Biologically the baby would be mine but legally it would belong to another mum
Maria Duffy donated her eggs and later got a letter from the recipient her actions helped. Arlene Harris chats to the author and hardworking mum-of-four
It's very easy to be sympathetic towards someone's plight when you know that it doesn't affect your life in any way. And if we are honest, most of us forget about tragic real-life stories when we close the paper or turn off the TV.
But Maria Duffy from Lucan is different. When she was watching a programme about couples who were unable to conceive, she felt compelled to help. And after discussing it with her husband Paddy, she decided to donate some of her eggs.
A year later, she received a letter out of the blue from a woman who had given birth to a baby as a direct result of her donation.
This letter encouraged Maria – who has four children of her own – to write a novel about how a letter from a stranger can have such an impact on your life.
"My husband Paddy and I were watching a documentary on RTE about couples who were trying to conceive. It was really heartbreaking to watch and we felt incredibly lucky to have our four healthy children (Eoin, 16, Roisin, 15, Enya, 11 and Conor, 9) and couldn't imagine what it must be like to want a baby so much but not to be able to have one.
"I'd had two miscarriages after my second child so I knew how awful that was but some of these couples never even knew what it was like to experience a positive pregnancy test.
"The programme was very raw – it showed their absolute grief and heartache and it just hit a chord with both of us.
"We spoke a lot about it over the following days – about how awful it was for those people and how lucky we were.
"One of the things the documentary highlighted was the need for egg donors in Ireland.
"In this country, egg donors aren't paid – it's completely altruistic and it's not something that's really advertised.
"It seemed that some couples were trying for years to have a baby, then maybe undergoing IVF treatment and then after all that, they were told that the best chance they'd have of carrying a baby was egg donation.
"At that time, there was a waiting list of about five years. There were only two or three people coming forward per year to donate eggs so it got me thinking that maybe it's something I could do," Maria explains.
"The Sims Clinic was the clinic featured in the documentary so I gave them a call and said I was interested so they asked me and Paddy to go in to have a chat
"Naively, I didn't realise there was so much to the process. But they talked us through everything and made sure that we fully understood what we were doing.
"So although there was a shortage of egg donors, they weren't pouncing on me as soon as I offered, they were careful in ensuring I was doing the right thing and sent us home with a lot of information to process.
"We got back in touch with them shortly after and were both referred to a counsellor who talked to us about the procedure and made sure we understood the biology of it. If a baby resulted from the donation, it would have my DNA. Biologically, the baby would be mine and the father's.
"But legally, the baby would belong to the other couple. We understood it all and still wanted to proceed.
"We didn't tell the children because they were too young but we didn't make a secret of it either – telling our family and friends initially and vowing to tell the children when they were old enough to understand," Maria says.
"After the counselling, I had to undergo screening tests to make sure I was healthy and that there was no reason I shouldn't donate. Once everything was confirmed to be okay, the procedure began.
"From that point, the whole thing took just six or seven weeks. It started with scans and medication.
"Then there were nasal sprays and more scans. Then I had to inject myself daily with hormones to stimulate the ovaries. The clinic was in touch all the time and brought me back and forth for scans to make sure everything was progressing nicely," she says.
"It's basically the same as IVF treatment except that when my eggs were harvested, that's the end of things for me.
"During one of my scans they confirmed that my eggs were ready and brought me in the following day to have them harvested.
"It involved a local anaesthetic so I didn't feel a thing. They got multiple eggs, which were injected with sperm from the other man that same day and left to develop for a couple of days.
"That's when my part finished. I wasn't needed any more.
"The whole process is anonymous but basic information is filtered back and forth between the donor and recipient.
"I was able to ring the clinic two days later to find out if any embryos had resulted and was told there were some. They were to be implanted into the recipient that day.
"Then two weeks later I was able to ring up to find out if she was pregnant. She was.
"And nine months after that I could ring up to find out if a baby had been delivered – I did and it had.
"I didn't know if it was a boy or a girl but just was told that a healthy baby had been delivered to the couple and they were delighted," she explains.
"Knowing the joy that children bring, I was excited to be able to give someone a chance of having a child of their own.
"And I know people probably expect that I felt sad or strange afterwards, but I really didn't.
"I just felt so happy when the procedure was over and done with and just prayed that it would work for them.
"And when I knew it had worked, I just felt elated.
"The clinic told us that although the whole process was anonymous, they could filter basic letters back and forth so I wrote to the recipients telling them why I was doing it and wishing them well.
"On the day I went in to have the eggs harvested, the clinic handed me a letter from the recipient and it really moved me.
"She hadn't waited until she found out if she was pregnant to write the letter, but decided to write it well before that.
"She wanted to say how much she appreciated what I was doing and that they'd never forget my kindness. I instantly felt a connection with her. It was strange but lovely.
"Here were two women – one donating eggs and one receiving eggs – forever connected in a way but never knowing each other. The letter will always be very special to me.
"When I was clearing out some paperwork last year, I came across the letter. It made me really emotional to read it again as I hadn't seen it in a few years.
"Then two things dawned on me. The first thing was the fact that my children still didn't know about it and they were at an age where they could probably understand. I decided it was time to tell them.
"The second thing that I got thinking about was how precious letters are. We rarely write them these days – favouring emails and texts – but there's so much we can find out about people through their letters.
"I thought it would be a great premise for a book," Maria explains.
"I loved the idea of a mysterious letter being at the heart of a story.
"So I decided to write about a girl, at the height of her happiness, just about to marry the man of her dreams. But then she finds a letter in her dead sister's things that sends her world into a spin.
"I have just had the book published and, of course, it is called The Letter. So at the moment, I'm busy promoting it and once the children are back at school in September, I'll put my head down again and get on with my next book.
"I hope to have that finished by Christmas and it will be published in the summer next year," she adds.
"My life is hectic between one thing and another but I wouldn't have it any other way – I'm a very lucky lady.
"I have absolutely no regrets at all about donating my eggs. In fact it was one of the best things that I ever did. The whole experience was positive from start to finish.
"It's funny, I never would have known about the need for egg donors unless I'd seen that documentary so in a way, I'd love to think that somebody reading this article might think it's something they'd like to do."
For more information on egg donation visit www.sims.ie or www.eggdonation.ie. To talk to Maria about her experience or her new book, visit www.maria duffy.ie
The Letter by Maria Duffy is published by Hachette Books and costs €18.75