Real Life

Egg donor wanted: ‘Please make me a mum’

Cancer took Rachel Alinea’s childhood, but she won’t let it steal her dream of becoming a mother.

When 29-year-old Rachel Alinea walked down the aisle to marry Paolo, the love of her life last year, she was emotional.

No surprise there, but Rachel felt luckier than most brides on their wedding day, because for many years she didn’t believe she’d live long enough to have a long-term relationship.

Now she’s hoping to find the final piece of her happiness puzzle.

Here she shares her story.

‘It’s cancer’

“It all began in 1998 when I started to feel unwell. I was experiencing shortness of breath, headaches, aching bones, blood noses and clotting issues – things that just weren’t normal for an 11-year-old girl.

Initially, my GP thought it was glandular fever, but a blood test revealed it was actually acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that can move very quickly

if not treated and can be fatal within a few months.

I was rushed to Auckland’s Starship Hospital – which became my home for the next year. My health was so bad, they had to give me two years’ worth of chemotherapy in the space of eight months to give me a fighting chance at survival.

It was incredibly stressful for the whole family.

My mum stayed with me while Dad took care of my three younger brothers at home. My parents really suffered.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been.

I had to have a number of operations and my heart stopped in the middle of one of them.

The chemo caused toxicity that gave me temporary brain damage and I had to learn to walk, talk and eat all over again. It must have been awful for my family to watch.

But all the stress and struggle was worth it as I eventually went into remission. Unfortunately, however, it only lasted eight months before I relapsed and was readmitted to hospital. This time, I needed a bone marrow transplant, after which I had to endure eight months of isolation due to low immunity.

That was tough, not being able to have anyone in the room with me all that time, but it did help in the end because I went back into remission.

Survivor Rachel and her husband Paolo want nothing more than to one day become parents.

Fight for survival

Once again, this good period was sadly short-lived. Within six months, I was sick again and this time there seemed to be no solution.

The cancer had moved to my spinal cord and my parents were told what no parent ever wants to hear: to take me home and make me comfortable.

They were told their 14-year-old daughter had around a year to live, if that.

We were all devastated.

It was awful and I started living in a very temporary state; I never made any long-term plans as I didn’t think I’d be around to see anything through. But then one year passed, and then another – and I was still alive.

The doctors were baffled. They did MRIs and everything was clear. There was no explanation for it. The cancer seemed to have disappeared. And it’s never come back! Although there have been some scares.

In 2010 some blood work came back positive and I was quickly sent from Auckland to the bone marrow unit in Christchurch, only to find it was a false alarm.

My whole experience has certainly given me a vigour for life and an awareness of how fragile it can be.

Over the years, my work took me from Auckland to Tauranga to Nelson, and while I was there, I decided to dip my toe into the world of internet dating. That was how I met Paolo, my future husband.

I knew he was the one for me and we were engaged within nine months of meeting. I was aware I had to tell him everything about my situation because in the past it’s been a deal-breaker. I needed to know he was okay with the fact that the bone marrow transplant destroyed my ovaries, so biological kids are not an option.

It was such a blow being told at 14 that I’d never be able to have kids and would be on hormone-replacement therapy for the rest of my life. I’d always pictured the man, the kids and the white picket fence, but that wasn’t to be.

To my great joy, Paolo wasn’t fazed in the slightest. Without hesitation he said, “I’m marrying you, not what you can give me,” and I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Despite Paolo’s incredible support, it still upset me that I couldn’t have kids.

As I’ve got older and friends have had babies, it’s become harder. Of course I’m so happy for them, but sometimes when I go home after visiting one of them and am on my own, it’s harder to smile.

I know my parents are just glad I’m alive, but some days I feel so sad I haven’t been able to give them grandchildren.

‘I still can’t quite imagine that one day I may be a mother, but I’ve learned never to give up hope.’

New hope

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it every day.

I regularly let my mind wander to thoughts of how life would be if we could become a family. I’ve worked as a nanny for eight years; luckily I’m able to separate work from my personal life and enjoy my job without it tugging at my heartstrings too much. But I feel like something’s missing – like there’s a little child-sized hole in my heart.

Ironically, just as I started to become better at shutting out my dreams of biologically having a baby, a visit to an endocrinologist changed everything.

I’ve been on hormone replacement since I was 14 because my ovaries don’t function, but this specialist said she couldn’t see why I shouldn’t be able to carry a baby myself if I could find an egg donor.

I’d always thought adoption would be the only option, so it was quite a shock. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing – that one day I might actually carry my own child. It felt, and still feels, totally surreal.

I’m incredibly lucky that this treatment is publicly funded for me because of my medical history – the only thing now is to find an egg! They’ve booked me in for July, but obviously it’s dependent on us finding a donor.

A waiting game

In New Zealand, egg donors can’t be paid, so my and Paolo’s future depends on the kindness of someone out there. It’s surprising how many generous women do it, just to give someone like me a chance at motherhood. Sometimes it’s friends or family members, but often it’s just kind women who don’t even know the person they’re donating to.

We’ve thought about adoption and will revisit this option if we can’t find a donor. Adoption isn’t an easy path these days but having a child is really important to us both and we don’t mind how it happens, unlike some of our extended family who because of their Catholic faith believe that IVF is unnatural and wrong. When we found out that we might be able to have our own child, there was no doubt in our minds that it was the right thing to do.

It’s hard when not everyone is supportive, but a lot of our family is behind us, as well as good friends, and my clinic, Fertility Associates, has a Facebook page that offers support, chats with medical professionals, media updates and a community of women who are going through the same thing, so I have plenty of places to go when it gets tough.

I still can’t quite imagine that one day I might be a mother, but on the other hand I’ve learned never to give up hope.

My illness and recovery are proof that you never know how things will turn out. I’m sure my family never imagined I’d make it to an age when I’d even be able to think about having babies. If that’s possible, absolutely anything is.

I’d love to give Mum and Dad grandchildren after all they’ve been through with me – and hopefully one day I will.”

The egg donation process

In New Zealand, an egg donor must be aged between 21 and 37, be a non-smoker and have no significant health issues; this gives the couple receiving the egg the best chance of fertilisation.

When a woman applies to be a donor, she’s screened for suitability over several months; blood tests and counselling are part of this process. If everything is okay to proceed, the donor starts an IVF cycle, which involves her being given medication to stimulate ovulation.

The next step is the eggs are collected, donated to the recipient couple and fertilised with the recipient partner’s sperm. The recipient woman receives hormonal treatment so her uterus is synchronised with the embryo’s development and becomes ready for the embryo to be implanted.

The recipient is subsequently legally regarded as the child’s mother.

If you’re interested in becoming a donor, go to talk to Fertility Associates and fill in the online form.

If you want to give specifically to Rachel, use the code words Forever Grateful.

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