleekly antiseptic hospital, and every woman, from the clinic coordinator to the nurse practitioner, was incredibly warm, professional and not likely to snatch a kidney along with my eggs. I decided to drink their women-helping-women Kool-Aid, especially since donating, with its appointments and medication regimen, offered me a steadying structure during groundless times. I was openly adored by clinic staff for being their ideal donor: responsible, attractive, intelligent and athletic, which threw my self-esteem an infant-size life jacket. It took the spotlight off the elephant in the room, the uncomfortable truth that I couldn’t motivate myself enough to hold a decent job, one that wouldn’t make egg-selling so financially compelling.
After the egg-retrieval procedure, waking up from anesthesia to a gift bag containing a thank-you note, a check and a container of Vicodin gave me hope that I could provide—pain-free, even. Cue music: I was lost, and the business of procreation found me.
Before I left Seattle to move back to Hawaii, the clinic staff recommended I find an egg agent. Fertility clinics have their own donor databases, and each donor is compensated equally, often between $4,000 to $8,000 per donation cycle, depending on the city. Egg agents, however, specialize in matching donors with couples willing to pay more for donors with traits that they consider valuable, which usually means similar to traits of their own.
Getting accepted by an agency is like applying for a job, except you don’t get a job, you eventually get your eggs sucked out of your body through the side of your vagina. The hormone injections that supercharge egg production are simple compared to the rigorous screening process, the needle that pierces one’s ovaries less invasive. My college application didn’t need to know if I’d ever had sex with a man who’d had sex with a man, or how many men I’d slept with in the past six months. Besides interviews with psychologists, there are genetic tests, submissions of college transcripts and SAT scores, and physical exams. Although one’s entire character is under review, with an agency I have been able to receive the higher end of compensation, have had the same fantastic agent wholeheartedly invested in my reproductive well-being, and I’ve gotten all-expenses-paid travel for each retrieval, to San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Shady Grove (Maryland!).
Although tedious, it is fascinating to fill out family-history forms and personal questionnaires. One must be a model of a couple’s future child; prospective parents want to feel a connection, when genetically, there is none. What was my favorite book as a child? Truth: A Wrinkle in Time. Answer: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: I read it nightly while in diapers, pacifier in one hand, nothingness in the other!
I become less me, trying to fill in the blanks to questions I cannot answer, such as my favorite season, color, food as a child. For family-history questions, I want to fill pages with memories instead of simplistic, one-word answers. What was the eye color of my maternal grandfather? Answer: My sister (eye color, brown) and I (also brown-eyed) would travel to Kelowna, British Columbia, to spend childhood summers in the back of his tractor; we picked apples, cherries. When what we wanted was out of reach, it just was, without metaphor. My grandfather towered, had tall arms, leaner each year that ALS dismantled his body, nerve by nerve. It was how I first learned the word, but not the meaning of, disease. And I don’t remember the color of his eyes, but my mom tells me they were blue.
It takes me a month to fill out all these forms and explain myself through a series of prompts, when all I really want to write is, Trust me, I’m worth more than the sum of my eggs.
It’s Not Over Until It’s Ova
1) A couple (“Intended Parents”) who cannot get pregnant can select a female donor for her eggs. When IPs and donors have matched and chosen a fertility clinic, Donation Month (“DoMo,” as I like to call it) begins.
2) Gay male couples, and many female Intended Parents, must also select and compensate a gestational carrier for her time and the use of her womb.
3) Most of my donations have followed the same protocol. Inject Lupron subcutaneously in my belly for about two weeks. Lupron is a synthetic hormone that kicks off DoMo by reducing the amount of estrogen in the alcohol-, drug- and semen-free temple of my egg-donor body. (As a fertile woman on fertility drugs, any sexual intercourse during DoMo could have consequences about which I dare not nightmare.)
4) After about two weeks of Lupron injections and their intended faux menopause—headaches, hot flashes, insomnia and all—stimulation hormones known as gonadotropins are added to my cocktail of crazy. In a normal menstrual cycle, approximately 30 follicles, the fluid-filled sacs that contain and nourish minuscule oocytes (eggs), will compete to become the one dominant follicle that matures and releases its single egg during ovulation. During ovarian stimulation, however, reproductive endocrinologists control the maturation of multiple eggs using drugs such as Gonal-f, Menopur and Follistim, so that all follicles mature into ovary-crowding globs in about 10 days, resulting, as in my case, in the retrieval of up to 35 eggs.
Poking one’s belly with small needles to inject Lupron and the stimulation medications is not physically painful. However, gonadotropin-induced “mood swings” are really just surface tremors from the predatory sadness swimming circles around my heart, waiting for the slightest sign of fatigue to devour me whole. Yes, hormone injections make me miss the emotional stability and happy-happy-fun times of typical PMS.
5) After about 10 days on stimulation drugs, ovulation is triggered by an injection of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). About 35 hours later, it’s harvest time. A nurse inserts the IV, an anesthesiologist administers a light sedative and the fertility clinic’s all-star baby-making team collects as many eggs as possible.
6) A few hours post-procedure, donor eggs meet sperm in a romantic, five-star petri dish. Embryologists develop the burgeoning new life in a laboratory. A few days later, fertilized embryos are upgraded to a womb of their own and, if embryo transfer is successful, I add a positive pregnancy to my egg donation resume.
It's Not Just Physical
I am no longer with the man for whom I left the orphans, but with someone I lived with and loved nine years ago, before I left for the Peace Corps, before donating my eggs was something I considered. I came back to him bruised from all the doorknobs of life I’d fallen into since I was 23. We love all the things we do together, but having children will never be one of them. I know he wants children, and he doesn’t understand why I’d put myself through the emotional and physical stress of donating to strangers, yet will never have a child with him, someone I love. As much as possible, I keep our love wandering the borderlands of my heart, fearing that he will only keep me until he finds a woman who wants the family he wants. (I don’t do this well; love sneaks in, flips on the projector, teasing me with the trailer from our unreleased future together.)
In my personal relationships, it has been inevitably devastating to not see sperm to ovum. Of course I wish my glass were half full with babies, extra-cute ones, so I could Instagram their precious dimples and Photoshop rainbows coming out of their heads. In some ways it would be easier not to question the rightness of having children, and to just have a baby bump of my own, so I could turn sideways and fit perfectly into the Escher drawing of my pregnant friends.
I have donated more than 150 eggs, and have at least five offspring in the world, despite my belief that we shouldn’t have children, shouldn’t take the risk of bringing new lives here, exposing their hearts to ache, bodies to disease, dreams to crushing. I see a pure logic behind nonconception: Our species destroys its environment, murders its own. Our species has millions of children it can’t feed. I donate my eggs so I can live a less-strained life, my own kind of selfish survival. Still, I feel the toss and turn of dissonance, my greatest guilt knowing that, because of me, my need for fast cash, there are new versions of me out there, forced to avoid pain from the second their lungs need air.
The Needle and the Damage Done
It’s never easy, even on a physical level. There’s a moment from my 2010 donation I’ll never forget.
I am weeping, the kind of weeping one does when waking from a nightmare, caught in those dangerous minutes between asleep and awake. Don’t worry, the nurse says, coming to my side of the curtain, it’s just the anesthesia.
Better to lose control of my emotions than my bladder, I reassure myself with something not so reassuring. That’s how I roll.
The nurse tells the woman behind the curtain next to my gurney, “Six, the doctor retrieved six follicles.”
My follicle count? 32.
On my other side, behind another curtain, I hear the anesthesiologist preparing another woman. Donor or woman trying herself to get pregnant, our procedure is the same, transvaginal ovum retrieval.
Transvaginal: how the needle enters.
Ovum: a mature oocyte, an egg cell containing genetic information and potential life.
Retrieval: the ovum leaving my womb through a needle.
How close we are in the waiting and recovery room of this country’s most prolific fertility clinic; how polar are our stories, women struggling with fertility, desperately seeking offspring, and a woman who is a hot, fertile mess (me), desperately seeking, period.
I keep weeping. I’ll never know the source of this preconscious crying. I do know what’s coming next: the pain scale. The pain scale and its euphemistic emoticons that symbolize absolutely everything about why I will never directly procreate, because this world has a pain scale, zero to 10, happy face to sobbing face. Lying here, 32 eggs lighter and $10,000 richer, I tell the nurse my pain is an eight, even though I know it’s a four, because I’m scared the eight is coming.
On Gaining a Larger Perspective
I have always said, I don’t want to know. Strip all my Googleable information, let no parent or child ever find me. But this time, I know who’s getting my eggs, and simply, surprisingly, this makes me happy. This is my first nonanonymous donation, the first time I’ve sat down with the Intended Parents to discuss their intentions.
When I review the 14-page Egg Donation Agreement between myself, Intended Father No. 1 and Intended Father No. 2, I am quietly ecstatic. Meeting in San Francisco for dinner, sharing food, Intended Father No. 2 eating my cheese, taking photos, learning of their individual pasts, their many years together, what I imagined would be surreal and strange feels very familiar. It feels like reconnecting with college acquaintances, finding them more charming and brilliant than any of us were at 19.
Only when talk turns to freezing embryos do I remember my role in their lives, an incredibly important role, but one that ends after the impending procedures, after which I will most likely never see them again, or their children.
Turns out, this is all very weird for them, too. It used to take a village to raise a child, but, for many couples, it takes a village to create one.
As Intended Father No. 1 explains: “The complexity and cost of a gestational surrogacy, the search for an egg donor and surrogate to work with, the difficult conversations with family, agencies and medical providers, the need to explain the process to everyone ... the list goes on and on! I feel that if we could have had our own biological children, we would have done so years ago. It has taken me a while to get used to the whole concept of what we’re doing, and to normalize it in my mind.”
Intended Father No. 2 wrote to me: “Although I was nervous at first about meeting you, I felt it humanized our situation, as well as making me very grateful for what you are doing for us. I also feel that, when the time comes, it will be easier to explain the process to our children, having met you in person.”
What do they want? Says Father No. 1: “We have both always wanted to be parents for many reasons: to have a home life filled with more than two people, to know the joy of helping to develop another human being, to leave a legacy and contribution to our neighborhood and society (we hope), and, selfishly, to know the joy and contentment that we see in almost all parents’ eyes.”
For the first time I feel the reward, more than financial, of knowing I am helping wonderful people, accepting that my angst is mine alone, and my genes are just suggestions, their children blank slates for their love and nurturing. Sympathizing with their struggle to have children, something they find full of meaning, helps dim my own dissonance between believing we shouldn’t bring people here, and being an accomplice to multiple births. I often wonder if my own partner has gay-baby-daddy jealousy, because I give other men this joy and contentment, this legacy, and not him.Maybe it’s the hormones that have the words of men I barely know moving me; maybe it’s my own version of maternal instincts, wanting to take care of people, even strangers, even children in remote Third-World villages. Maybe, more than anything, I want to package up the past five years of donation-related guilt and stamp it with “Made Peace.” Maybe my ova are just another thing I put out into the world, like my words, and my food. Regardless, meeting the Intended Fathers, filling in the blanks with faces, hearts and aspirations instead of anonymizing numbers (Donor No. 5421), has, indeed, humanized the experience.
As the procedure day neared, I couldn’t help but feel lighter, despite my bloated belly. I laughed as a girlfriend cussed and panicked under her breath behind me, about to give me an intramuscular injection into a small target drawn with marker on my rear hip, even though she had never administered an injection in her life. I giggled at three complete strangers huddled around me as I lay with my feet in stirrups in the operating room: an anesthesiologist staring at my face, a nurse at the ultrasound monitor and the doctor at my crotch, all waiting for me to go under. I smiled when I woke up, and my travel companion was there to take me under her watchful care for the next 12 hours, which included, of course, taking photographs of me next to decorative sperm art in the clinic hallway.
Conception via donor eggs is an incredible process. An often unsuccessful, emotionally complicated and all-too-human process. But I am not anonymous, a number. I know who I am: I am my Caucasian mother’s stories of how much she has loved mothering; I am my Chinese father’s love for music and good deals; I am all the injury, heartbreak and observed suffering I’ve absorbed into my body, if not my genes, for the past 32 years. I am an egg donor, and my role in the lives of the couples I donate to ends the moment my last ova hits the aspirator. What I go through medically and psychologically is not easy, but, at the end, we exchange dreams: the Intended Parents get families, I get freedom. The freedom to work a little less so I can do what I love a lot more: garden, rock climb, create, cook for loved ones, write and travel. For me, meaningfulness comes not as much from making life, but from simple exchanges, time spent with the forgotten lives of children already here. I will never be a mother, but I worry for what becomes of my eggs, for all the unborn and the Pandora’s box of agonies that life unbounds for them, but, eventually, out of ovary, out of mind. I often wonder if my donations are more brave than desperate; in life, desperation is the pendulum, with bravery on each end. Perhaps every now and again I grasp it for just a second before flying once again through the air.
This essay expands on Jennifer Meleana Hee’s story, “How to Sell Your Body Parts ... and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning,” published in the Hawaii Women’s Journal, Issue No. 3 (July-October 2010).