Eggs: frozen? Brain: scrambled. Hard won facts about IVF.

Yep, you guessed it… The Purple Frock may have been silent for a little while, but the latest tale is a doozy. With blind 40 quickly approaching,  it became clear that Mr Lovely hadn’t received the memo to show up for my 40th on his white horse. Or however he’s meant to catch my attention. Being the proactive lass that I am, it was time to jump into action and to investigate what IVF was all about. Fark. 

Step one was to have a blood test (AMH) to investigate the my sad old crusty egg reserve. As a chronic over-achiever, I was shocked to discover my result was in the lowest category. Excuse me, but I don’t FAIL tests! which brought me (nervously) to meet a fertility specialist. The omens seemed good – both his Christian name and (identical) surname were the same as my father’s, and Dr A Squared’s practice was a few metres away from my naturopath’s. Perfect for running down the hall for a bear-hug from one of the loveliest human beings I know if it all became too much. After an excruciatingly awkward conversation about my current relationship and dating status (nil, zilch, big fat nothing, gar nichts etc) I was assured that my low numbers were actually good for my age. The unexpected flood of tears prompted me to sit with a whole range of uncomfortable issues which I had been pushing aside, and to come to some surprising self-realisations and decisions.

Since that time, so many things have happened that Purple Frock pre August would never have thought possible. I’ve injected myself up to 4 times a day, carrying cold packs around to keep the meds chilled, jabbed myself in crusty airport bathrooms, the back of a school hall (no small children were traumatised, fear not) and in red-lit anti-injecting restaurant bathrooms (so inconsiderate. Geez).  I asked a good friend to be a donor-daddy, which was a weirdly normal conversation, as far as those near-sober chats can roll. As I write tonight, the end of this fertility cycle is nigh. Thank God.  I’ve stabbed myself with the mother of all needles to prompt ovulation after having suppressed it with another needle every evening for the last ten days, and the egg “harvest” is booked. 

On the whole, I’ve felt like a small, disposable cog in a huge income generating machine, with results guaranteed to be in inverse proportion to the money involved. The information that I needed has been difficult to find, and Dr A Squared’s 10-15 minute appointments were often contradictory.  The first question I was asked in the compulsory counselling session was nothing about me or my potential parenting ability, but whether I was allergic to egg yolk, which can be used in solutions to freeze sperm.  I’ve said and written the word “sperm” a hilarious number of times in the last month.

What follows is what I wish I knew before beginning all of this… or maybe it’s better I didn’t:

 – Eggs are pretty crap to freeze. Even after injecting yourself with horrible drugs, spending bucketloads of money, and becoming a bloated, impossible basket case, only a depressing number of the eggs collected are viable. Some are immature (how can you get to be 40 years old and still immature?!!) Eggs neither freeze particularly well, nor like defrosting. Only around 65% of eggs collected are able to be fertilised, of those only 70% progress to day 3. Then, 60-70% of the survivors power on to reach blastocyst, or potential survival. There are no stats around how well embryos survive in storage or not, and how that deterioration compares to the natural rate of crumbling into useless. 

- To make matters worse, eggs are actually 6 months older than your birth date, as they develop in utero. I thought I was ahead of the game on the “right” side of 40, but it seems my eggs are already 40.5 years old. There goes that idea. 

- In contrast, sperm freezes well, as do embryos. As a single Purple Frock, “Who’s your Daddy?” takes on a whole new meaning. Donor Sperm. Holy moly. What are the odds that as soon as you freeze your eggies with some random Mr Lovely gets jealous and suddenly makes his grand (and late) entrance? I’ll get back to that soon.  But what if he shows up when I’m 45, and I’ve missed my chance to have a child?  

- For those under 30, i.e. the smart age to have children, natural conception rate is around 20% for each cycle. If you missed the fun and cheap way to get pregnant,  there are a few options.  IUI (turkey baste) may at first glance look cheaper than IVF, but at 10% success rate, many women take 6 or more cycles to become pregnant, and this requires 6 lots of BYO sperm ampoules, which are not cheap. Meanwhile, one’s eggs are getting older with each cycle…

- For women under 38, IVF has a success rate of around 40%. The process is much more invasive (remember, self-injecting, emotional, bloated basket case) and also damn expensive. Women of my vintage can expect around 20% success rate with an IVF embryo transfer. Which is pretty shit, all things considered. 

- The success rate of successful embryo transfer plummets from ages 39-41, at which point the graph just dwindles away to near zero as the 40s loom larger. Germaine Greer quoted Robert Lord Winston in her book The Whole Woman that “By the age of forty-two at least 50 per cent of women are biologically sterile”. Woah. There are no stats for the success of pregnancies from frozen eggs mixed with sperm, and doctors will not offer to share these graphs unless you ask for them.

- Other disturbing facts from The Whole Woman include that more than half of IVF births are C-sections, and that women over 40 have a 50% chance of miscarrying their IVF baby. Rates of ectopic pregnancy, breech, multiple birth, still birth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight are much higher than natural conception. Around 20% of patients don’t finish the egg harvesting cycle, due in part to ovulation outside clinic hours. I’m not sure why the others don’t complete.

- For those sisters using Puregon for the first time, be warned that there IS excess in each vial, designed for clutzes like me who spill and drop shit. Don’t freak out that you’ve given yourself the wrong dose and f***ed up the whole cycle, as I spent one morning fretting about until Dr Google reassured me I was not alone. In Australia, these meds are heavily subsidised, but UK women will choose to torture themselves with extra injections to squeeze every last drop from those vile vials to save cash. By the way, while you may be totally stressed and spend 30 minutes doing the first injection, by day 3 you’ll have it down to less than a minute and be completely unfazed. 

- Although one might think that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of donor sperm to choose from, there aren’t. Nope. Queensland has the highest “pool” around in Australia, with around 20 potentials. Yep, 20. The NT and also WA have waiting lists.  If it’s important for your child to vaguely look like you, this means further culling to those of the same ethnicity. Australian donors are few and far between, and cost around $400 for each ampoule. US donors are more plentiful, and cost around $1250 due to the low AUD and stringent medical tests. Donors on the Queensland list can “service” up to 10 families, while US donors can provide for up to 60 families worldwide. Ewwwww!  Do even roosters impregnate that many chickens? That’s a whole lot of half-siblings. 

- If you’re still reading and not completely grossed out, the majority of the US donors are 20 year old, grid-iron playing, broke college students, who get paid to have some quality time with a dirty mag and freely share their high-count-jizz with women all over the world. If you’re lucky, you may see a cute baby pic, but rarely an adult photo of your donor-daddy. Detailed descriptions of whether his ears are attached or not abound, along with at which age the elder sibling incurred penicillin injury.  But what is genetic, what is due to environment? An extroverted character? Kindness? A gift for maths?  A passion for country music? Apart from trying to grapple with the idea of the father of your future children being a pimply teenager, where do you start with this major life decision?

- All those warnings about how an IVF cycle will take over your life and turn you into a weeping, cussing mess with a sailor’s mouth are absolutely true. Don’t think you’ll escape, it will happen to you. Roller-coaster ride will take on a whole new meaning. Too late, I discovered a holistic clinic with an acupuncture IVF support program. I limped into my first acupuncture appointment a sobbing psycho with emotions running wild and a painful abdomen, and emerged an hour later with a much calmer and clearer head, a large decision made as to what to do with this current fertility cycle, and interestingly, no discomfort in my abdomen. Whether it’s scientifically proven or not, I don’t care. I felt much better, and will take whatever helps, particularly when alcohol is off the cards and all you want to do is drink copious amounts of wine. Or perhaps scotch.  

- Don’t believe that neat schedule printed out with your egg harvesting on Day 14 and think you can plan your life around it. I thought I was so clever in organising the dates, but ended up sober at my sister’s hen’s party after this current cycle went wildly off course. Denied!!!! You’ll be told to come for appointments with no consideration as to when might suit you, and there’ll probably be a week of being totally at the mercy of when your old eggs are going to finally plump up ready for collection. 

- Once you buy donor sperm, men can sense that you have a back up plan, and you become much more appealing. After months of nothing, I’ve been on two viable dates with really interesting guys in the last week, of course while keeping an eye on the time to sneak off with my ice pack and inject my bruised and swollen abdomen in yet another public bathroom. 

But more on those dates later :)