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.
NSNC: I wanted to ask him though I was going to ask you about like support from family and whatnot. So how did your mom take the news that you, I mean obviously she's supporting you financially so she's behind you, but how did she take the news when you said that you wanted to try this?
Ultimately my mother really would like a grandchild. As much as I would like to have children, she would really like to have grandchildren. My parents are not kind of eccentric, iconoclastic revolutionary types who might be like, 'This is great. I want you to do this totally unique and experimental endeavor!' She would have liked me to have found someone and settle down and even sooner than my early forties. She would have preferred that. But I think because it's kind of like a do or die situation, it's almost like, you know, we have no choice. She’s very emotionally supportive and I really do appreciate that, not just the financial support. She's actually come to New York. She lives in Washington DC. She's come almost every time to pick me up after the procedure and I would say it's definitely brought us closer.
The people I've spoken to about it have been very supportive, which I appreciate. I didn't really expect that. In fact, the only person who's been very--she reacted with sort of an initial sense of shock and disapproval--Was one of my friends from the gym who is older, Black, Latino woman, who basically said, 'Well, if you can't have a child in a normal family, I don't think that people should have them,' Then she emailed me later and apologized.
I did have one person who is the wife of one of my relatives, ask why don't I just adopt. And even that wasn't said with a spirit of harshness.
It was more of a sense of why go through all of this when there's so many unwanted children. And honestly I don't see myself as the adopting person. I'd rather have my own biological child or not have a child at all, quite frankly. I'd rather even dote on one of my cousins or something like that than adopt. That's just me. I don't know if that makes me spiritually un-evolved, but I accept that about myself. I think having a child is such a big responsibility and you have to be really emotionally committed, so it's not a good idea to go against your instincts.
NSNC: So I think I heard you say something about the process itself being a bit painful...
So when I worked with the first clinic, I experienced quite a bit of pain during the recovery. I did it five times and each time for two full weeks I was pretty much unable to walk normally.
The actual tool that's used for the egg extraction, it's actually a terrifying object. It looks like a Dildo with a needle on the end.
NSNC: Oh God!
It goes into your vagina and actually like shoots a needle through your pelvic floor into the ovaries because it's actually kind of like sucking the eggs through this needle that's going through your pelvic floor. So if you could imagine that if you have 22 eggs...
The second time I did it I got something called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, which happens when, because they're giving these drugs that make your ovaries enlarged and instead of producing like two or three eggs a month, you will produce, if you're lucky, between 7 and, you know, 22 eggs, which is what happened to me. And you know, your left and your right ovary becoming engorged with, you know, seven times as many eggs as would normally happen when your ovaries, ovaries at hyper, hyper stimulated.
I woke up in the middle of the night about a week after my second procedure with excruciating pain. And one of the things they tell you when you leave is if this happens, you should go to the emergency room. So I did and one of my ovaries was five centimeters wide and I think normally they're like the size of a walnut and I had fluid in my abdomen and I, they think that like basically they were cysts on my ovaries that ruptured. But that was very painful. And it took about another like three or four days for me to be able to kind of walk normally. It was just a very difficult, painful experience.
It was almost like my ovaries, I could feel internally, were somehow damaged. And I was bed ridden, really. I couldn't move. Some people don't go through this. I've read procedures where after a couple of days someone is totally fine.
But I did get some embryos out of it. I'm trying to get myself geared up for another round at the second clinic. I feel like I'm kind of--not at a loss or an impasse but I'm beginning to feel drained by the process physically. It's just very draining.
One of the side effects of these treatments is increased estrogen levels. I read in an article my mother sent me about concerns about connections between cancer and these treatments. No one really knows. So I don't know. I suddenly I had this terrible fear of playing roulette with my health by continuing. Just the hormonal up and downs you're going through are, it's just not normal.
Now, I sort of feel like I'm a little disenchanted with the whole process. It's a lot.
You know, if I didn't have children, I don't know, it would be sad. It wouldn't be what I expected to have happen to me in my life. And that's why I tell every woman I meet, under 39, to freeze your eggs. I mean I don't think anyone's taken me particularly seriously, but I would love to steer anyone's uncertainty. There are no guarantees in life. Obviously freezing your eggs is not going to guarantee you that you find someone to fertilize the sperm with you. Anything could still happen, but just to have more options so you aren't limited by literally the proverbial biological clock.
NSNC: I wanted to ask you, how did you choose a donor to fertilize the eggs?
I asked every gay man, every gay male friend I had if they would donate sperm and they were like, 'No.' Which is kind of sad but I respect them all wanting to not be fathers if they wouldn’t be involved. So you know, if I wasn't going to find someone to have sex with me everyday for a year and this is kind of like what I have to do.
I think I used three or four different donors.
NSNC: How did you go about picking those people?
My first clinic, they have a list of acceptable sperm banks that they will work with that they give you. And I picked one called Manhattan Cryobank. I liked the idea that it was in Manhattan, same way I like the idea that my child's father would come from someone who like was tough enough to live in New York. They have little things like audio recordings of fathers answering questions and baby pictures. You pay like $50 and it unlocks the additional information. So if you don't pay the extra money for Manhattan Cryobank, you get this self-reported, PDF of a questionnaire that they give the donor. I don't know how much they verify this, but they ask questions about diseases on both sides of the family, going back to the grandparents, they do ask about even acne. They ask about the donors' motivations to donate, their hobbies. I really enjoyed listening to the audio recordings. They list the education level. I wanted to pick people who at least had a college degree.
I wanted to pick people of a certain height. Everyone asked me if the donors are Black and they're not. That's mostly because--and this is going to sound super sad. But at first I was picking people who only who a master's degree and above. And I Manhattan Cryobank only had one donor who is Black and had a master's degree. And he just sounded so sad to me, like his voice just sounded really sad. I don't know I detected this like depressing life story.
You can read part two of Alexis' story next week.