Editor’s note: In 2009, shortly after marrying her (first and only) husband, Paolo, Elizabeth Heath was diagnosed with premature menopause and resulting infertility. Paolo and Liz are now parents to a baby girl, Naomi. In this series, Liz recounts the couple’s struggle with infertility, and how they finally achieved a successful pregnancy and parenthood.
Shortly after we returned from our trip to Vistahermosa clinic in Spain, Salomé emailed to let us know that they’d found a compatible egg donor. It was frightening and exhilarating news all at the same time. We were really doing this…and there was a very real possibility that we’d be pregnant before the year was out.
In Spain, as in many European countries, egg donation is completely anonymous. We never leafed through pictures and bios of prospective donors, as some U.S. clinics permit couples to do. We would never know more about our donor than her age and her hair and eye color. The only other information the clinic will provide is the standard fare—she’s slim, with normal BMI, tall if we want tall, or short for those who want short. If couples have a long list of criteria—I heard of one woman who wanted a donor with at least a Master’s degree, and who played a minimum of two classical instruments at the professional level(!)—the clinic will do its best to get a match, but still never release more details. While all donors are screened for genetic anomalies, the only way we’d ever be able to make contact with our donor—and it would still be with the clinic as go-between—was if our son or daughter had a very serious health problem which required more information or possible organ donation from the donor.
Read Related: Facing My Infertility Part 10: The Collection Room
So, all we knew was that our donor was 24, tall, slim, with brown hair and green eyes, and that she was a “proven” donor, meaning she’d either already given birth herself or that she’d donated eggs that resulted in a successful pregnancy.
The next step was to get me synchronized with the donor. The process seems complicated but is fairly simple. The recipient (me) has to start taking meds after her LMP (last menstrual period) that thicken the endometrium, or uterine lining. This gets the uterus ready with a nice soft cushion into which the transferred embryos can burrow. Once the recipient’s uterus is ready, she keeps taking drugs to maintain the status quo—a kind of holding pattern until the donor is ready for egg collection.
Once she gets her period, the donor has to take a shopping cart full of drugs to stimulate ovulation. After a series of ultrasounds to measure and assess egg development, the clinicians at Vistahermosa decide on a date for egg collection, which is a minor surgical process.
A couple of days prior to egg retrieval, Salomé emailed to tell us what day they would take the donor’s eggs. These eggs would immediately be fertilized with Paolo’s sperm, which the clinic had frozen after our last visit. The next day, Salomé would call to tell me how many eggs were collected and how many fertilized.
It was late November, and we were harvesting olives when my phone rang. Paolo knew who it was—after all, it was one of the most important phone calls of our lives—and he stopped picking and stood under a tree, watching me, as I walked off to take Salomé’s call. The news was not that great. Of the ten eggs collected, only four had fertilized. Ten eggs was a normal amount for collection, but a fertilization rate of under 50% is considered poor. Paolo’s sperm had checked out fine and we had a proven donor, so there was no ready explanation for the poor showing.
We had five days to get back to Spain for transfer, even though we knew there was a risk that we’d arrive and there would be no embryos to transfer. With so few embryos to start with, the risk was relatively high that all of them would die off before reaching blastocyst stage. Still, we hustled, paid through the nose for our plane tickets, and arrive early in the afternoon on Thursday, the day before our embryo transfer Friday morning. Itziar, another English-speaking associate at the clinic, picked us up at the airport. We were nervous, because we still didn’t know if we had embryos to transfer or not. Her phone rang as soon as we met up with her, and it was Salomé. “She says to tell you,” said Itziar, “that you have two beautiful embryos for tomorrow morning.” That news was a huge relief.
It was a warm sunny day in Alicante, a nice break from our dreary autumn weather back home. We hiked up to Santa Barbara Castle, the imposing medieval fortress that looms over Alicante. We took pictures at the top—pictures I wanted to show our baby. We were feeling very optimistic, and very much in love. It was a beautiful afternoon, and it felt like tomorrow would be a great day to get pregnant.
At our transfer the next morning, the embryologist showed us photos of our two “class A” embryos, plus a third that had started to fragment, meaning it would not develop into a blastocyst. The transfer was calm, uneventful and surprisingly unemotional for both of us. The nurse silently pointed to the ultrasound screen to show me the two glowing white dots—the embryos that had just been implanted. I was ordered to rest on the gurney for about 20 minutes, then I could get dressed.
We headed out with orders for me to rest at the hotel until suppertime. I was to take it easy for the next two weeks—no heavy lifting or exercise to speak of—then take a pregnancy test.
We flew home the next day, and had a layover in Barcelona. Spain had just won the World Cup that summer, so the airport shops were full of national team t-shirts, soccer balls, and stuffed toys bearing the team logo. I wanted to buy one of everything, in infant sizes, for our baby who I was sure was on the way. Paolo restrained me, though I did insist on buying a soccer ball for our future son or daughter to kick around. I didn’t know whether I was calling on some positive energy from the universe or setting us up for defeat. But somehow, I had to believe that we were pregnant—or at least almost pregnant—and buying a toy for a baby we weren’t yet sure we were having felt like an optimistic, affirming gesture. I had to believe, and though he was less effusive than I, Paolo had to believe, too.
And now all we could do was wait.