I first saw the advertisements about egg donation around my college campus and in the campus newspaper. Full-page flyers wallpapered the area near the dorms, with taglines like “Make up to $10,000 by helping a family achieve their dreams.” They were always there, and they mostly just faded into the background. I thought it sounded like a cool thing to do — helping out a family — but never made any steps towards donating. At least, not until my friend decided to do it.
Watching her go through the donation process really made me want to do it, too. She got to meet the person she was donating to (a single woman trying to conceive) and walked away feeling like she made such a difference in that woman’s life.
I’ve always had a soft spot for women dealing with infertility. My mom wasn’t really a part of my life, and it seemed like this incredibly cruel twist of fate that there were so many women in the world who wanted to have kids and couldn’t, while there were other women who had kids they didn’t want. The idea of helping women achieve the dream of parenthood felt good. Some people get hung up about the idea of having kids out there with their genes, but that wasn’t really a deal-breaker to me — some of the people who have hurt me most were people I was related to, and some of the most important people in my life aren’t people I’m related to genetically. Genes don’t really play a huge part in what defines “family” for me.
The financial compensation was a motivator, too. I’ve lived on my own since I was 18, and I supported myself through college. I wasn’t hurting for money in a desperate way — I was working at a popular bar making a good wage in tips, I only had about $16,000 in student loans, and I didn’t have any other debt. But I was about to graduate from college and move 3,000 miles away to Alaska. I had visited my friend and her family there a few times, and every time I did I loved it more — I decided it would be my next big adventure. I figured the money from egg donation would provide me a little extra cushion.
I used the same agency that my friend had. I didn’t really have any reservations because she had a good experience, and, well, because I was so naïve. The staff was incredibly friendly. They even set me up with a photoshoot. They said they wanted to highlight what a pretty girl I was — in most of the photos I sent them, I was casual and only wearing a little makeup. I felt like a model. No one had ever pampered me like that.
I donated for the first time in July of 2007. I went to the same clinics that fertility patients would go, so they were nice and felt like a professional medical setting.
Here’s how the process went: Two shots of hormones in the abdomen — sometimes three — every night for weeks. Bruises on my stomach. One more difficult shot in the thigh. Then the egg extraction. No eating or drinking 12 hours before the procedure. IVs, anesthesia, hospital gowns.
After everything was done, I felt bloated, a bit of fatigued, and experienced some mood swings, but was back to my normal self within 24 hours of the extraction. In fact, everything went so smoothly that, when the agency reached out to me in January of 2008, I agreed to donate again. My grandma went with me for that one, and we were out sightseeing not long after I was done. Easy.
All together, I donated 28 eggs — 14 eggs each time. The agency told me that two of them resulted in babies being born (it’s rare, but there is such thing as open donations, although the egg donation agency typically controls communication between the parties).
It was during this second donation that I had an interaction that stood out to me because it was the first time I heard someone bring up a concern. The doctor asked me why I was donating my eggs again, and I told him it was so simple the first time, it seemed like a no-brainer. I remember him telling me that it was great what I was doing, but that it should be my last time donating because there wasn’t enough information about the process to know the effects of donating on egg donors in the long run. I remember thinking, I wonder how many donors he’s seen that have experienced issues down the line? What did he know that caused him to raise those concerns? He was the first, and only, person to express any worries about what the consequences of donating could be for me. I ended up brushing it off. I was young, and the concept of health as a fragile thing didn’t register with me — I felt invincible.
A few months after my second donation, my period stopped. I panicked. I had never missed my period before. I was in a new relationship at the time and thought I might be pregnant. I took a bunch of at-home pregnancy tests. All negative. My doctor blamed it on stress since I had gone through with my big move to Alaska and was still settling in.
Over three months later, my period finally did start, and it was horrific. I started vomiting, had a fever, and was doubled over in a pain so excruciating I couldn’t walk. I finally got an ultrasound to figure out what was wrong, and the doctor said my ovaries looked like hell — those were the exact words. They were covered in solid cysts. My doctor thought I had ovarian cancer and wanted to do an emergency hysterectomy. I was devastated.
After getting a second opinion, I ended up having exploratory surgery to figure out what was going on. If it was cancer, my doctor would have to perform a hysterectomy. I woke up to the news that it was not cancer — it was stage four endometriosis. My doctor told me I had one of the most aggressive forms of endometriosis she had ever seen. She said I must have had a mild form of endometriosis before donating, and that the hormones involved in the donation caused it to become extreme. It’s nothing anyone could have predicted ahead of time, but that’s one of the problems with donating: No one who donates can be sure she won’t have complications.
Endometriosis was never listed as a risk of donating. Potential problems I was told about were ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) or infection from surgery. Infertility was also listed as a potential risk. But I was told that I really didn’t have anything to worry about. I was young. I was healthy.
My case was so extreme, and I was so sick, that I would eventually end up having four more surgeries. I was put on a drug for my endometriosis that caused my hair to fall out, and it constantly made me nauseous. I puked. I was achy. But even before all of that happened, I put my body through two rounds of IVF to attempt to have my own biological children — my doctor told me this was the only window I had. Both failed.
I contacted the donation agency after my diagnosis so they could let the families who received my eggs know of my condition — I knew they had a daughter and I wanted them to be aware of my medical history in case she experienced symptoms in her teen years. When I called back later to see if they had contacted the family, they didn’t even have a record that I had been diagnosed with endometriosis. After that, I couldn’t even get a response regarding a request for my medical history. By the time the IVF failed, the agency had stopped returning my calls and emails.
I fell apart. I was on the edge of quitting work. I tried to start dating, but I awkwardly overshared way too soon, talking about sperm donors over appetizers. I was sick all the time, which wasn’t attractive. My confidence had taken a huge blow, and I hated my body for betraying me.
I decided to take a step back and put my life back together. I focused on me. I trained for a triathlon, fell in love with pilates, and traveled everywhere from Seattle to Texas to visit friends. After that year, I felt whole, and at peace.
Today, I’m mostly healthy. I still have painful days from the endometriosis, but they don’t keep me from living my life. I’m still infertile. But despite going through all of this, I still really wanted to be a mom, so I ended up adopting my beautiful daughter.
I do feel good about giving a family the dream of parenting — I’ve never regretted that — but I have become increasingly bothered by an industry that seemed to profit off of my donations and then shut me out when I was no longer a commodity they could sell. I also struggled a bit more with the anonymity of my donations. I guess I’m more curious now because there are two children out there who look like the children I could have had if not for donating my eggs.
There are a lot of things I want to see changed about the egg donation process. I think there need to be long-term studies on the actual risks for the donor, and I think there needs to be a cap on how much compensation can be offered, since that money can be used to entice women to donate who might otherwise not have.
I’m all about choice when it comes to what women do with their bodies, but I would advise women to think long and hard about egg donation. Doctors will tell donors that I’m the outlier — that my case is extremely rare. But the doctors told me that, too.