Good eggs

For some infertile Dallas couples, science, commerce, and a few genetically attractive women provide the next best thing to Mother Nature

That year, doctors diagnosed the couple's problem, saying that her husband's sperm had low motility. A year later, they tried IVF. Some of her eggs fertilized and began dividing, but slowly, too slowly. The doctors soon told her that no amount of intervention could give them a shared, healthy biological child.

"I would have adopted, but my husband did not want to," she says. "His main reason is not knowing enough about the child's background.

"You can say the same thing with egg donation, but at least 50 percent of known genetics is going into the child. And most of the donors are in college or graduated, so you're really getting a more intelligent person."

Little Devin Dunn, here with his mother, Diane, entered the world through the help of an egg donor. His parents, who live in Granbury, plan to tell him about his origins when he gets older.
Michael Hogue
Little Devin Dunn, here with his mother, Diane, entered the world through the help of an egg donor. His parents, who live in Granbury, plan to tell him about his origins when he gets older.
Michael Hogue

Whether the twins will ever learn of the other set of genes that helped create them is uncertain. In her initial talks for this story, Gladys said she might have to tell them, if only because they share the donor's blood type, not hers. Weeks later, though, she says she's finally decided: There's no reason to tell her twins that their parents once went to a Dallas agency and selected an anonymous 21-year-old, the daughter of a Baptist minister, to help start their family.

Initially, she had shown this reporter a photo of the donor, along with the application listing her genetic history. Even though Gladys says the picture doesn't do the donor justice, it's still enough to show that she has beautiful features: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, long auburn hair, green eyes. "The people at the agency say that she's absolutely gorgeous," says Gladys, a plain-looking woman. But she's quick to point out that the donor--and every other member of her family--has medium or dark skin. Gladys' own girl is fair, just like Gladys. "With God, anything is possible," she says. "He's powerful.

"Does it really matter?" she asks of the egg. "I'm the one who carried them for seven and a half months and gave birth to them. The egg was only a small part of the process. Why would they really want to meet her? She's not their mother."

For 26-year-old Carrie Nicholas, the shots begin tonight. Lupron, as the drug is called, will suppress her menstrual cycle for two weeks. Then, she'll add another drug to the daily dose to shift her ovaries into high gear, stimulating them to ripen many eggs, not the standard, monthly one. Only then will she be ready for the egg retrieval, her sixth anonymous donation on behalf of SSA, the Houston agency.

Walking into her middle-class home in Richardson, the petite brunette grabs some cards on the mantel next to the photos of her 6-year-old daughter, dark like her, and her little boy, blond and blue-eyed like her husband, a stockbroker.

To the people whom she has helped, she is known only as their donor, their friend, their angel. She's privy to that gratitude through the doctors and the agency that has forwarded her the couples' gifts of jewelry, flowers, and cards.

"Thank you for being our special angel," reads one card. She goes to the kitchen to get another note, one on which her 2-year-old son accidentally scribbled. Still, some words are legible. "Thank you for bringing us our child," it says of that "special delivery," a boy born last June.

There's also a small crystal that a couple gave her, etched with the image of an angel.

"I get to feel something very few people get to feel," she says.

As for why she decided to donate, she says that seeing her sister-in-law experience infertility made her sympathetic to those who long for a child.

It seems that many couples long for Nicholas' eggs. SSA limits donors to five egg-retrieval sessions, but because of demand for Nicholas' gametes, she's been allowed to donate a sixth time.

"To be honest, it would be a waste of time to get someone not attractive," Nicholas says. "They're not going to say, 'I'll take that ugly one over that pretty one.'"

As for the legal agreement she signed to maintain her anonymity, "It's fine. I'm sure [the parents] would worry otherwise. I would be fine meeting the child, but I'm fine not meeting also," says Nicholas, a sociology major who takes night classes at Richland Community College and bartends once a week at a Mexican restaurant. "I don't see it as anything more than helping someone have a baby."

The photos on the wall outside Dr. Brian Barnett's office show his handiwork--some of the dozens of babies he has helped bring into the world with the help of egg donors. Some shots capture newborns with siblings, others in the arms of parents.

This is a "super busy" time for Dr. Barnett, a member of Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas' IVF unit, one of 350 such programs nationwide and the largest in the Southwest. In 1999, he and the team's other doctors had a 65 percent pregnancy rate from donor eggs. (The Centers for Disease Control's latest figures--from 1997--show a national rate of 40 percent.)

A book on his desk is opened to a diagram of a woman's uterus, with scrawls of ink evident from the hundreds of times he has referred to that page when speaking with patients. Like the national average, most of the women whom he meets to discuss egg donation are pushing 40. And all, according to the hospital program's ethics guidelines, are married and under the age of 47. Of Dr. Barnett's patients who choose this option, some have lost their eggs. Others can't get pregnant with the few they do have. Still others don't want to risk birth defects from having their own biological child. Then there are the few who come to him not because of their age but because of some illness--a benign ovarian tumor, endometriosis--which made them infertile.

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