My story by Alex Stenning

This is the story of Alex, who has been on an incredible roller coaster journey to help her brother and his husband become parents, by donating her own eggs.

Firstly, to all couples, single parents and families going through the IVF journey, I have an enormous amount of admiration for what you brave through, mentally and physically, for a chance at creating something so pure and so deserved. I really believe the people most worthy of happiness, whatever that may be, always endure the greatest struggle. But when that struggle battles through and becomes this living, breathing miracle, I have no doubt it makes it even more exceptional. Not for one second did I imagine how tough the IVF process would be on my self-esteem and self-worth. I am beyond in awe of you all.

My personal experience really only touches the surface of what you all put yourselves through.

But I’d like to tell you my story, as an egg donor, and how it has opened up my mind and taught me a great deal of life’s important lessons.

This story began 6 months ago. My brother James and his husband Tom had been trying for a baby for many months. For them this meant diving head first into the world of egg donors and surrogacy. Weekends were spent travelling up and down the country, attending as many surrogacy events and meet-ups as they possibly could. They immersed themselves into the process entirely. It was an exciting time for them, but also one full of stress, strain and uncertainty. I have endless respect for the way they have bravely taken this on. It is and continues to be a wild ride, filled with mini victories and painful dips.

 

On an October day last year, they invited me to join them on their journey and asked me to be their egg donor.

It was one of those big life moments. It took me all of 1.5 seconds to excitedly and proudly say yes. The overriding instinct at that moment, and one that never left me, was yes.

The following 6 months were spent talking openly as a family. The concept was big and new and strange for many. I’ve always been proud of my families liberal, non-judgemental views, but this took some of them to the edge. The idea of James and Tom having a baby was of course never in question. But using my eggs was. My emotional attachment to the baby was the focus of many discussions. To be fair to them, I’ve been known to get attached to ants, so I get it. Looking back now, I didn’t quite realise the impact it would have on everyone around me. The intimacy of the situation meant my boyfriend, AJ, and our whole family would be deeply involved. Something I should have been more aware of and sensitive towards. This really was a journey for each and every one of us, not just myself and the boys. I’m 34, in an important relationship and wanting our own children (we hope) one day, so it was a big decision to make and one I thought hard about.

The process consumed us all and at times caused huge amounts of tension, as different views came to the surface.

I felt conflicted at times and questioned my judgement. But It was important for me to hold onto what I believed was right for myself, James and Tom. My family is so entirely full of love, why not add to it in this miraculous way. There was no harm to be done, only wonder and magic and above everything else, James and Tom deserved this chance.

Numerous cups of tea, blood tests, counselling sessions, tears, scans, disagreements and laughter later, united as a family, we began.

So on the 10th March I started a 7 day prescription of a drug called Norethisterone. This is sometimes prescribed prior to an IVF treatment cycle. It controls your cycle before you start on the stimulating medication. It is a synthetic form of progesterone, the vital pregnancy hormone that optimises your uterine environment and sustains your pregnancy.

By day 2 on Norethistreone I felt a significant shift in the way I was feeling. It all became apparent when I fell for a pigeon who I called Buddy. He lived on an oak tree outside my bedroom window. Every morning I would push back my curtains and there he was. Dependable Buddy. But by day 5 he met a pretty little wood pigeon called Betty and by day 7 they both took off, never to been seen again. I’m a hyper empathic person anyway, so on a good day I’d fall for Buddy. But I felt broken that morning I opened the curtains and his puffed-up body and raisin eyes were no longer staring back at me. There were tears and confusion and my boyfriend held my face and dried my eyes, mentally googling ‘Psychiatric hospital North London’.

After a tantrum comparable to that of the Tasmanian Devil, that issue had flown the nest.

My side effects were fairly severe on this medication. I felt extremely irritated with everyone for no logical reason. I was painfully emotional and behaved erratically. Perhaps it was a bad time to also be moving house? I love to really challenge myself.
In conclusion, Norethisterone didn’t do me much good mentally. But remember that everyone reacts differently. It’s such a personal experience. It was a wildly turbulent week for me, but it was short lived, and the importance of why I was doing this never left me.

Once I came off the Norethisterone, I waited for my period to start, and on day 2 of my cycle, I started on a course of Gonal F injections (375 units). I was on a ten day plan of Gonal F, bringing in a second injection, Cetrotide, after 7 days. Mixed in with scans at the fertility clinic (Care Fertility) every two days to monitor my progress.

To help me ease into the process, AJ and my brothers hosted an injection party.

We bulk ordered pizza and rubbed numerous tubes of numbing cream all over my tummy. Drunk on pizza and high on cream, we begun. The boys took their role super seriously. Instructions were read word for word, in every language, twice over. What felt like seven hours later, loaded injection in my ferociously shaking hand, it was time to take needle to skin. Round one, I stabbed the injection into my finger. Round two ran slightly more smoothly and we hit the right spot. It was a beautifully touching moment shared with my favourite people. I wasn’t sure if it was down to the numbing cream or being made to feel so protected by the boys, but you know what, it wasn’t so bad.

It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to new routines. My 8pm injections every evening would come and go with little drama, which was entirely down to AJ for creating such a safe and calm space for me, never missing one injection and always keeping the mood light and humorous.

The only real side effects from the injections were headaches, a huge amount of body swelling, which was fun, and tiredness.

After the whole pigeon issue, I was worried I may lose my mind entirely. So, I was pleasantly surprised.

My greatest personal challenge (self-inflicted) was the heavy sense of pressure I felt to produce enough healthy eggs for James and Tom. Many sleepless nights were had. There was so much riding on this, for everyone, and I felt the weight of this sitting on my shoulders constantly. I looked after myself, I stopped drinking for months, and did everything they told me, but our bodies have a mind of their own and ultimately you just don’t know how you will react.It was a strange and uncomfortable sensation. This wasn’t an emotion I imagined having before I started, naively perhaps, and it was by far the hardest part for me throughout the whole journey, and still is today.

After my second scan at the clinic, on roughly day 5 on the Gonal F injections, the doctor confirmed that my body wasn’t producing as many follicles as they were hoping for. She couldn’t get to my right ovary as it sat too high up, and my left ovary had only 4 small follicles growing. I was massively disheartened at this point and angry with myself and my body for not doing what it needed to do. Instantly I started doubting myself and wondering what was wrong with me or what I was doing wrong. The sense of potential failure I felt for James and Tom was terrifying. Nevertheless, we carried on with the process, all trying to stay as positive and as level headed as we could.

Unfortunately, each scan revealed the same outcome and so we were looking at collecting a maximum of 6 eggs.

But if they were healthy ones, this small amount could still be OK. There are so many different stages of this process to get through, it’s all such a fine balancing act of circumstances and emotions.

My egg collection fell on Easter Monday. James, Tom, AJ and I made our way to the clinic for the procedure. We were all on our way to possibly conceive a baby, a very surreal, very wonderful moment for us all to share.

Once through the doors, Tom went off to do his part, James waited patiently, and AJ and I were taken though to the small theatre at the back of the clinic. At this point all I was anxious about was getting James and Tom a good number of healthy eggs. The anticipation was intense. Robed and ready, I was reassured by my rock star anaesthetist that he would inject me with the sweetest stuff on the street. Bring it on.

 

The next thing I knew I was sitting up in the recovery ward, blissfully high, sweet tea in hand.

AJ let me know that my snoring was heard throughout the procedure and bearing in mind I was a good 50 meters away from him, this must have been some loud snoring. So, Dr Hadi and all you wonderful nurses who carried out the procedure, apologies.

They collected 6 eggs from me. 1 was a little on the small side, 5 healthy ones. Our expectation was a maximum of 6 so we were all super happy and grateful for each and every one of them.

Recovery from the egg collection wasn’t too bad for me. I couldn’t keep my eyes open for the rest of the day, otherwise the painkillers sorted me out. I did take the following day off work as I was still exhausted. I started to feel as though I had been punched in the stomach. I felt very bruised and swollen inside. That only lasted about a week though. The bloated tummy and swollen body slowly started to diminish, and I can now ride the underground without someone offering me their seat. A small but important victory for my self-esteem.

The following day James called to say 5 eggs had fertilised, the smaller one hadn’t made it through sadly. We then had the 5 day wait to see if the eggs would divide into enough cells for them to be frozen. At this point we had all either been ill-informed or we were being naïve, but we assumed the likelihood of ending up with 5 embryos to freeze was high. How wrong we were.

On day 5 James and Tom received a call from the clinic with awful news.

Four eggs hadn’t made it through at all and one was not dividing in the correct way. They were going to give this one egg another day, just in case. But the clinic were 98% sure that they wouldn’t end up with any surviving embryo’s.

It’s hard for me to put into words how I felt when I heard this. Initially, confused and painfully shocked. I broke down for 15 minutes, pulled myself together, and went straight over to see James and Tom. They were devastated. My pain over this was pure sadness and disappointment for them. And guilt beyond belief for not being able to give them what they needed. For them, it was something so much more fierce and brutal. Years of longing, planning and saving had gone into this and for it to fall apart at this stage was unbearable.

The sense of loss was real

Before we all started out on this journey, I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that it was possible to become this attached to what is essentially a small formation of cells, at this point. But you can and we all did. So to lose them all was painful. The following day a little miracle happened. The embryologist called James, in happy tears, saying that overnight the one struggling embryo had miraculously come to life and they were able to freeze it. This really is an immense roller- coaster ride l! So, after all, James and Tom still had a small chance which was living through this beautiful fighting embryo. There was still a long way to go of course, but this gave them some hope to hang on to.

Perhaps it’s a strange thing to say, but I feel more human than ever before. More grounded and connected to the earth. Everything I previously did in my life was stripped away to solely concentrate on the creation of life. I now understand just a fraction of how couples feel when they struggle to conceive themselves. It is a journey like no other and I truly have endless love and respect for you all. You are strong like no other.

It has taught me not to take life for granted. The fact that we even made it through the dizzying creation of life ourselves is totally mind-blowing. All of us must stick together and provide love and hope to everyone around us. We must create support structures for ourselves and other people wherever we go. This is in our power to do. And not much in life is.

Our story is far from over and I look forward to sharing the next chapter with you, whatever the outcome may be.

But for now, all my love and all my hope goes out to you all, you brave strong humans. And to James and Tom, you will make beautiful fathers one day. Let’s not give up hope.

Until next time… x

You can follow Alex at @alstenning. ❤️

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