In 2002, when I was 29 and in my graduate career, I found myself desperate for a few thousand dollars. I was all-but-dissertation for a PhD in biology. I had a part-time job at the university making about $800 a month. Somehow I never had time to work on my dissertation. I had been a graduate student for more than eight years, my studies were keeping me away from a guy I loved who lived in another city, and my dissertation was stretching out because I couldn’t get time in my schedule to write. I was sick and tired of being poor, demoralized from graduate school and the harsh criticism that goes with it, and I desperately wanted to get on with my life. I had seen ads in the free entertainment newspaper paying “$3,000 for Egg Donors” I was only making $10,000 to $12,000 a year, so this seemed like a fortune to me. And why not make money from something I wasn’t using? I decided that all I needed was about $2500, and I could get by for three months, finish my dissertation, and get a real life. I was confident this would solve my problems.
I asked my parents to lend me the money, but my sister was in college so they couldn’t help. My boyfriend offered to lend me money, but he was just starting out so I knew he couldn’t afford it. I went to the student loan office to borrow a money but was told I would have to enroll in at least twelve credit hours at out-of-state rates, instead of the one credit hour needed to keep my student status — it would cost me more than $15,000 to get a loan! Egg donation seemed like a very good option.
I did some online research, and found a fertility clinic close to my Midwestern college town. Based on an online application, they invited me for an interview at the clinic. A reassuring and personable nurse explained their donor program, how their clinic included two doctors, and that the clinic selected very few donors. An infertile couple would have to choose me before I could donate. The honorarium for donating was $2750. They told me that the risks of donation were very low: I was more likely to be injured in a car accident en route to the clinic than have serious complications from the donation. If anything went wrong, the clinic would take care of me and make it right. When I left their office I very much wanted to be chosen. Not only did I need the money, but egg donation appealed to my desire to do something meaningful. It touched my longing to be valued in some way.
Within a couple of months, I had been selected by two donor couples who would share the eggs from a single retrieval. After more visits to the clinic, I was placed on a protocol: first, birth control pills to adjust my menstrual cycle to match the recipient mothers, then a series of daily injections to stimulate the ovarian follicles. When my eggs were ready, I would have a simple surgical procedure to remove the eggs.
During the stimulation, I had the slightest abdominal swelling and wonderful feelings. I felt fertile, powerful, and strong. The process of growing these eggs felt beautiful, and for the first time in years I felt confident that I was doing something meaningful. I was looking forward to the retrieval, and was planning to go through additional donation cycles. I was visiting the clinic every couple of days now and usually saw the nurse and one of the doctors. A few days before the retrieval, the nurse became mildly alarmed at how many eggs had developed. I had developed slight ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. The doctor decided to proceed with egg retrieval.
I think they retrieved 28 eggs from my right ovary. The eggs were shared between the two couples, and embryos were made from all of my eggs using the sperm of the recipient fathers. Some of the embryos were implanted into the recipient mothers, and others were frozen for their later use. In my application I signed away all rights to know if a child was created from my donation, or to know anything about the children my eggs created.
Following the donation my abdomen became very swollen, but the fluid decreased over the following week. I had a couple of follow up appointments at the fertility clinic, and I thought I was on the mend. We discussed when to start the next donation cycle.
Eight days after the retrieval, I woke with a searing pain in my lower abdomen. It felt my insides were being tied tightly with a string. I tried to get out of bed and fainted from the pain. A friend drove me to the clinic. It was a Saturday so I saw the on-call doctor. She performed an ultrasound and said it was nothing more than my follicles shedding and that the pain would go away in a few days. She said, “If anything serious were wrong, you would know. You wouldn’t have been able to walk into the clinic.” I felt like the doctor thought I was being overly dramatic, making a big deal of a little cramping. Over the next three days my abdomen swelled, I was delirious with pain and fever, and couldn’t move my bowels. Another friend drove me back to the clinic, and the nurse told me I needed an enema and to eat something and I would be fine. However, whenever I ate I would vomit. On the fifth day I couldn’t stop vomiting. I spent an entire night vomiting stool.
The clinic agreed to see me again, and I finally saw my doctor. He went white when he saw my distended abdomen and had me on the operating table in thirty minutes. He removed my right ovary, which had swollen to the size of a grapefruit and become torsioned in my fallopian tube. I had an infection and was on the verge of peritonitis. I was admitted to the hospital — ostensibly for a day or two – but stayed two weeks because my bowels were still obstructed. For a week I had a nasogastric tube to apply suction to decompress my intestines. I had a port installed in my chest to receive liquid nutrition. I was confined to bed for almost four weeks. I lost twenty five pounds, and I looked like a skeleton at the end of my hospital stay.
From the point at which I was diagnosed with the torsioned ovary, the clinic spared no expense. They got the best gastroenterologist to see me daily. The clinic put my mother up in a nice hotel near the hospital. The fertility doctor saw me daily. When I was discharged, they kept my mother and me at the hotel for another week so that they could check on me. I did not have health insurance but I never saw a bill from my surgery or my hospitalization. When I was ready to return home, the clinic invited me to their office and wrote me another check, much larger this time, to compensate me for my time and trouble.
I do feel that the clinic could have done some things differently. Perhaps they shouldn’t have gone through with the retrieval. They should have diagnosed my torsioned ovary earlier. Once they recognized the severity of my situation, I feel they did make a sincere effort to do the right thing. I am glad that I was working with local doctors who knew me and not an egg broker or a fertility doctor across the country that only saw me for the retrieval. Nonetheless, the donation made me very sick and I can never get my ovary back.
Since that time, I regained my strength, moved out west, got married and got a great job. It seems ridiculous that I was so desperate for $2500, an amount that I could now earn in a couple weeks. I certainly regret selling my eggs. It was a scary experience, and I thought it was behind me.
Almost five years to the day, I was diagnosed with stage II B breast cancer at age thirty-four years. I had no significant family history of breast cancer. And I didn’t have just a little bit of cancer: I had a three centimeter tumor tucked into seven centimeters of pre-cancerous cells. I also had pre-cancer throughout my other breast. I underwent a mastectomy, four months of chemo, followed by three more surgeries and twenty eight days of daily radiation treatments. A few months after finishing radiation I had another mastectomy. I feel very fortunate that I now show no signs of cancer. However, at the age of 35 I have lost both breasts and I have only a 65% chance of making it to forty five. Even if I survive, the chemotherapy has fried my remaining ovary and I am not able to have children.
When I decided to sell my eggs, I never thought I’d get cancer. I don’t remember if the clinic told me that the fertility drugs could increase my risk of cancer. They certainly didn’t tell me that the relationship between cancer and fertility treatments for egg donors had never been researched. Now I know more than I ever wanted to know about breast cancer. I know that breast cancers are hormone sensitive and can be affected by hormone treatments. During my cancer treatment, two doctors mentioned that anecdotally they see more cancer in women who have had fertility treatments. I’ll never know for sure if the egg donation caused my breast cancer, but now I know that it is likely to be a contributing factor. I think often about how much I love my husband, and it breaks my heart that my desperation for a couple thousand bucks has caused him such pain. A bad decision made seven years ago may cost me my life.
Woman X is a 35 year-old scientist living on the west coast. She is married, and has no children. She is active in environmental issues, volunteers in her community, has a busy social life, and likes yoga, cycling and hiking.