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The story of an egg donor

We talk to a mother-of-two from Bristol about her expereince of being an egg donor

I don’t think Sue Richards will mind me describing her as a pretty ordinary woman. She’s friendly, down-to-earth and lives with her husband and two kids on a modern housing development in north Bristol. But of course there’s really no such thing as ‘pretty ordinary’ and one of the things that makes Sue rather special is that she has donated her eggs to women who need them… and not once, not twice, but three times. “My daughter was six months old,” Sue tells me, “and I was full of joy! I saw a leaflet at her nursery: ‘could you give a childless couple the perfect gift?’ I didn’t want any more kids and I just felt my eggs would be wasted, so why not donate them?”

There are many reasons why a woman might need to use donated eggs. The three most common are ovarian failure, premature menopause and declining egg quality. Ovarian failure happens when the ovaries have run out of eggs or can no longer develop them. Premature menopause – the most common reason for seeking egg donation – can occur becuase of damage during surgery or cancer treatments such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Declining egg quality happens in older women. Although women over 40 usually ovulate normally and their eggs are easily fertilised, they do not implant well. If a pregnancy does occur it’s more likely to miscarry and successful pregnancies have an increased risk of developmental abnormality. Egg donation offers more chance of success than IVF for some women. Also, donated eggs can enable women who carry sex-linked diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy or haemophilia, to avoid passing them onto their children.

From Sue’s initial contact with the Bristol Centre for Reproductive Medicine (BRCM) it was a year ’til she made her first donation. First her ovaries were checked, blood tests taken and she attended a counselling session where she could talk through any issues, be clear about the process and any possible side effects, and discuss any worries. “I didn’t have any worries about the kids that might be born, as they would obviously be very wanted.”

The law around anonymity has changed recently, both for sperm and egg donors, meaning that at the age of 18, children conceived this way are able to track donors if they want to, and this has led to a drop in donations.

“It’s something me and my husband discussed a lot,” Sue said. “The process has been open and clear, and I haven’t received payment so I know that my motives are good.”

I spoke to Julie Hinks, a clinical nurse manager at BCRM, about the issue of children tracing donors. “We encourage parents who have been through this process to be totally honest with their children from the start. That way, the kids are more likely to seek out biological parents out of curiousity, rather than because they are searching for a ‘new’ parent,” she says.

Sue said her counsellor was lovely and, although her husband chose not to attend the sessions, partners are welcome too. The actual process of preparing and donating the eggs takes about three weeks. “I started by taking tablets and using a nasal spray several times daily, which stops ovulation. Then for the next ten days I had to give myself an injection each day,” (to start the assisted stimulation of the ovaries). Sue had to mix up four little ampules to make one injection, which can be injected into the tummy or the bum. This process would be the same if Sue was going in for IVF treatment herself, although she would be give additional hormones to assist implantation if she were undergoing an IVF cycle (where the embryos are placed in the womb after the eggs have been fertilised in vitro).

“I was attending the clinic during this time for scans to check my follicles,” says Sue. “Physically I felt well, apart from the third time I did feel particularly tired.”

On the day the eggs were actually removed, it was an early start, “I was there at 8am, sedated so I was completely unaware of the operation, and I was home by midday.”

Sue told me the staff at BCRM were extremely supportive all the way through the process and would be available to her in the future if she wanted to return for support or with questions.

Sue’s experience of egg donation was clearly very positive, but many women do experience difficulties with the process. If you’re thinking of donating eggs it’s important to use any counselling sessions available to fully explore the potential physical long-term side effects of egg donation, and also the potential emotional issues connected to the process. It would also be advisable to do your own research, from a more holistic perpective, into the potential side effects of undergoing artificial hormone stimulation. 

I asked Julie Hinks what a women should bear in mind when considering making a gift of their eggs. “The risks are small, but real, and we talk through these in detail,” says Julie. “Firstly, as with IVF, there is a risk of overstimulation of the ovaries. Secondly, there is always a small risk attached to going under a general anaesthetic, and thirdly, any surgical procedure carries with it the risk of infection. We discuss all these issues with the women beforehand, as well as talk through the emotional issues connected to the process.”

Does the process of stimulating the ovaries artifically affect a childless woman’s ability to conceive in the future, I ask her? “There is no evidence that it does, because we stimulate egg production during one cycle. Women produce a few eggs every month but only one is released. So we are not ‘borrowing’ eggs from other cycles. Of course, donors need to consider the potential emotional effect of not having children themselves after they have donated eggs.” The maximum age to start treatment to donate eggs is 35. Childless donors are welcomed.

BCRM offers people from Bristol and the surrounding areas support on reproductive issues. Their team offers a full range of diagnostic and treatment services – in addition to infertility problems, they also offer treatment for hormonal disorders, recurrent miscarriage and sexual problems, as well as delivering training and research in these areas.

Sue knows that at least one of her donations has been successful, “they wrote and told me there’d been a birth just after Christmas. It was a brilliant feeling, I was really chuffed, and it inspired me to go for it a third time. It’s been a really positive experience for me.”

The technology is marvellous, it’s true, but I also think that, for a pretty ordinary-looking woman, Sue is pretty marvellous too.

Bristol Centre for Reproductive Medicine: tel 0117 323 2100. Open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm


First published issue 54 (autumn 2008)
Written by Beccy Golding


Disclaimer – details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.


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