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Need for Egg Donors Persists

For Anna, a Durham software developer, it was her friends’ struggle that brought her to Duke Fertility Center.

Anna, whose last name is being withheld in order to protect the confidentiality of the donor/recipient relationship, was close with four women who were having trouble getting pregnant. She saw how heavily the stress weighed on them.

“When you see your friends in pain, you want to do something to help them,” said Anna, 30. “But in that situation, you can’t help them directly. I was sitting at home one night thinking ‘What can I do?’”

A Google search led her to Duke Fertility Center’s egg donation program. Her giving spirit took her the rest of the way.

Anna’s story isn’t uncommon among the circle of donors in Duke’s program. But with a growing list of recipients waiting for a match, the program needs that circle to grow. 

“Finding young women who meet the many qualifications of a donor is always a challenge,” said Dr. Julia Woodward, the center’s clinical psychologist. “There are a variety of characteristics somebody has to have to be a good fit for the program. So we’re definitely in a position where we’re looking for the right people with the right motivations.”

Creating pregnancies from donated eggs is a small part of the clinic’s work. Dr. Jennifer Eaton, the director of the center’s Oocyte Donation Program, said about 15 pregnancies per year come from donor eggs. She’d like to see more, but the donor pool is much too small to meet the needs of the growing list of hopeful parents.

Donors receive $4,500 per donation and can donate up to six times. They must meet a strict list of requirements. In addition to being a non-smoker between the ages of 21-30, donors must undergo a thorough health screening and take part in evaluations with Woodward. The session gives Woodward a chance to learn about the possible donor and give her a chance to grasp the decision’s implications.

“Donors will often say something like ‘I’m a blood donor, I’m an organ donor, being an egg donor feels like a natural extension of my altruistic orientation,’” Woodward said. “I love those boundaries, that’s where I want her to be in terms of her thinking, but when you donate an egg, you are creating a permanent genetic connection to a future person. There are a lot of implications to a choice like that. I want her to feel very well informed about what those implications are.”

Woodward said there are three main reasons donors come forward. Some do it because they are giving people and it’s in their nature. Other donors are mothers who want to help someone else experience parenthood. The third most common motivation is that of Anna, someone touched by the fertility struggles of people close to them.

Having donated six times in the past few years, Anna’s time in the program is finished. She knows her first four donations resulted in pregnancies. She hasn’t asked about the final two. But guided by a desire to help someone locked in the same fight as her friends, the experience already gave her what she wanted.

“It was a form of catharsis to say ‘If I can’t help them, maybe I can help someone else in the same situation,’” Anna said.

In the Duke Fertility Center, photos of smiling babies cover every inch of available bulletin board space, hammering home the value of the center’s work.

“Sometimes mothers even bring babies in, which is really fun,” Eaton said. “That’s the best. That’s why I do this job.”

"My husband accompanied me and we both agreed the entire experience was delightful. Everyone we met was extremely courteous and professional."

Building one family at a time