Parenthood on ice: Part Two
With a cooler bag full of fertility hormones, Grace was ready to start her egg freezing journey.
At Clue, we believe everyone deserves the right to make their own health decisions, free from judgment, misinformation, or shame, informed by personal choice and/or the guidance of a healthcare professional. This article is a personal story from a member of the Clue Community and reflects their individual experience and/or opinion at the time of writing. Your healthcare provider can give you advice on your specific needs and situation. For more on this topic from the Clue Science team, check out Egg Freezing 101.
Missed Part One of this story? Read Parenthood on ice to find out how Grace decided to freeze her eggs at 30.
Let me preface this part of the story by saying I’m by no means a medical expert. I also didn’t know anyone who had frozen their eggs before. IVF, yes, but not just egg freezing. So when I sat on the couch in my doctor’s office, I listened carefully as he explained the whole process and answered my (many) questions. As I sipped my coffee, all I could think was: here we go, this is actually happening.
“We’re using two injections that contain different hormones to stimulate the development of as many antral follicles as possible. You normally grow one. We’re aiming to grow 10-20. Then, we add in another injection, for two days, to delay ovulation, so we can give the eggs more time to grow. And finally, we replace that with an injection to mature the eggs—and retrieve them about 36 hours later,” my doctor explained.
As a deadline-driven person, understanding the timing was important, so my doctor spelled out his standard timeline: I would need to start the hormone injections on day three of my cycle. Then I would come in for ultrasound checkups (to check the development of the follicles) on days 7 and 11, and the extraction would happen on day 13 or 14 (depending on progress). In other words: I was going to be seeing my doctor a lot over the next two weeks.
This was where I hit a major problem.
My period was due that Saturday so I would need to start the hormone injections three days later. But I was booked to go on a five-day international work trip starting that Monday (another reminder of why I had decided to freeze my eggs in the first place).
Juggling hormone injections and a work trip
With the timing being less than ideal, my doctor agreed that I could use my birth control pill to delay my period until after my trip (by skipping the row of placebo pills and starting a new pack right away) as it wouldn’t affect the actual egg freezing process. But that plan didn’t quite work out for me either.
Three days into the new pack, my “period” still arrived relatively on time (just a day late) in the form of breakthrough bleeding.* So if I was going to go ahead with the egg freezing process, I would still need to do it that week.
It presented a real dilemma: My work trip was going to involve the kind of meetings that couldn’t easily be swapped for Zoom calls. But if I delayed the egg freezing process, the next time I had a remote possibility of being in one place for long enough to consider trying it again would be at least five months away.
Torn between career commitments and a very personal life decision, I grappled with how to raise the topic with my male manager. In my male-dominated field, I didn’t want to bring what would no doubt be seen as a ‘woman’ problem to the table.
I settled on bringing it up by offering a solution: Instead of visiting the fertility clinic daily for the hormone injections, I would delay my departure by a day, collect all the medication (at 6 a.m.) before my trip and spend the rest of the week doing all of the injections myself from my hotel room before heading out to my meetings. My manager’s response? A reassuringly unfazed: “Sure.”
Armed with a cooler bag filled with syringes and vials of fertility hormones (airport security was fun), I set off for a week of work and a resolve to overcome my (very real) lingering fears of needles.
Freak out, fail, inject, repeat
On the first day of the hormone injections, I woke up one and a half hours before I needed to be in the hotel lobby for a meeting (even though it usually only takes me 30 minutes to get ready). I’m an absolute needle-phobe – but realizing how much money I had spent to get to this point of my egg-freezing journey forced me to set those fears aside.
I had 21 vials to prepare and inject along with three pre-mixed injections. An intimidating amount of medication for someone who’s squeamish about a single blood draw done by a nurse, let alone doing it myself, alone in a hotel room in a foreign country.
My first attempt was an epic fail – the injectable hormone shot straight up in my face. So I had to throw away an entire day’s worth of medication – not a cheap error.
After 45 minutes, I finally managed to inject myself on my second try. The insertion point was about one inch below my belly button, and then one inch to the left or right. It surprisingly wasn’t as painful as expected.
With each day, I got better at handling all the steps and by the end of the week, I had the whole thing down to sub-five minutes from start to finish (bar a couple more mishaps).
Unexpected sadness and side effects
The most unexpected part of the process for me, was the side effects of the hormone injections. Granted, I only had my colleague who had done IVF as my point of reference for what to expect (as an economist I should have known better than to use one data point).
During the process of the hormone injections, I was simply not myself.
I’m extroverted. I love people and keep a full schedule of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, I host all the holiday parties, and can make friends with just about anyone.
By day five of my injections – the day I returned home from my work trip–I had zero interest in socializing. I didn’t want to get out of bed and struggled with a constant state of sadness. I think it was hard on my partner, who had to see me in this sorry state for the rest of the injection days.
As I went in for my day seven ultrasound, my doctor asked how I was doing.
“I feel really sad and agitated. Also, I’m crampy and tired. I just generally feel defeated.”
“Is this normal?”
“We’re giving you really strong hormone injections. We want 15 follicles when you normally get one. It takes a lot to get that outcome. Everyone reacts differently, but it is normal.”
So, I held on and kept wandering down the egg freezing road. With a lot of Netflix, and very little socializing. In total, it was eight days of injections.
When I went in for my day 11 scan, my doctor decided we would be ready for a retrieval in two days. He saw 12 follicles on the ultrasound. I was given careful instructions: at exactly 10 p.m. that night, I’d give myself a final injection to mature the eggs. The next day, I could ‘relax’—no more injections, at last!—and I would go for the egg retrieval the following morning.
The long-awaited retrieval day
When I arrived at the fertility clinic, I was in a pleasant mood; the end was in sight. But both my partner and I were really taken aback by the somber vibe of the waiting room. There was sadness and tension. There were smudged tears. It was a reminder that not all fertility journeys are simple and straightforward, but sometimes difficult and even painful—for some, this may have even been their final attempt to have the family they desired. My heart ached for them.
It had been a trying two weeks, but this was my ticket to extended freedom and continuing to focus on my career. I went into the hospital room where a nurse was waiting to administer an IV. From there, I was wheeled into a waiting room ahead of the operating room.
The nurses were genuinely joyful for me that I was freezing my eggs. With decades of experience under them, they said that planning ahead could help save a lot of trouble (and money) later.
I went under conscious sedation, so I don’t remember anything from the procedure itself. I woke up with a pad on and a little bleeding, which was expected.
So, what was the outcome?
When the doctor popped around later, it was thankfully good news: “We got 15 eggs, more than the 12 we’d expected”—and they’d been sent off to the lab to determine how many were of ‘freeze-able’ quality. I asked the doctor if we had enough.
“It’s a good retrieval,” he said. “In an ideal world, to maximize odds, we’d like to have 20. But this is good, I’m happy with it.”
We discussed the option of another retrieval. He explained that eggs retrieved within the 30-34 age band are all in the same ‘band’ as there isn’t a notable deterioration of quality during that period. So I could potentially still add more eggs to the freezer stash over the next few years if I wanted to. But I wasn’t in a rush to consider that.
Embracing child-free freedom, for now
In the end, 11 eggs were suitable for freezing—the other four were discarded because they weren’t adequately mature. So 11 went into storage.
I was grateful the process was over. It was more physically taxing than anticipated, but the sense of relief was palpable.
A week later, I was on a flight to London for a three week trip. I’d have my PhD graduation in the UK, work remotely in Germany, and hike an erupting volcano in Iceland. This was exactly the child-free freedom I wasn’t ready to let go of, yet.
If this were a movie, this is the part where there would be a record-scratch sound before a plot twist. Find out what big life curveball was coming for Grace after her trip in Part Three.
*A note from the Science team: If you are taking a combined hormonal birth control like the pill, your ovulation is already suppressed each month, and the “period” that you are experiencing isn’t actually a real period. It’s a withdrawal bleed. The withdrawal bleeding is caused by the decline in reproductive hormones in your body during the days when you are not receiving any hormones from your pill (placebo pills) (1). Bleeding or spotting outside of your usual withdrawal bleed time can sometimes happen if you take your pills continuously. This is called breakthrough bleeding (2).
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