I have always been the wimp in my family, the first to cry or complain at any sign of pain or discomfort.
My parents and younger brother have taken great pleasure in reenacting all my greatest “near-death” experiences and illnesses at the dinner table over the years. Like the time I fell off the back of a golf cart and was convinced I’d broken my collar bone. (I didn’t.)
Or the time I thought I had meningitis. (It was just a cold.)
So the idea of donating eggs — injecting myself with hormones and undergoing an invasive surgery, all for someone else to have a baby — seemed a little far-fetched to my family.
A couple who lived half a world away plucked me out of an online library of hundreds of women who were willing to donate their sex cells to strangers. Each of us had been broken down by our general attributes. My specifications, a fertility agency would later tell me, were desirable: 25 years old; green eyes; 5 feet, 10 inches tall; blonde hair; a 3.6 university grade point average and a burgeoning new career.
Those same specifications are what make my parents beam with pride.
One night last summer at my parent’s dinner table, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to help somebody have a baby. The usual lively suppertime conversation and laughter died down, and my parents lost their appetites. They didn’t want to joke about that time I drove my brother’s four-wheeler into a tree anymore.
I told them I am like the thousands of other women — the daughters, sisters, girlfriends or wives at someone else’s dinner table — who donate their eggs to couples who cannot conceive a child on their own.
With an estimated 7.3 million people experiencing infertility in the United States, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, or one out of eight couples, the demand for young women like me who voluntarily undergo hormone drug treatment and egg retrieval surgery is high. And with the average compensation for this kind of donation at about $5,000 in Florida, according to various Florida-based specialists, the allure of this relatively new medical procedure is attracting more and more young women, despite the many unknowns.
The eggs in my ovaries made me valuable. Without them, there is no in vitro fertilization, no surrogate mothers, no baby-making business. As it unfolded, I began to feel like a commodity rather than a human being, a means to an end on the infant assembly line.
As I came to learn, the $3 billion fertility industry is the Wild West of American medicine. The industry is mostly unregulated in United States, especially in Florida. Egg donation is outlawed in Louisiana and in countries like Germany, Austria and Italy. A medical society sets unenforceable guidelines for doctors to follow in the U.S.
Businesses have sprouted up, too — agencies across the country that facilitate relationships among donors, surrogate mothers, couples and doctors, cashing in on a piece of the fertility pie.
Few medical studies have been done on the long-term effects of egg retrievals on healthy, 20-something donors, despite some women suffering from stroke, early menopause and cancer diagnosis. Doctors and researchers say there’s not enough information to confirm if the hormones used in in vitro fertilization treatments lead to infertility or other health issues.
One of the most commonly prescribed IVF drugs, Lupron, is used off-label, or not for its intended purpose. The drug was developed to treat men with prostate issues and has been used for chemical castration.
Universities with medical school programs often host reproductive endocrinology departments that make enough money from IVF treatments to fund entire schools within the university. Generally, fertility doctors are among the highest-paid employees at private universities.
College campuses around the country are ground zero for doctors and agencies looking to recruit donors. Agencies target young women on Facebook, Craigslist and in college newspaper advertisements, offering them cash and the idea that they’re helping start a family, but they don’t explain the risks.
This began as a way for me to honor a childhood friend who passed away and a hopeful account of my experience with the fertility industry. But it devolved into a tangle of broken promises, scary science and questionable experiences — ending with a ruptured cyst on my ovary and a fear that my future reproductive health may be in jeopardy.
The doctors were there for my eggs and not for me. But I would never tell my parents that.
I wouldn’t tell my mom and dad that I woke up to tumbleweeds of my own blonde hair on my pillows, and that it would fall out in clumps for months. Or about the number of times I vomited from nausea and migraines, induced by the high levels of hormones I was pumping through my body. I wouldn’t tell them that no one knew if the effects of these hormones would haunt me later in life.
It is a common, modern arrangement. Though this couple would never know me, I would help give them a child once the hormones had sufficiently ballooned my eggs for the surgical plucking and placement in another woman’s uterus. They would get what they paid for, the gift of a life, a baby that is at least half like me. But the couple would decline to get to know me, the woman whose attributes caught their attention via the distant comfort of a computer screen.
Along the way, I would rely on my family to support me through a procedure they never really agreed with in the first place.
“My first grandchild is going to live halfway around the world from me,” my mother said.
I may be paranoid about a runny nose, but this was different. It wouldn’t be something we’d ever joke about at the dinner table.