What you need to know:
- Successful IVF treatment brings joy to couples who needed medical help to get a child. But what is it like for the egg donors? Three egg donors share their experience with Felista Wangari
It has been four years since Wangui* first donated her eggs. She did not need them and she wanted the cash incentive given to women who donate eggs.
“At 21 I was very young and having a baby was not something I was thinking about; I was on a mission and it had nothing to do with helping another woman conceive.”
A male classmate at the college where she was studying had mentioned that she could make some money by donating her eggs at one of the IVF clinics in Nairobi. He wanted a cut of the money she would get for pointing her in the right direction, but she side-stepped him and went to the clinic one morning hoping to leave with a bulkier wallet.
“I did not need the eggs and being the perennially broke college student depending on the inadequate pocket money I got from my parents, I lusted after the thought of making what then appeared to be a tidy sum,” Wangui*, now a 25-year-old job seeker, says.
“I had donated blood before but I did not know that donating eggs was more involving. I thought it was a one-day procedure, but I soon found out that it would take a while longer.”
It is virtually impossible to speak about IVF without mentioning egg harvesting and donation. Dr Wanyoike Gichuhi, a senior lecturer of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine and fertility specialist, says that most women going through IVF treatment use egg donors to accomplish their dream of motherhood.
Many are women who delayed motherhood past the peak of fertility in their early to mid-20s and whose chances of conceiving and carrying a baby to term increase if they use ova from a younger donor. Women whose ovaries cannot produce eggs and those with defective ova also need egg donors to get children.
After going through comprehensive medical screening to rule out infectious and chronic diseases and giving the medical history of her family to rule out hereditary illness, Wangui was found to be a viable donor.
The cost of the screening was met by the recipient of the eggs. The recipient also paid for her transport and a monetary incentive of Sh30,000. The current rates for the monetary incentive, which gynaecologists insist is not the same as buying the eggs but rather an appreciation of the kindness of the donor, are between Sh40,000 and Sh60,000.
After signing an elaborate consent form stipulating that she would never lay claim to the baby and would have no contact with the recipient, Wangui was given the go-ahead to donate her eggs. But first she needed to go through fertility treatment, just like the one given to women who are undergoing IVF, to prepare her eggs for harvesting.
She was going to be an anonymous donor. To avoid tampering with the body’s natural cycle the women start the procedure on the second day of their menstrual period. The ovaries are stimulated with hormones to ripen as many eggs as possible in preparation for harvesting.
“My only fear was that it might affect my ability to have children later, but talking to a different gynaecologist reassured me that (this would not happen). I was also happy because they did not require parental consent — which parent would allow you to do such a thing?”
Despite a phobia for injections, Wangui managed to withstand the daily painless hormonal injections on her stomach to stimulate the ovary to ripen as many eggs as possible.
The doctor told her that the eggs would be ready for harvesting in 10 or14 days, but before then, she had to come to the clinic at the same time every day, without fail for two injections. The doctor warned her to keep off alcohol during the treatment and to only have sex with a condom unless she wanted to conceive quadruplets.
“The director of the clinic was very strict and would warn us against defying her instructions. If she threw me out of the programme for any reason I would have to pay back the cost of the treatment I had undergone,” she recalls.
On the tenth day the doctor used a vaginal probe to check if the eggs were ready. She had to continue with treatment at least two more days. “The only thing that made me not drop out at this point was motivation of getting some money at the end of it.
However, it was the longest and most frustrating two-day wait of my life,” she recalls. Two days later, bloating, abdominal cramps, and a vaginal scan showed that she was finally ready to give up her eggs.
A short general anaesthetic prepared her for the procedure. “Lying there in the theatre with only a numbing anaesthesia on my abdomen and a tube connected through my vagina, I was very excited. I could hear the ‘bloom, bloom’ of the eggs as they were sucked out of my body,” she recalls.
Thirty minutes later it was over, but she took a two-hour recovery nap and when she woke up the director brought her a white envelope with crisp notes — Sh30,000 in total. The discomfort she had been feeling dissipated immediately.
Wangui took a taxi home, spruced herself up, and called up her best friend with whom they partied all night. She used the rest of the money to upgrade her wardrobe, buy shoes, and a few other things she wanted and then waited six months before donating again. The third time around the clinic director told her that she could not donate any more.
Although she had been told that after donating her eggs, her side of it would end, months after she had first donated her ova she got a call to go to the IVF clinic urgently. The mother of a baby who was conceived using the first batch of eggs she had donated had to have the baby delivered at 24 weeks and the baby needed blood.
“Neither of the child’s parents was a match but I shared a blood group with the pre-term baby — would I be so kind as to give blood for the child? I went to the hospital where the baby was admitted in ICU.
I asked to see the baby, but due to the confidentiality and anonymity clause in the consent form I had signed before donating, I was not allowed to. I felt sad, but I was happy to have helped whichever way that I could. Before, I had thought it was just eggs, but now I felt like it was my baby. The baby did not survive and I wept for her.”
Does she wonder about any children out there who might have been made from her eggs?
“They don’t tell you whether or not it has work. After you donate that’s it — but I think it’s OK because at 21 the last thing on my mind was having a baby. But yes, I hope at least one of my eggs was viable and made it. Sometimes I wonder if any of the other eggs I gave made a baby successfully and how the baby is doing, but I don’t really think about it much.”
Looking back, Wangui feels that her eggs were worth much more than the cash amount she got for them and if anyone were to ask her to donate now she would not be as carefree about. She would donate only for a relative who asked her.
“Now I am at a stage where I am beginning to think about having my own children. I know a relative who has gone through IVF without success and since the procedure is not cheap, she is very frustrated. Maybe she needs an egg donor, but I can’t ask her because how do you even bring it up and would that complicate our relationship, since I would not be an anonymous donor? (But) it is better to sell eggs than to sell one’s body; it is a good clean source of one-time income.”
Winnie* and Mary* also donated their eggs. Winnie donated in 2010 for the Sh30,000 cash reward, but she says it is her dirty little secret since, apart from her best friend and the medical staff involved in the process, nobody else knows about it.
“It was gross seeing the tiny pink blood-coated eggs sucked out of me one ovary at a time and passing through a tube out of my body. It is something I don’t like to remember,” she says.
“I got the Sh30,000, but it was like pesa ya haramu. I can’t tell you anything tangible I did with it save for partying and buying myself a few things. But for a college student, I don’t regret how I spent it,” she says, laughing. Winnie does not think about whether any of her ova successfully made a child. She donated a second time, six months after the first, but she would never donate again.
“I would not do it now. I really don’t have eggs to give away. I’m still eligible but now I’m thinking of and ready to get my own children.”
Mary, a 25-year-old student, donated her eggs three months ago, moved by the challenges older women go through in trying to get a child. She was also curious about the whole process of another woman using her eggs to get a child.
“I read a newspaper article about the frustrations of women who have tried everything to get a child, done a round or two of IVF without success and here I was with thousands of eggs that I was not using anyway.” She had thought it would be a long, difficult process while in truth it was not. She was amazed at how straightforward the whole process was.
“They explained everything that would happen and what I should expect and the side effects of the injections — abdominal pain, dizziness, and bloating — that lasted only a few days.”
She does not wonder about having children out there but she reckons that if there is one, it probably is, just like her, beautiful, potentially smart, and funny. “I haven’t done it again, but it was worth it”, says Mary, who refuses to say how much she was paid for the donation.
*Names changed to maintain the anonymity of the donors.
Interesting facts about egg donation
The first successful transfer of a fertilised egg from one woman to another and in which the recipient got pregnant was reported in July 1983, in California, US. The resulting baby was born in 1984.
Can you have a designer baby —– with the best human qualities — using an egg donor?
Not in Kenya, but in countries like America, you may specify that you want a donor with specific characteristics that will help you get a baby as close as possible to the one of your dreams. However, for that you will have to pay much more than a recipient who is not as fussy.
What do you need to do to be an egg donor and how does it work?
Any healthy, college-educated, young woman aged from 18 to 35 can be an egg donor. However, clinics prefer women in their early to mid-20s. A woman’s fertility peaks in her early twenties and starts to decline after that.
Donors have to go through some tests before they can donate: early menstrual hormonal profile, HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B and C, blood group, and haemoglobin level tests.
After removal, the eggs are fertilised with the recipient’s male partner’s sperm or with a male donor’s sperm and the resulting embryo is placed into the recipient’s uterus.
How many eggs are removed during retrieval?
On average 10 to 20 eggs are retrieved. The doctor chooses the best one to make three embryos and the rest can be frozen or discarded.
Does one become more fertile after egg donation?
You will be more fertile after donating but will return to your normal fertility within a month.
Are their surrogate mothers in Kenya?
Yes, some clinics offer surrogacy services. Last year a Daily Nation feature on surrogacy in Kenya reported that surrogate mothers are paid between Sh650, 000 and Sh1 million for their services.
Is egg donation the same as selling eggs?
Egg donors are given a token of appreciation for taking the trouble to become part of an involving process (It takes more than one day for the eggs to be ready). However, anyone who thinks they can make it a business are in for a rude shock as the clinics limit the number of times one can donate her eggs and the waiting period between donations to allow the body to get back to it’s normal rhythm.
In future there might be no need for egg donors. Why?
Dr Wanyoike Gichuhi, a fertility specialist says that scientists are working on a way to use a woman’s tissues to create an egg . They might succeed in the next couple of years and when they do there will be no more need for egg donors as artificial eggs will be created from the recipient’s own body.