Pain, Plans & Picking A Donor: A Black Woman's IVF Journey
Alexis Garrett Stodghill shares her very intimate, emotionally and physically draining journey to freeze her eggs and have a child.
NSNC: Were marriage and children something you always saw for yourself or was it something you didn't think about as a kid growing up?
I've never been the type of person to fantasize about a big wedding. I never spent time thinking about what my wedding dress would look like, how many bridesmaids I would have, where I wanted to get married, I've actually never ever indulged in any fantasy like that. I did almost get married when I was in my mid twenties and I called it off five weeks before the wedding and it was kind of a traumatic event, particularly for my family. But the fact of the matter was that as the date approached, my heart really wasn't in it. I wasn't really excited about merging with my fiancé's family and that's pretty much the closest I've ever come to thinking about getting married.
I've always thought I would have children and I'm actually 43. Even when I was in my twenties, I had a feeling and I would say to people who asked that 'I don't think I'll have children until I'm 42. ' But it seems like that premonition has turned out to be more of at least 42. I wanted to just be a more mature person. I wanted to be more stable in my career. I wanted to feel like I've lived. Absolutely. What I didn't know, which I found out in the process of my IVF journey is that, at least for now, medical technology can't really compensate for the age of one's eggs. And not a lot of women are made aware of this.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, no one ever asked me what my reproductive plans were. Sometimes I'm paranoid about that. Is it because I'm a Black woman, nobody thought maybe she needs to be educated about the age of her eggs and what's possible when you get into your late thirties, early forties?
But I also think that a lot of women in general just don't know that when you get into your late thirties, 40, 41, something called egg quality decreases a lot and essentially I don't want to get too complicated into the science of it, but it means that your eggs are more likely to be chromosomally abnormal.
When you're older, you run the risk of having the chromosomal damage, so that even if a healthy sperm fertilizes that egg, if it has any chromosomal damage it won't result in an embryo that can live. So basically, an article came out on The Atlantic a couple years ago that talked about how it was OK for women to plan their child rearing or their childbearing until their late thirties. This woman had done a lot of research into the belief that fertility falls off a cliff after 35, showing that a lot of the studies that we we’re used to were antiquated and that new information showed that really until about like 38, the average woman is still pretty much fully fertile.
Her recommendation was that a woman should plan to have her last child by 40 if she wants to conceive naturally.
At my first IVF clinic, my doctor would not take an egg freeze patient over the age of 39. So I went in for my first attempt to freeze my eggs. I had gone into this fertility center just to have my eggs frozen and I was 41. And they told me that I was too old, that my eggs would be too fragile to survive being frozen, then thawed out and then fertilized, which was a really big shock. It was not what I was expecting to hear.
This clinic also won't take an IVF patient for treatment who is over 43 because the efficacy of IVF isn't really very good when your egg quality goes down and it's sort of like a crap shoot trying to find the eggs in your body that are chromosomally still normal, just because if you're over 40 it's probably 1 in 100 eggs. For me, because I'm older, every round of IVF that I do, I'm lucky that I generate a large number of eggs. The last treatment I got 22 eggs but none of them were genetically normal.
NSNC: You said you weren't thinking about reproductive choices in your twenties or thirties. So was it just the Atlantic article that made you really feel like, OK, this is something I need to be doing now? Or was there something else that made you feel like you needed to go in and see a fertility specialist?
In all honesty, I thought about freezing my eggs and my thirties. A friend of mine was doing it. I met a doctor who studies menopause at a party and he explained that menopause can actually happen at any time. Women who think, 'Oh no, I’ll hit menopause at 50.’ But menopause just means your body has run out eggs. And it literally can happen at any time. I ran into this doctor in the six months preceding the decision to do what I thought was going to do my first of maybe possibly three egg freezes and it scared me because again, this is not something that people tell women.
So I thought to myself, 'I don't want to keep having period after period.' Usually when you have a period or you ovulate your body produces between one and three eggs per month and only one, in rare instances two, will be pushed down the fallopian tube for possible fertilization.
But really all of those eggs could potentially be extracted and preserved. And that's what I was thinking like I don't want to take the chance that I'm going to produce eggs for another 10 years because that's not really guaranteed. And nobody really knows when they'll go through menopause. So it's like an eye opening bit of information that he gave me and I think that's what drove me to go in and seek what I thought would just be an egg freeze.
But I was told because of my age, I would essentially be taking advantage of the fact that unlike, you know, your normal period where you produce one egg. When you take these, what they call follicle stimulating drugs, your follicles produce more. (Some women have a very bad response and they get nothing.) It's very much of a gamble. You don't know what's going to happen. I've done it now six times each. The last time produced was 7 eggs, the most I produced is 22.
Three times, I had no normal embryos. What I'm doing is I'm fertilizing the eggs with donor sperm because I don't have a partner. Then I'm having the embryos frozen and genetically tested for the right number of chromosomes. So, three times I've done it and all of the embryos have been abnormal. And it's very interesting when you do the treatment. You might extract 15 eggs and in the clinic will fertilize the eggs and then they don't all fertilize, maybe half will fertilize. Then they watch the fertilized embryos growing in a petri dish--not all the embryos will keep growing. Twice I got a genetically normal. And then I also have another embryo, which is called a mosaic embryo, which has both normal and abnormal cells chromosomally. Some clinics don't work with them. And what happens is that with a mosaic embryo, when the embryo is developing, if the abnormal cells or the chromosomally abnormal cells end up being part of the embryo, which is like the placenta or the umbilical cord or something that's not a part of the infant's actual body, then the baby can actually be healthy.
Right now I have two normal embryos frozen and one mosaic embryo. I'm considering doing IVF one more time because my doctor at the first clinic said it's good to have three or four stored. With the implantation, even if it's normal embryo, you just don't know if your body will take it.
NSNC: What type of emotional toll does going through IVF procedure take?
So the first time I did IVF, I didn't have any normal embryos and I was just really shocked. I thought that because I'd led a healthy lifestyle and I even read up on things you can do, you know, nobody has proven whether these things really help with IVF outcomes, but I think I was, trying to drink a little bit less and drink a little bit more fresh juice. But I already kind of did live that lifestyle. So it wasn't that much of a change. When I didn't get any normal embryos, any normal results, it was depressing.
I think I bought two books about improving egg quality and really, really, really embarked on like a severe, even more restrictive diet plan. I cut drinking back almost completely. I began drinking fresh juice and wheat grass every day. Taking a lot of supplements and I've always been someone who took vitamins, but supplements like co-enzyme Q, 10 and high doses. There's an over the counter hormone precursor called DHDA that declines with age that's been associated with improving egg quality. I don't know if that's what helped, but then the next three rounds I got the two normal embryos and the one mosaic embryo. And then my final round at the first clinic, had no normal embryos. Um, and I would say this, each time I did it, I would become more humbled. I would become more aware of the fact that I really wasn't in control and that anything could happen, especially when the mosaic embryo came up because I had never even heard of that. I didn't know what was going to happen each time I did this and that there's no guarantee. Even now, there's no guarantee, even though I have two normal embryos and one mosaic embryo, I could implant them all and they could all fail to implant.
My mother is funding the entire operation. I mean-- through my job because I'm not diagnosed with infertility by a doctor, I'm only allowed to access the pharmaceutical aspect, which is basically there's a benefit just for the drugs to be for the infertility to be follicle stimulating hormones, which alone cost about $8,000 a round. My insurance company paid for $5,000 for the first round. Then each round probably costs. Actually I'm embarrassed to admit how much it costs. But I would say it costs about $20,000 each time to do it.
NSNC: Why do you say you're embarrassed?
Because it's, you know, I guess I feel like it's funny because I've been telling everyone I meet, every woman I meet under 39, even some that are 40 that they need to freeze their eggs even if they need to take out a personal loan because you don't know what's going to happen in the future.
It's just strange to think all those years I've been... I don't want to say that I would have wanted to get knocked up accidentally, but I was so, you know, I've never been pregnant accidentally. I've never-- I've had unsafe sex a couple times but I've always been just very cautious about my reproductive health and my sexual health. You just hear all the time these people who get pregnant by accident for free and here I am spending thousands of dollars and it's a real struggle.