Egg donation: The mother of all gifts
IT was Easter, and Jayne Matthews was talking with her mother Marilyn about her own fading hopes of becoming a mother.
Like many of us, Matthews had believed she would have a baby when the time was right.
Fate had other ideas.
As is often the case for women whose fertility journey turns out nothing like they had imagined, just about everything that could go wrong for the maternal dreams of this bubbly Adelaide-born Melburnian did.
First came breast cancer, diagnosed at 34, in 2007. Two years later came a second bout of the same cancer — not a secondary, thankfully, but a return near the original site — the arduous treatment and a double mastectomy, which succeeded in knocking off the cancerous cells.
But then her relationship ended. The couple, who Matthews felt had arrived at the point where “this time we were going to get married or start to think about having children”, had started the formal IVF process when the relationship collapsed.
Instead, as Matthews was hitting 40, an age at which fertility in most women is seriously compromised, chemotherapy or not, she was single and had gone through chemo-induced menopause.
“I guess for me, I don’t want to dwell on that,” she says. “But that’s why I wasted seven (fertile) years, thinking he was going to be the one I would use my own eggs with no matter how complex it was going to be.”
Still optimistic and hoping her fertility specialist, Associate Professor Kate Stern of Melbourne IVF, could help her body make fresh eggs to give her an even better chance of getting pregnant than the 10 she had frozen before chemo, Matthews started considering donor sperm options.
Again, fate failed to smile, and attempts to stimulate fresh eggs with hormones failed.
On the upside, in 2014, loved friend and former flatmate Marc Grantham provided donor sperm and once her eggs were thawed, two viable embryos were created. To Matthews’ joy, one of them took.
Sadly, at about seven weeks, Stern warned Matthews the foetus had “a very faint heartbeat”.
“I miscarried on the way home in the car,” she says.
As if she had not gone through enough, Matthews lost the pregnancy not long before another crisis many of us dread; the loss of her father, Alan, who died in her arms of a massive heart attack during a road trip in the Northern Territory.
Matthews, now 43, says plainly, “That time was pretty terrible.”
Yet if you the met the Telstra program manager, you would most likely have no clue of this tragic and challenging series of events. Her megawatt smile and buzzy personality make you feel energised and happy in her presence.
Perhaps this is because the woman offering you a homemade pecan and walnut muffin finally got what many may consider her own little miracle and ray of light.
As we chat about events leading up to his arrival, golden-haired Grayson, Matthews’ 10-month-old “super-chilled” baby boy, is burbling in his cot, resisting his afternoon sleep.
He is snug in his cheery nursery, hearing his mother’s voice as she relates one of the happier endings you could hear. And it all came down to a text his mum received out of the blue that fateful Easter as she chatted to her own mother.
Her joy at the turn her story took with those few lines has been so great “it’s hard to put into words”; it was a “monumentally lifesaving gesture”.
Former top swimmer Melissa Russell thinks of her cousin Matthews as “ultimately like my big sister”. She lived with her after her swimming days ended and they grew so close it made perfect sense to offer Matthews a gift that would produce a new life and fill another with happiness.
“Not long after I left (Melbourne to return to her hometown of Adelaide), Jayne got breast cancer for the first time. It was quite difficult not being there through that with her,” says Russell, 31.
“I knew after remission that she was starting with IVF, around the time I got married in 2012, and she wasn’t having a lot of luck.”
It occurred to Russell she had the power to help.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘After we try to have a baby, I’d be open to donating eggs to Jayne’ — she’d never asked, it was something for down the track.
“Then after I had my daughter Indy (now 3), I kept getting updates and when Jayne let people know her eggs weren’t working I remember reading her email while I was with my husband and I said, ‘What would you think about us giving her my eggs?’ ”
While some couples need to give months of consideration to such an extraordinary gesture, the straightforward reply from Russell’s husband was, “As long as it doesn’t affect us time-wise, because you’re pretty busy at work.”
The couple discussed it further that Easter weekend before Russell sent the text that changed Matthews’ life.
“I can’t remember the exact words but it was something like, ‘It being Easter, I’d like to offer you some of my eggs for IVF,’ ” Russell says. “She (Matthews) didn’t reply straight away, she called me about an hour later and said, ‘I haven’t stopped crying (since I got the text), but there’s so much involved I don’t want you to feel locked in, talk about it more over the weekend and we can talk then.’ ”
Egg donation is a process carefully managed by IVF clinics but is increasingly common, with 6.5 per cent of all fresh egg-stimulation and collection cycles in Victoria done for egg donation.
For donors, the process involves at least two counselling sessions to talk about the implications of donating eggs. They must provide informed consent during these sessions and are required to attend a medical appointment with a Melbourne IVF fertility specialist to discuss their suitability as a donor before they can start treatment to stimulate eggs.
Melbourne IVF head counsellor Marianne Tome says the main thing counsellors want to go through with donors and recipients is the question of how to manage the relationship between the future baby, the donor and recipient, because they have a relationship for life “which is in the best interests of the child”.
“With donors, we want to get an understanding of what their reason for donating is. Often these
are people who know each other — sisters, friends, cousins — usually they will have had children of their own,” Tome says.
“Then we need to look at and talk about their own experiences of parenting and what it might be
like to have a child genetically theirs but not socially theirs — the ability to let go and let the recipient parent as they want. They (donors) need to accept ‘this is a gift I’m giving and it doesn’t give me rights to parenting responsibilities’.”
Counselling sessions with recipients and donors outline what sort of things the donor would and would not have a say in when it comes to the child.
“We always bring the child ‘into the room’ when we’re getting (donors and recipients) to discuss their future relationship expectations and the relationships with half-siblings,” Tome says. “Sometimes, for example, something men find difficult is their wife and children will be connected to another child in another family and they’re not part of that.”
Tome’s counselling staff see donors twice and recipients twice individually and then see them together. She says most donors continue with the process, even after talking through potentially tricky issues.
Counsellors are careful to ensure no party has been in any way coerced into giving eggs or sperm. She says the success of pre-donation counselling can, in part, be seen in the fact many recipients come back to use embryos created by the same donor, with their blessing.
Russell says nothing about the process proved a challenge for her, apart from some temporary bloating, and she felt extremely happy to be giving Matthews something she wanted so dearly.
“I was asked things like, ‘What if she has a boy, and it turns out you can never have a boy, how would you feel about that? Do you think you might wish you had that child, not the person carrying him? All those sorts of things,” Russell says.
“I never saw any issues and I knew I was never going to have any issues. I thought ultimately I would be happy as long as Jayne got the chance to be a parent. That’s the only reason I did it.”
Matthews says because of Russell’s age and their closeness, she always thought Russell was “the
obvious choice” of egg donor, but “I would never have asked her” because it was potentially too much to ask of someone.
Russell adds: “I thought if there’s one person in my life I’d do this for, it’s Jayne. I don’t know anyone else strong enough to do (what Jayne did) … I don’t think anyone I know was concerned about it at all; I don’t know anyone more generous and more giving than Jayne. After everything she’s been through with her cancer, she still volunteers in soup kitchens and just gives her time to everyone.
“This is the biggest thing Jayne wanted to do in her life, over everything else, and being able to be a part of that was fantastic. For something that has had such a big impact on someone, I’m more than happy to have gone through a little bit of discomfort to help her.”
Grantham, who provided donor sperm, was also carefully prepared for the process.
Russell’s parents enjoy seeing plenty of Grayson when Matthews takes him to Adelaide, as do Grantham’s parents, who are also based there.
Russell says she has been slightly surprised that when she says she was an egg donor people often ask, “Do you feel weird about it?” But, she notes, many women say they’ve also considered donating eggs but don’t know how to go about it.
As Grayson finally falls asleep, his mother struggles to put into words her joy at his arrival. He was born via caesarean birth (attended by his nana Marilyn).
Matthews’ luck being Matthews’ luck, she endured three miscarriage scares in the first half of her pregnancy, which she was certain each time meant she had lost her baby. This time, though, it was blessedly not the case.
The straight-talking mum is momentarily lost for words when asked how she felt when Grayson was placed on her chest for the first time after his birth.
“Being pregnant weeks after such a traumatic thing as watching my dad (my hero) die saved my life. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with the grief if there wasn’t a distraction like focusing on the baby’s growth milestones and being able to talk about something positive at a time when I was so heartbroken,” she says.
“The moment when he was born was bittersweet in some ways as my dad wasn’t there to share the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me, but for those first few hours I felt a joy I had never experienced before.
“While Melissa’s gift was selfless and beyond measure, she didn’t realise it was going to be such
a monumentally lifesaving gesture.
“I think in the photo I’ve got with us (after the birth), it’s the only time — and it lasted for a while — that you don’t even have to fake smile for a photo. I’m terrible in photos and I just remember looking at that photo and seeing pure joy and happiness.”
She describes her son as “a champion”, really easy and happy, and very popular with his large crew of grandparents and his biological father.
Matthews feels satisfied all parties are happy with their situation. Though some recipients of eggs or sperm worry about the stability of future relationships with donors, she says “neither of them has given me any reason to think it would be any different from pure love”.
“I’m going to do as much as I can to keep up all his relationships (with his extended families),” she says. “And when Grayson is old enough he can continue those as he likes.
“I am very conscious of everyone feeling they’re included, and that their feelings are all acknowledged.”
Matthews’ body has, incredibly, returned to its pre-menopausal cycle since her pregnancy and she would love to have another child.
As for the baby who resulted from that gift of precious eggs, a beaming Matthews says as she scoops him up after his sleep, “He certainly gets a lot of love, that’s for sure.”