I knew I didn’t want kids since age eleven. That was the year my seven blood siblings started popping out their own and our swarming family gatherings exploded into the likes of rush-hour at Grand Central station. I love my nieces and nephews, but I had reached my small-person quota and was okay with it. Children aren’t meant for everyone. Over the years I had witnessed several of my gay friends struggling to start families of their own, often spending their life savings on unsuccessful IVFs. I felt ashamed and wasteful literally flushing my high-commodity eggs down the toilet every month. In December of 2012, I envisioned wrapping up a vial and attaching a card addressed to my barren sweethearts, but the thought of having him, her, or them grow up in my immediate world was a little too close to home. I wanted to help but didn’t know how.
Six weeks later, I bumped into a work colleague, Betty, on her way to the airport. She was gripping a small floral cooler in her freshly manicured hand and wheeling a fuchsia Louis Vuitton carry-on behind her. I teasingly asked what she had packed in her cooler for lunch and she smiled dismissively and said, “Honey, these are the drugs that are getting me to Thailand!”
She went on to introduce me to her new obsession — international egg donation. Selling her “lady bits” had funded her last two trips to Bali and India. All three destinations were on my top-5 list to visit before I turned 35; I was almost 33. I had another two years of car payments, a 6-year-old wiener dog with Intervertebral Disc Disease, and a wedding company in its infancy. I wasn’t close to reaching my two-year cut-off. That evening, I researched that Betty’s donation agency was run by a local gay male couple and specifically catered for gay recipients. I signed up immediately.
A few weeks after, I met my business partner and close friend at a local dive bar to discuss our scheduled weekend wedding gigs. Two beers in, I realized that I wouldn’t make it home in time for my first FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) injection. I ordered us a round of tequilas and gave Laani a ten-minute run-down of my recent decision to “give the ultimate gift”; the donor website’s catch-tag. I also asked her to inject me with Gonal-f, a medication to stimulate egg production and ovulation.
“Does this make me the father?” Laani chuckled and rubbed her clammy hands together excitedly.
I peeled open the sanitized needle cap, clipped it onto the end of the pen, clicked in the recommended dosage, and passed it over. Leaning up against the cold rim of the bathroom basin, I pulled up my shirt and closed my eyes.
“Here she blows!” Laani exclaimed as she jabbed my pinched belly fat. “Bet this is the most action Roxy’s restroom has had in a while.”
I saved telling my mum for last. The less time she had to stress about my decision before I jetted off the better.
“Let me get this straight… you are flying to India, alone, for two weeks to sell your God-given genes to complete strangers that you will never meet? What if you wake up in a foreign country post-op missing your kidneys or they mess up your insides!?” I could hear Mum fluster as her pitch elevated through my speakerphone.
I trusted the agency was legit or Betty would have let the world know. I’d also not be alone while sharing a room at the 5-star Marriott Lakeside Executive Apartments in Mumbai with the agency’s Donor Liaison, Lucy Palmer, aka my chaperone. I was contracted to fly into Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport the next week, hugging my very own floral cooler filled with needley goodies. It was too late to obsess over possible doom-and-gloom now.
Lucy was a strange cat. A pale-skinned, gaunt, strawberry-blonde with a skittish yet arrogant disposition that kept you feeling on edge. She was mostly withdrawn and socially awkward when she spoke.
The first time we met at Cape Fertility clinic, she introduced herself, “Hi I’m Lucy, your go-to-person from here on out. After treatment commences, make sure to keep your legs closed, you have one of the highest fertility scores and we can’t afford any ‘accidents’!”
During our stay at the hotel, she spent most of her time in her room or hotel lobby taking heated work calls. We shared one mealtime together within the week we spent there. I suggested a mini celebration for my 33rd birthday and coincidentally the success of my 33 supersized baby-makers due for extraction the following day. We got home from T.G.I. Fridays before midnight, just in time to administer the daunting 3.8 cm needle shot to trigger the release of eggs. She advised me not to finish my glass of Champagne, for the eggs’ sake, and promptly disappeared back into her room.
The next morning, Lucy waited in reception, and I was ushered into the “operating room” (a small converted office at the back of the building). The nurse instructed me to remove my clothes and put the open-front hospital gown on. She closed the door behind her as I spun around to skim the state of the room. A wave of trepidation washed over me as I recalled Mum’s concern for my kidneys. There was a rusted filing cabinet standing in the corner beside a dusty fan and a few tray stands holding an array of antiquated medical tools. In the center of the room was the steel operating table draped in a previously stained disposable sheet. I apprehensively slipped my gown on, checking for any unsanitary marks, and walked over to the window to catch my breath. It was barred-up and covered in bird excrement, but I had a partial view of the road winding up to the nearby “Tower of Silence” on Malabar Hill. The 300-year-old dakhma (funerary tower) is where the bodies of deceased Zoroastrians/Parsi were left for vultures to carry out the sacred defleshing and purification ritual. The imagery of disemboweled corpses intensified my panic. There was a faint knock followed by the abrupt entrance of my tiny, barefoot anesthetist. He wore a semi-toothless grin and a pair of mended circular spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. He spoke zero English but motioned for me to lay down and stretch out my right arm. Before I could ask any questions, my depth of focus narrowed down to just the twinkle on his gold front tooth before it all went black.
I awoke in a haloed white light surrounding an image of young Buddha raising his right palm outward towards me, which I’d learned was a Buddhist mudra signifying reassurance. I lay there for a few moments in a state of blissful nirvana, until Lucy barged through an inconspicuous door, enquiring how I was feeling.
I reached around to feel both sides of my lower back and replied, “In one piece.”
She told me that I had an important examination to do before I could leave, followed immediately by, “Would you be okay on your own if I fly back home tomorrow morning? Our Cape Town office needs me urgently to resolve some matters.”
Our thin hotel walls gave me privy to what these “matters” were. She had received several complaints from donors regarding her abrasive manner and her job had since been compromised. Assuming she’d wait to get the “all-clear” from my examination before changing her ticket, I agreed to her early departure. The exam did not go well and Dr. Vinesh discovered fluid around my lungs. I was placed on an IV for three hours and then sent back to the hotel for some bed rest. Lucy was gone when I awoke.
Doctor’s orders were to drink three liters of water daily or I’d be forced to go on another IV. I had to text him photos of my urine in a measuring jug as proof I was drinking enough. I felt humiliated. Five days had passed since my extraction and I hadn’t bathed, left my room, or had a meal more sustaining than dry crackers and an energy drink. I was on my fourth course of antibiotics, three different painkillers, antispasmodics, anticoagulants, anti-nausea tablets, and a gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Gn-RH) to suppress ovarian activity. My eyes were sunken hollows and my arms and belly were covered in bruises from countless puncturing hormone injections, IVs, anesthesia, and blood tests. Recurring night terrors began with a fever and ended in the shakes. No diagnosis was given. I was just told to take my medicine, drink more water, and rest. I found some information on The Malpani Infertility Clinic, India website:
“A potentially serious side-effect of HMG (Human Menopausal Gonadotropins, Menotropins) is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) which is characterized by enlargement of the ovary and an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. This fluid can also accumulate around the lungs and may cause breathing difficulties.”
If my condition worsened, it could lead to my ovary rupturing and blood accumulating in the abdominal cavity. This could also have caused blood clotting due to the imbalance of fluids and be potentially life-threatening. The website recorded only 1-3% of patients are affected, who can be easily treated by bed rest and careful monitoring of fluid levels (if caught in time). Was I the unlucky 1-3%?
After more research, I discovered opposing results of 30-32% in Wendy Kramer’s (Co-founder and Director, Donor Sibling Registry) OHSS research. “We can see huge discrepancies regarding statistics that the reproductive medicine industry reports for the health of egg donors following donations.” She concluded that there’s little to no follow-up or aftercare offered to donors post egg-retrieval date and this is a major factor contributing to the lack of cases documented. Research on the long-term effects of egg donation was also very pricey for the medical board and therefore neglected for the most part.
The clinic’s DigiCal flickered “May 5th, 2013” in bright neon green and I flashed back to this time last month. I remember excitedly sketching out my itinerary listing all the inspiring ashrams and magical beaches I was going to visit in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. I was meditating every day, doing a full body and mind cleanse and diligently self-administering my own daily hormone injections. I felt mentally and physically prepared for this journey. The front desk phone rang, snapping me out of my memory, and the nurse signaled for me to come through. I could walk upright now, no longer doubling-over in pain. I marched down the familiar passage into his corner office. The meeting was over in ten minutes when he uttered the long-awaited words, “It’s time for you to return to your home.”
The relief washed over me like a Ganges River baptism and I beamed my first smile in a week.
A month later, I was back at home in Cape Town having my check-up at Milnerton Medi-Clinic’s Ultrasound and Gynecology Department. I had been suffering from discomfort and shooting abdominal pains for two weeks. They discovered a non-cancerous uterine fibroid that had grown 2cm since my last ultrasound (increased estrogen levels also contribute to accelerated growths). I told my gynecologist that my follow-up exams weren’t covered by the donor agency and I hadn’t heard from them since my return. She shook her head in disbelief and handed me another bill. As I left the clinic, I saw a missed call on my phone from an unrecognized number. The voicemail was from Lucy.
“Hi Louise, it’s Lucy Palmer. I wanted to give you a quick call to let you know that all your hard work paid off! Your first three eggs were successfully inseminated, and you have made a loving couple very happy. Thank you. I’m also no longer working at the agency, but you’re welcome to contact the office directly for anything you need. I’m sure they’d be happy to have you as a donor again. Take care.”
We both knew I couldn’t run the risk of being a donor again, so I was thrilled about my one-hit winners. All the trauma and medical bills could not diminish the lifetime of happiness it offered. I don’t regret my decision.
*Alcohol consumption is not advised during the stimulation phase of egg donation.*