A woman’s relationship with her fertility is a complex one. It is one that changes regularly across her lifetime, and defines many of her choices and the risks she elects to take with her fate.
When we’re teenage girls, we wait for our periods to arrive – fascinated by our changing bodies, simultaneously horrified and proud of our bleed and the maturation it precedes. Soon, it promises us, soon we will be real women. We become sexually active and pore over the now-defunct Dolly Doctor or similar to have our questions answered, our curiosities assuaged. For a good 15 years or so, we do all that is in our power to prevent pregnancies; the teen pregnancy being the ultimate symbol of the verboten failure. Forget STIs and the impact on our health in the long term – it’s pregnancy that young women seek to avoid most.
Then, the clock begins its inexorable tick. Like a slowly deflating airbed, we become aware that our firm fertility will not last forever. That we really should marry or partner while we’re still young and attractive, and that we really should have children before we become barren. We’re reminded time and again of the fast-falling fertility rates after 30. Facebook begin serving us adverts for pregnancy fashion and baby cots. The engagement announcements, the wedding invitations, the baby gender reveals on social media: the seeming pace of the world around us reminds women of their finite fertility and the choices they need make … before it is too late. (Cue Jaws soundtrack.)
I have been haunted by the spectre of childlessness for many years. I have painfully brought this terrifying ghost into the light and examined it carefully, having taken drastic steps to secure my fertility and one day achieve the family that I so desire. Like many driven, successful women, I have focused on my career and built a substantial business legacy about me. I’m hugely proud of Ruby Assembly; it is a testament to my creative and erotic energy, my sheer bloody-mindedness, relentlessness and passion for good business and building a good society. The fact remains, however: a business is not a baby, and my highest value is the creation of a family.
So I took action to achieve something I did not believe I could: I froze my eggs to preserve my fertility for years to come. Today’s blog is an important and serious piece which details my experience of egg freeze. It is one I hope that many other women read and take to heart: preserving and respecting our fertility is something that only we can do for ourselves. We are the best and only gatekeepers of our health and our aspirations, and we are fortunate to have the option to extend and protect our fertility with technology. That doesn’t make the process of doing so any less confrontational or terrifying. But the only way to negotiate with the spectre of childlessness is to look it in the face, and to take action as best you can.
Choosing to freeze your eggs means effectively undertaking the first part of an IVF program. This alone is a confronting position to be in, as it necessarily means that you are not at the point of having children, and you want to preserve your eggs in hope that one day you may have a child. To be a childless woman or a single woman is to stand in opposition – often unwillingly – to society’s demands that we have children and that we partner. We can find ourselves bereft in the face of our own wants and hopes as yet unfulfilled. It is often a space of grief that can feel irretrievable and terrible to the touch.
In order to prepare myself to freeze my eggs, I required the support of both a counsellor and a psychologist. In all, it took me 9 months to be ready to go ahead with the process and the procedure – and it was the psychological element that was the most challenging. The bringing to light of fears, the interrogation of them, and the decision to take action is a process. Should you choose to freeze your eggs, draw down on all the resources available to you to help and support yourself. Only you can do this essential work to embrace reality and cast away fear, which I suggest is the real labour of the process.
Nursing and Scans
You’ll be given instruction on the variety of medication you’ll need to take from a nurse. Mine appeared with what looked like a sewing kit packed full of needles and glass vials, and a timetable indicating when I was to take what on which day of my cycle. She showed me how to inject the medication into my stomach, and let me know that the clinic would stay in close contact with me throughout the process to monitor how I was faring. Egg collection is not an exact science. I did find the reality of the sheer volume of medication quite confronting, and silently ugly-cried when the nurse left the room. It is a very medical process, and a foreign one too. It feels the opposite of natural, which of course it is.
You’ll also undergo internal scans during the process, to identify your ‘baseline’ follicle state, and how many follicles you develop under medical stimulation. I was a bit scared of these tests, but they were not at all painful and they were undertaken by very warm, empathetic and kind professionals who talked me through the changes in my body. It was actually quite fascinating to see where my ovaries were, and to ‘myth-bust’ the monthly cycle. I found the professionals who undertook the scans to be the warmest and most caring of the medical side of the process, as in my opinion there’s no need to be afraid when someone is repeatedly calling you ‘little possum’ and holding your hand.
The Impact of Medication
I was quite concerned about the impact of the medication on my physical and mental welfare. For some women, the potent combination of injectable hormones results in feeling physically very uncomfortable and emotionally off-kilter. Towards the end of the cycle – which in all is around about 10-14 days depending on how many follicles you develop – I began to feel a bit like I had taken a bunch of Sudafed. It was a heart-racing feeling resulting from a tonne of estrogen. Undergoing an egg freeze does involve risks – key amongst them being OHSS (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome). Your nursing team will closely monitor you to change up medicine and their approach as necessary if you are showing signs of hyperstimulation.
I was also worried about my ability to self-inject, and was very pleased to find that (while it was a bit creepy) it was not particularly painful or difficult. The needles were very, very thin and I couldn’t really feel any pain. To be honest, I felt like a real badass every time I completed my series of injections. I did it! I’m still here! I’m going to do this, come hell or high water! The point I want to make is: injections are a bit scary, but the reality of self-injection is less painful and less difficult than you imagine.
I did become increasingly nervous as egg collection day approached, as I’d never had any anaesthetic previously nor any surgical procedure. Whilst I knew I probably wouldn’t run screaming out of the hospital in a medical gown, I did dread the idea of being rolled into an operating theatre and all that entailed: loss of control, anaesthetic, potential pain. My desire to have my eggs frozen was ultimately stronger than my fear, however.
Prior to the day of the procedure, I was informed by the nurses as to when to take my ‘trigger’ injections (the time was very specific), I took an antibiotic, and I fasted before my morning egg collection procedure.
I felt quite calm on the morning of the procedure. I think I really just wanted it to be all over, and I was hoping for a good result. It’s a bit like being your very own wacky, hormone-packed Kinder Surprise. *yech*. How many eggs would I freeze? Would I need to undertake this process again?
I attended the hospital with my Mum, checked in and before long was going over (and over … and over …) my name, date of birth, address and purpose of admission with a variety of nurses and medical personnel. Putting on the blue gown and lying down on the medical gurney was the most confronting part, and I felt really uncomfortable when I was wheeled down the hall towards the operating theatre. Happily, my body kicked in with some very, very tired hormones to chill me out as I waited for admission. I nearly fell asleep and blessedly stopped worrying. #ThankYouMotherNature.
At some point, the surgeon who undertook my egg freeze came and spoke to me – he was really just going over the risks of the procedure, and explaining what would happen when I went into theatre. My first thought was: a) You’re probably my age. What in God’s sweet name are you doing being a surgeon? (It is entirely appropriate he is a surgeon as I am 36, and he is a lauded professional in his category.) My second thought was b) #WhyYouSoHandsome? I would prefer you were not looking at my private anatomy. The anaesthetist then came in, once again checked my details, popped a cannula in my arm painlessly and took one look at my face before announcing: “You’re going to be fine. You’re young and healthy.”
I was then wheeled into the operating theatre – there were a tonne of people in there, at least six. I moved myself from the gurney to the operating table, and the anaesthetist told me that he would begin deliver the drug. I didn’t feel any sense of passing out; I simple became unconscious.
I awoke warm and tired in the recovery room. I was so, so relieved. I wept that it was finally over, that I had done the thing. A chapter was closed, and I’d survived it. The recovery nurses were very caring and sweet, providing me with information on the number of eggs collected, giving me snacks and drinks and hot packs. I was probably in recovery for around an hour before going home, tired but not in any true pain or distress.
The thing to know about egg collection is that the most difficult part of physical recovery (for me, at least) were the symptoms of OHSS that appeared around five days post procedure. I swelled and became quite uncomfortable. My period came early and in a way I was not familiar with, which was a bit scary and unexpected. I felt it took some time for the synthetic hormones to leave my body. I had to take Panadol and use hot packs for comfort, but nothing more than that. In all, recovery was OK. The procedure was OK. I am OK. I did it. If you want to freeze your eggs, you will be able to do it as well and you will be OK.
Preserving and respecting your fertility is something which is both empowering and transformative for women. It involves a mental shift, a facing of reality and a decision to confront our desires and our fears. As ever, we women are our own best advocates as only we know what will make us happy in this life. It’s not all over if you haven’t a child at 36. I’m sure I will have a family and a bouncing, pink-cheeked baby on my lap in the years to come.
The process of freezing my eggs required that I myself undertook a slow and painful thaw.
But reader: now it’s springtime and I can hear the birds begin to sing again. Winter is finally over.