Hidden costs and self-inject hormones: What I wish I'd known about egg freezing

I lay in the operating theatre, half-dressed and nervous. 

I was in a fertility clinic about to have an egg retrieval procedure, and I felt vulnerable and exposed. 

The anaesthetist strode in and looked down at me. As he opened his mouth I thought he might say something reassuring, so his question came as a shock.

‘Cash or invoice?’

I’d never met this man before; this place didn’t even have their own anaesthetist so he was a contractor, and he’d just walked in unannounced. Where did he presume I was stowing the cash? 

It was just one of the odd moments that punctuated my egg freezing journey.

I decided to pursue egg freezing in 2019. I’d been living in San Francisco for almost three years, where the procedure was the norm for women my age and is often funded by peoples’ employers.

When I returned to Europe, I was 32, single and doing well in my career. I was also pragmatic about my relationship status and biological clock. Egg freezing felt like the logical choice.

The first step in the process was finding a fertility clinic. My job was busy and efficiency was a priority, so I picked the one closest to my office and arranged to visit the following week. 

The first appointment was straightforward and practical, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. 

In the States, doctors are used to selling their services and delivering a standard of care worthy of the eye-watering cost. But my doctor in Berlin – where egg freezing is much cheaper than in the States – was quiet, and seemed surprised by my questions, offering little in the way of reassurance, information or support. 

When I inquired after costs, she handed me a dog-eared piece of paper, which outlined approximate figures for retrieval cycles, medication and consultations. But I left the clinic unclear as to how many cycles I would need, how they might make me feel, or how much it was all going to set me back. 

This was my first lesson: knowledge is power when you’re a patient, and only when you’re armed with the facts can you successfully advocate for yourself. At the time, I thought all clinics were created equal, and had no idea I could have spoken to another doctor at the same place if I’d asked. If I had my time again, I would have researched other locations before settling for the first one I found.

The next step was egg retrieval, but before my eggs could be taken and frozen, I needed to inject my stomach with hormones every day for two weeks to stimulate more follicles in my ovaries. But yet again, I was woefully underprepared. 

Despite hearing from friends about administering the hormones, when it came to injecting them myself, I couldn’t do it. It felt surreal: I was going through a potentially life-changing medical process, and was alone on my sofa, needle in hand, without any clinical support.

By this point, I’d had three appointments before starting treatment. A nurse explained how the injections worked and gave me an instruction letter.

But even so, talking about it versus actually putting a needle into your own body are completely different things. No amount of instruction can quite prepare you for that moment.

Freezing your eggs is empowering and reassuring, and I wish my experience as a patient was a better reflection of how positive and open-minded I felt

I tried for over half an hour that day to go through with it. But that first time, I ended up asking a close coworker for help. Eventually, I got used to it and it started to feel less invasive.

My doctor hadn’t given much away about how the hormones would make me feel, but I knew from friends that my body might change, and soon enough it did. After a week, my ovaries felt bigger and I was bloated and gained weight. But if you’re somebody who experiences intense period symptoms, it isn’t all that different.

After week two, I was ready for egg retrieval, which was quick and relatively painless. After the procedure, I was drowsy from the general anaesthetic and my body felt bruised, but the pain only lasted a couple of days. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it isn’t something to be scared of, and the positive outcome far outweighed any pain.

Eight healthy eggs had been retrieved in this cycle.

It speaks volumes that the hormones, procedure and recovery weren’t the worst bit for me, not by a mile: it was the lack of support and empathy I experienced from the clinic that left me wanting.

Freezing your eggs is empowering and reassuring, and I wish my experience as a patient was a better reflection of how positive and open-minded I felt going into the process. 

For example, when I went to my first appointment, the nurse at reception asked me if I was there with my husband – but I was single. Then all the forms I needed to fill out asked for information about me and my husband.

This experience felt fully catered towards couples who are struggling to conceive. Egg freezing should be an empowering thing, but it made me feel disempowered.

Despite asking questions and trying my best to understand the fees, I never quite knew how much the process was going to cost me. In the end, I paid around £7,500 all in – including a second cycle – but nearly paid more when they overcharged me for blood tests that never happened.

I was billed for each procedure in turn, receiving countless invoices every week in the post, which charged me individually for everything from diagnostics through to storage and cryopreservation fees. I pay €400 (£345) a year in storage costs, which is pretty standard for Europe.

Since freezing my eggs, I’ve started my own company, called Apryl, where I work with clinics and fertility patients to cultivate transparency and fill the gaps in care I so keenly felt. I also help people pay for treatment through their employer.

Essentially, employers allocate employees a ‘lifetime budget’ for treatments. Employees can then log onto the platform and anonymously speak with our fertility consultants to work out what treatments they might need, decide on a plan of action, find the right place for them, undergo treatment and access support plans for their partner (if they have one).

We offer everything from egg freezing through to IVF, adoption and surrogacy. Employees don’t need to tell their employer what treatments they’re accessing, or how much they’re spending, unless they want to. 

Everyone deserves to access treatment on their terms, armed with knowledge, facts and resources, so they can make informed decisions about which treatment feels right for them.

The doctors managed to retrieve eight eggs during my first cycle, but I wanted 20, so I went back for a second cycle a couple of months later at the same place. I still haven’t touched my eggs, and there’s a chance I’ll never need to. 

But I will always believe that the process was worth it. And if I had to, I’d do it all over again.

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