Last year, I made the decision to take my fertility into my own hands and freeze my eggs. As a single 33-year-old woman with a history of severe endometriosis, my baby anxiety was at an all-time high. I wasn’t even close to that stage in my life. Still, I couldn’t ignore what my doctor had been drilling into me over the years. My ‘cut-off’ age to conceive was ideally 32 and no later than 35. In the clutches of a chronic illness, and with the knowledge that my life partner was waiting further down the line, I decided to go for it.
November 27, 2015
I’m sitting at the clinic on a sunny afternoon, staring down the bottom of not one, but six empty vials that will soon fill with my blood. Speaking of vital fluid, I’m all of 5ft2 and 50kg, won’t I be needing that? Now at the mercy of the nurse, I offer up one arm, then the next.
I’m here because I’ve made the decision to freeze my eggs. Based on my medical history, it was a no-brainer. I was diagnosed with severe endometriosis at the age of 26, and it affects fertility. There are no guarantees that the procedure will be a success, but it has allowed me at least a flicker of hope for a baby in the future.
Having met with my fertility specialist two months ago, I’ve been instructed to undergo some blood tests (they weren’t joking!) and a pelvic ultrasound, the first of many, I learn. It’s standard practice for any woman looking to put a potential family on ice.
Earlier that morning, the ultrasound technician is friendly, mostly quiet as she observes my ovaries. After years in and out of these chairs, silence is something I’ve come to realise is never a good sign. “Are you trying for a little one?” she asks. If only it were that simple.
Three days later
It’s been three days since my tests and I’m nervously waiting for the doctor to discuss my results. Older couples and IVF-hopefuls stream in and out of doors. “I shouldn’t be here,” I think to myself before quickly snapping out of it. Self-pity ain’t nobody’s friend.
Now it’s my turn. The doctor is speaking so fast. I can barely take it all in.
My ultrasound shows there is very little activity on my ovaries and no evidence of follicles, which release eggs. This might explain why the blood test to determine my Anti-Mullerin Hormone (AMH) level is low for my age – below one. An indicator of ovarian reserve, it tells how you many eggs are left out of the batch you’re born with.
Long story short. The doctor explains it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get any more than five eggs from one round of freezing. They consider a good amount to be between 10 and 14. Massive curve ball. I was not prepared for this news.
We set a date for an appointment with the nurse, who will explain how to it’s all going to unfold. Shocked, saddened and defeated, I make my way home and call my mum. I wish she were here.
Three months later
I’m back at the fertility clinic awaiting my ‘nurse’s interview’ ahead of my egg-freezing cycle. During this time, under doctor’s orders, I’ve been on a health regime to ensure the quality of my eggs. This involves taking a cocktail of supplements including folic acid, co-enzyme Q10, no smoking and no more than two alcoholic drinks a week. It’s challenging, but I remain committed.
I’m due to start the next week. During the consultation, the nurse explains what course of follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH) the doctor has prescribed, the dosage, as well as how to administer them. I’ll be taking 375ml of Gonal F, which is injected every morning into my stomach with what looks like an Epi-Pen.
I can’t face doing it myself. Luckily I have my mum, a former registered nurse, on hand to do the dirty work. On top of that, I’ll also be inhaling hormones via nasal spray twice a day.
Sent on my way, with an extra large shopping bag of egg freezing paraphernelia on my arm, I head home to make room in my fridge for my new friends.
Day one to six
Five days later I undergo my first blood test. The doctor will use the results as a baseline to monitor my hormone levels. I’m given the all-clear to start and over the next seven days, I inject and inhale like it’s going out of fashion. An ovarian stimulation cycle runs between 10 to 14 days, depending on how the patient responds. My monitoring won’t actually start until day seven of my cycle.
Reassuringly, the injections are not as painful as I had feared, just a small prick and a sharp stinging as they’re administered. My mum is a champion nurse. But, along with the blood tests and acupuncture I’m doing twice a week, I feel like I’m constantly being poked and prodded.
Two days in and I’m starting to get pounding headaches. I limit my physical activity, though I feel well, generally. Luckily, I’ve taken the time off work so that I can rest when I need to. Watching my stomach bloat to twice it’s size over the last five days has filled me with hope. “They’re growing!” I think to myself. By the seventh day I’ve become more socially withdrawn, moody and tired.
I’m ready to find out what’s going on in there.
I awake excited on day seven of my egg freezing cycle and head into the clinic for my first round of monitoring. The place is huge, it’s like a fertility factory and I take comfort in knowing there are so many others here like me. The nurse administering the blood test is a little heavy handed this morning, so I’m taken off for my pelvic ultrasound feeling fragile.
This is crunch time. There’s some obligatory small talk while the ultrasound technician examines my uterus and takes a few shots on her screen.
“Did you say you were on a stimulated cycle?” she asks, somewhat perplexed. This can’t be good, I think. “There’s not much going on”, she blurts out. My heart sinks.
They were the words I had most feared. There are some follicles there, but they’re all very small, she adds. I’m advised a nurse will call me with the full results later that day. My mum and I walk into the elevator, I burst into tears and she hugs me tightly. For the first time in my life, I know she doesn’t know what to say. She can’t make this better.
Day seven and eight
I leave the clinic distraught, still trying to process everything. I yo-yo between feeling numb and deep pain. I’m shocked and angry that this is happening to me. My body has failed me. The irrational thoughts start. I may never have my own baby. Or know what it feels like to be pregnant. I wonder if my family will be able to love a child that isn’t biologically mine as much as they would one that is. My mum comforts and assures me that everything will work out, but I know that she’s just as heartbroken as I am.
Then the nurse calls with my official results. There are only two follicles and they are both small. Follicles need to be at least 18mm for collection. At this point, I’m not sure whether the doctor will decide to cancel my cycle or not. For now, I’m instructed to keep going with the treatment and they increase my dose of Gonal F to 450ml. I ask the nurse if it’s likely the follicles will grow much more in a few days. She shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says. “That’s OK,” I manage to get out. “No it’s not,” she offers.
Day nine to 13
I’m back at the clinic for more monitoring and tests. The nurse is struggling to draw blood and starts jerking the needle around inside me, causing a sharp shooting pain to go up my arm. I wince and suggest she try again on the other. Safe to say, at this point, I’ve started to develop an irrational fear of blood tests.
I then have ultrasound to confirm that the follicle on my left ovary is 9mm and the one on my right is 4mm. Over the next four days, I continue the hormones and start to experience discomfort from all the bloating. My senses are heightened, particularly to noise and light. And I hate pants. Hate them.
On day 14, I’m back in the fertility clinic for the final round of monitoring. To my joy, I discover the follicle on my left ovary has grown to 20mm, big enough for collection, but the follicle on my right is too small at 9mm.
I’m relieved for the first time in five days. But I’m still waiting to hear if my doctor thinks we should continue with the procedure.
It’s late afternoon and the phone rings. It’s my doctor. She’s gentle, yet matter-of-fact, “we were hoping for a better result”, she says, sharing my disappointment. I ask her if the results might be better a second time around. But she’s adamant. I won’t be able to get any more than one or two eggs from a single freezing cycle. Ever. I feel downtrodden.
Ultimately, she adds, it’s my decision whether or not to go ahead with the collection. There’s no guarantee the egg will be good (only mature eggs are ‘good’ and can be frozen). I ask for her honest opinion. “We’ve come this far and I think it’s best to preserve whatever fertility we can,” she says, adding that she would try for both eggs.
So, with that, I decide to go ahead. That evening I awake at 1am so my mum can give me the final injection, a trigger, which releases the egg inside the follicle for retrieval. The procedure will take place in 36 hours. In the meantime, I’m sending positive vibes to my one little octyte. “Be extraordinary,” I will it.
Day 16, egg collection
I arrive at the day surgery early in preparation for my egg collection. I fill out some forms, change into a gown and wait in my bay. I’ll be given a general anaesthetic (though there is the option to remain awake), while a large needle is inserted through the vaginal wall to access the ovaries and retrieve the egg and fluid from the follicles.
Beforehand, the anaesthetist, my doctor and the scientist all pay me a quick visit and I’m shown pictures of what the ‘good’ eggs might look like. Now anxious, I follow the doctor into the operating room, with my mum by my side. The anaesthetist cracks jokes as I fade out.
The next thing I know, I’m sitting upright in an armchair with my mum smiling at me. It’s all over. They collected both eggs, she tells me. I’m elated (perhaps the effects of the anaesthetic), but still don’t know their fate. The embryologist returns with the news. One of the eggs was mature, the other was not. But they will freeze both. “You never know what they might be able to do in 10 years,” she says. ‘Small victories’, I think.
I recover from my procedure at home over the next week and am ordered to rest and take painkillers when I need to. Though not unbearable, the throbbing in my lower abdomen is constant and feels a little like menstrual cramps. I find it difficult to walk without hunching over, every step feels like a giant leap for mankind.
On the first day, I get up to eat dinner, but mid-meal the colour rushes from my face and my mum quickly comes to my aid, lying me back down. Despite that one incident, the whole recovery process is a breeze, though I still have to wait another 10 days before I can exercise and I’m unable to fly long-haul for two weeks. When I do, I’m given yet another injection in my stomach to thin my blood and prevent clotting.
Looking back, the whole experience took quite a toll on me, both physically and emotionally. I learned that egg freezing is not the answer for everyone. Still, one frozen egg is better than none. Under the advice of my doctor, I make plans to undergo a second round of freezing in a few month’s time. At least now I know what to expect.