Martene is a South African egg donor and a member of We Are Egg Donors. She is an active egg donor who has traveled internationally for her egg donations. While the recent cycles have been smooth and positive, her first cycle was a different story.
This is the fourth story featured in our series Crossing Borders, in which we interview women who have traveled internationally to donate their eggs. Crossing Borders aims to illuminate the human experiences behind the complex and wide-varying laws that govern egg donation practices.
How did you become an international egg donor?
Martene: Let me start off by saying when I was recruited for the first time to become an egg donor, it wasn’t about the money. South African egg donors can be paid between 1200 and 2700 US dollars. Given everything that happened on this trip, the compensation didn’t even begin to cover everything I went through. I was only paid $1200.
I applied to be an egg donor in June 2012, when I had just turned 23 and my daughter was ten months old. My old high school friend, Katy, was a coordinator and donor at an agency that has since renamed itself Fertility Care SA. I trusted my friend and she trusted her boss, so I took a lot of information at face value and didn’t do much digging.
Martene: My friend Katy called me a month later and asked if I would like to go with her to Mumbai, India to donate. My first thought was, “Wow! That was crazy fast…” So I agreed and had to rush on very short notice to get my visa and medical screenings done. I started the injections while at home in South Africa, and four days later, we left Cape Town bound for Mumbai. Katy and I flew out with two other donors, Jenny* and Ann*, and I learned that three additional donors were supposed to join us in India.
That’s how this agency works: they fly a group of egg donors to stimulate at once, and go through the retrieval at the same time, typically in a country where IVF is more affordable. The cuts down costs for the agency and the Intended Parents (IPs).
What was it like in India?
Martene: Jenny and I had tourist visas, while Katy and Ann had medical visas. Three of us cleared, but there was a problem with Jenny’s visa and she was stopped by customs. We were tired and hormonal, and we started freaking out because we didn’t know what was happening to her. We could not understand the customs agents’ accents and they were scary rude. They told us, “you must go, you can’t be on this side.You were cleared.” And they actually ushered us to the other side with the rest of the passengers who were cleared. When we asked to speak to Jenny they straight out refused at first. They didn’t even bother telling us why they were detaining Jenny.
We begged for at least an hour to see Jenny, tears streaming down our faces. They finally let us see her for a minute, where she was surrounded by at least seven customs agents. Then, they told us to leave. Jenny was deported back to South Africa after sleeping on an airport bench for two days.
That’s awful. This reminds me of an American egg donor who almost got arrested at the Canadian border because the immigration officials were accusing her of “egg selling.”
Martene: We were so worried about Jenny. We walked out of the airport in a daze — tired, hungry, dying for a shower, with thoughts of Jenny weighing on our hearts. When we got to the airport pickup area, we found that no one was waiting to pick us up. So we hailed a cab. At the hotel counter, we found that we didn’t have any reservations made in our name. At this point, red flags are going off in our heads — the agency had promised that all expenses, including accommodations and transport, would be covered, but none of it had panned out as promised.
Thankfully, Katy was able to arrange rooms for us. I shared a room with Ann, who is now the coolest girl I know. During our stay we were the two amigas. Ann and I immediately hooked up our WiFi to tell our families that we were okay.
So tell me how the donation went.
Martene: Well, we were only able to rest for a couple hours before Katy called our room to tell us that the agency owner had gone ballistic after she found out we checked into a hotel “without her consent.”
What does that even mean?
Martene: She was pissed! She flipped out at Katy and asked her why she didn’t check her email. Apparently she sent an email while we were in midair with the new hotel reservations. She also wasn’t aware that Jenny had been deported, and when we told her, she blamed Katy for that too.
Finally, we went to the fertility clinic and met the wonderful team who would be our family for the next few days. We had the psychological screening, vaginal ultrasound, and a review of our profiles.
At first I found a few odd mistakes – for example, another girl’s photos were mixed up with mine. But as I turned the pages, the discrepancies became more alarming.
The profile said I had green eyes and brown hair, that I was 1.65 m tall, 21 years old, and O+ blood type. It also said I had surgery as a child for a deviated septum and I love horseback riding.
Umm… In reality, I am 1.75 m (5’7″) tall, hazel eyes, auburn hair, A+ blood, and 23 years old. I’ve never had nasal surgery. And I’m scared of horses, so horseback riding is out!
I asked Ann to check her profile. Sure enough, some of the photos weren’t hers, and her height and weight were wrong.
The doctor came in and got worried as she saw our faces. She took my profile, read through it, looked up, and said: “You don’t have green eyes, and you are not that short either.” The cat was out of the bag. She left us to try to get a hold of the agency owner and contact the Intended Parents (IPs).
We were going crazy at this point. My family warned me about illegal organ trafficking, and I had all kinds of extreme fears racing through my head.
The doctor couldn’t reach the agency owner, but told us that the IPs want to cancel the cycles. The doctor also kindly pointed out that I was on the wrong hormone dose (75 instead of 225 units of Gonal-F).
We went back to the hotel heartbroken, expecting to be sent home. Then the agency boss called, and things hit the fan. “How dare you point out the mistakes?! You should have lied to the doctors!!”
She actually scolded you for not defrauding the fertility clinic? Unbelievable.
Martene: Insane would be an understatement. Our parents were furious that she had the audacity to expect us to lie for her mistakes and misconduct.
The next day was a roller coaster. At first my IPs were willing to take Ann as their donor, but Ann’s IPs wanted to cancel. Then Ann’s IPs decided they would accept me. The clinic staff were amazing, very patient and sympathetic toward us. Nonetheless, I was crying almost nonstop through the day.
Meanwhile the other three donors in the group – Lisa, Gemma, and Charlie – arrived too. They found the same problems: wrong height, wrong weight, wrong photos, wrong family history. Their IPs decided to move forward with them anyway. Lisa was actually Jenny’s sister, and Lisa was crushed that she would not be donating with her sister after Jenny was deported.
We continued taking our injections and going to the clinic in the mornings for monitoring. Ann’s retrieval came first, and then mine. After so much chaos and misery, I’m thankful that our retrievals were mostly free of complications. (Although later, I did develop a cyst on my left ovary due to the medication.) I snuck junk food into the hospital for Ann because, let’s face it, hospital food tastes like cardboard.
Another group member, Gemma, wasn’t as fortunate with her cycle. The clinic found on an ultrasound that she was only producing 5 eggs, leaving the IPs with a difficult choice. They decided to cancel the cycle.
The boss was furious, and let me tell you why: she guarantees at least 15 eggs per donor in her contract with Intended Parents. She refused to compensate Gemma.
We had to argue with the agency owner throughout the cycle over everything. She shifted blame onto everyone but herself, for example blaming Katy that our accommodations weren’t in order. She told us how much money we had cost her business, and tried to make us pay for the hotel with the threat of stranding us in India. We made a point of recording all our phone calls with her.
We felt totally helpless, in another country so far from home.
Throughout the cycle we were communicating with our families through Skype and they were up in arms. The agency owner did compensate Ann and I as promised, under heavy pressure from our families.
To cut costs, however, the agency boss made me board a plane back to South Africa – a 17-hour flight – only FOUR hours after my retrieval. I was in pain throughout the flight, having just had 28 eggs retrieved with no time to rest.
Wow! How did it feel to have the Intended Parents deciding whether or not they still ‘wanted’ you after they learned of the agency’s deception?
Martene: The agency owner accidentally forwarded emails from my would-be IPs in which they stated that they want a refund. They stated they have “wasted” a lot of money. They said they don’t want me as their donor but they are so “desperate” that they will take whatever they can get. OUCH!
There I was, a donor in a foreign country on powerful hormones, fearing I wouldn’t see my baby again. I fully understand their frustration and disappointment, but reading that hurt like hell.
I wasn’t wanted. I wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t what this couple envisioned for their future child. I felt traumatized.
That’s awful. Some people approach choosing an egg donor with a very consumer-centric mentality, forgetting that we’re people, not commodities. Did the agency face any consequences for putting you through this?
Martene: Katy immediately quit her job as a donor coordinator for the agency, and we decided to seek legal council. Unfortunately the case was dismissed because – luckily – none of us had “serious” medical damage. The agency owner made threatening statements to Katy, telling her that if any of this information was made public then Katy would be banned from working in the fertility industry and would get locked up. We’ve since learned that other donors, IPs, and IVF clinics have their own horror stories about this agency.
Did you ever donate again?
Martene: I took a break from donation, but eventually signed up with another international agency along with Ann and Charlie. Last month I donated in New Delhi, and I’m going to California in three months for another donation. Lisa donated two more times with different international agencies and Gemma decided not to donate again. Katy now works for a local South African agency as a donor coordinator and she enjoys her job.
I’m happy I got over my fear and decided to donate again. My second trip to India with the new agency was a positive experience. I am excited to go to California!
It’s interesting that you donated again after such a nightmarish experience. What lessons would you want to share with would-be egg donors?
Martene: Egg donation is a medical process that does have risks. I got lucky – the doctors knew what they were doing and saved me from serious harm.
There are bad people in the world, and if you don’t know what you are getting into, it could be a disaster. You MUST do your research on egg donor agencies, especially if you plan to travel internationally. You should know and verify the details of your trip. If an agency doesn’t seem forthcoming with information, or if you get a bad feeling, walk away.
*Editor’s Note: The names of Martene’s fellow donors were changed to protect their privacy.
First photo courtesy of ryanready via Flickr Creative Commons. Second photo courtesy of Martene. Third photo courtesy of Hendrick Terbeck via Flickr Creative Commons.