This article is not an easy piece for me to write. What follows is a deeply personal account that not many people know about. To my clients and employees: you now know why I was out of action for a few weeks mid last year. Thanks for giving me the space and not asking too many questions. It was a challenging time.
The impact of COVID-19 has inspired me to share this story.
While I acknowledge there are many people affected by the current health crisis, there are likewise plenty of women who feel like their plans for parenthood have been thrown into disarray.
- If freezing your eggs is something you’re considering because 2020 has put your life on hold, I hope this article gives you some insight, helps you make a decision and sets the scene of what to expect.
- If you’re part-way through the process but 2020 has put your ‘elective’ medical treatment on hold, I hope this article gives you a sense of community and reassurance you’re not alone.
- If you’ve frozen your eggs already, I welcome you to add your comments below. While everyone’s experience is different, I wish I had more real-world information during my experience.
I know my story will also resonate with anyone who has gone through with IVF, as hormone therapy and egg retrieval are also parts of the process.
Making my decision
I always thought I’d have kids by now. But I don’t. I have a small business that’s 12 years old and 8 employees instead. Despite a few long-term relationships in my 20s and 30s, no men took centre stage in my life. At the start of 2019, 35 years old and single, I could hear my biological clock ticking and knew there were some tough decisions to make.
- Do I feel ready to settle down? No.
- Do I want to travel more? Yes.
- Do I want children in the future? Maybe.
- Do I think I’ll meet the right guy soon? Unlikely. (This was before I met my current partner James in May.)
- Could I afford it? Well, another woman I’d met on vacation also considering the procedure said:
“Yes, it’s a lot of money. But whether you use the eggs or not, you won’t regret spending the money. However, you will regret not spending the money if you change your mind.”
So, it was decided. I contacted various clinics in Melbourne (where I lived) and Adelaide (where I grew up) and settled on Repromed in Adelaide. I found the staff to be very kind and responsive, plus I was quoted only ~$7,000 AUD compared to ~$10,000 AUD for the same procedure in Melbourne. I figured doing it in Adelaide would also mean I could more easily disconnect from work.
Facing the facts
The first consultation with my doctor was a real kick in the guts. I thought freezing my eggs would be an insurance policy. But experts are quick to point out there’s no guarantee.
I was shocked to find out that after taking into account a series of variables (such as your eggs not surviving the defrosting process, or a miscarriage once a fertilized egg has been put into your uterus), you statistically only have a one in 10 chance of a healthy birth.
Hence, a good ‘harvest’ is considered 10–15 quality eggs. If doctors are unable to retrieve this many the first time around, you may want to think about going through the process again. Keep in mind egg ‘quality’ decreases dramatically towards the age of 40… It was better to have the procedure sooner rather than later if I wanted to avoid going through it twice.
In hindsight, I was incredibly naïve. I thought I could just walk in and say: “Here I am! Take them out, I’m ready!” But the process takes a lot of calculated time and effort. I had no idea how much work was required.
Again, I was shocked to find out:
- You need to do hormone therapy as part of the process (this stimulates your ovaries to mature more than one juicy egg at a time)
- You need to start hormone therapy on exactly the first day of your period (or second, if bleeding starts after 12pm)
- You need to do this hormone therapy (which involves self-injecting 1–2 fertility drugs into your belly) at exactly the same time every day
- You need to do this for approximately 10–14 days (until your body decides it’s ripe)
- Your eggs need to be retrieved in theatre at exactly the right time (i.e. after 36 hours after your last shot).
Seeing as I couldn’t predict exactly when my next period would start, nor when my actual procedure would take place, I couldn’t map out how to fit this into my calendar. I had interstate travel to arrange. I also had a business to run. I felt very frustrated, and as the significance of everything started sinking in, I was racking my brain with questions like:
- “Why can’t I do it my way?”
- “Is this really worth it?”
- “Should I change my mind?”
- “Why am I doing this again?”
- “Do I want to have kids that badly?”
This opened up an existential crisis:
- “Why am I still single?”
- “Do I really work too much?”
- “Are all my priorities wrong?”
- “What do I even want in life?”
Ugh. So, you can see why I wish I had other women to speak to. Thankfully the clinic offered a free counselling service that you could access anytime, either in person or over the phone.
Taking time off work
After coming to terms with the fact I couldn’t freeze eggs on demand, I chose to have my procedure in July 2019. That gave me 3 months to get my shit together, such as:
- ensure I was in a good position to take time off from work
- sort out how I’d pay for the operation (clinics offer payment plans, FYI)
- drink a lot less booze and eat a healthier diet
- start taking pregnancy supplements like folic acid
- figure out what I’d tell my parents.
When the time came, I told my employees something personal had come up in Adelaide and that I’d be working remotely, intermittently, for a few weeks. I tried my best not to make it weird (I’m usually pretty open with my team).
You may not need to take off as much time as I did, though. In fact, your fertility clinic will probably tell you most women only take off a few days (for the operation and recovery). I think this is fine if you can do your hormone injections at/around work, but I personally knew I had to be away from the office, because my schedule is usually riddled with early starts and little time alone.
Doing hormone therapy
I should point out that I’m generally quite healthy. Combined with the fact I really didn’t want to go through the process twice (i.e. my egg count was low), my doctor and I agreed I could take a slightly higher-than-normal dose of hormones for extra boost.
I don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant, but I was super tired and emotional. I slept at least 10 or 12 hours a day and felt constantly stressed. I mostly lay in bed with my family dog. The only ritual I had was ensuring my alarm was set daily so I could self-inject my drugs at exactly the right times. I hated doing this. Using an ice pack to numb the skin around my tummy prior made the process slightly more bearable.
I needed to go into the clinic every few days as well. Regular blood tests and internal scans (yes, with a gentle probe inside the vagina) tell doctors how your ovaries are responding. I started to feel like a real pincushion by the end of it.
Operation and recovery
After all this effort, can you believe the actual egg retrieval process only takes 20 minutes? You’re put to sleep, meaning you have to fast the night before and have someone pick you up after.
What I find remarkable is that your doctor already knows you’ll ask: “How many eggs did you collect?” So, to make life easier for everyone, they write the number of eggs retrieved on your hand. When you wake up, you don’t need a nurse to tell you. I was able to harvest 18. In saying that, 5 ended up not being mature enough, so my final egg count was 13.
I was a little sore with some bleeding, but the discomfort was comparable to having to a period. The real blow was the bloating that came afterwards. Apparently, it’s normal to swell up in the lower abdomen, but I had no idea how enormous and uncomfortable I would feel. I literally couldn’t zip up my jeans. At work, I hoped no-one would notice I’d been wearing the same pair of loose fitting pants every day for weeks.
Repromed was really communicative during my recovery and assured everything would feel back to normal once I had my next period — that’s when your hormones start to level out again. Thank God that day came. I could finally get on with my normal life.
Significance during the COVID-19 pandemic
Freezing my eggs has meant a lot to me. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s meant even more. I had ambitious plans for 2020, establishing my business in America. With the outlook that it’ll take longer than expected, my readiness to become a parent has been pushed back even further — at which point, I may be around age 38.
After everything I’ve invested, emotionally and financially, I’m extra grateful to have bought myself more time. It might seem indulgent, wanting to achieve more in life before trying for a family, but I’m glad I did it and have no regrets.
About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.