Magazine stories

The Egg and I
Deciding whether to donate

Two five-inch syringes with bright orange caps have been placed atop the white linen of the grand banquet table, like little sterile centerpieces. The table sits in an elegant meeting room – arched floor-to-ceiling windows, rich floral carpet – on the second floor of a posh downtown Portland, Oregon hotel.
Although I pretend not to notice, I can’t stop staring at the needles, and neither can the three women seated to my left. The four of us have never met, but I know we have more in common than aichmophobia. We’re all height-and-weight proportionate, cancer-free, non-smoking, college-educated twenty-somethings.
And we’re considering donating our eggs.
“It could take months before a couple chooses you, but once you accept, the donation process takes as little as six weeks,” says Catherine, the donor agency representative, a woman who looks as though she could be a plus-size model, hefty but curvy with intense dark eyes and a flashy smile.
She invites us to open to the sample calendar inside the information packets, which have been set before us as though they are the main course.
Week One: donor matched with couple.
Week Two: psychological evaluation and legal consultation.
Week Three: physical assessment and genetic testing.
Weeks Four and Five: fifteen days of hormone injections.
Week Six: egg retrieval and $6,000 payment.
As we listen to the details, nobody squirms at the mention of the physical concerns:  cramping, weight gain and mood swings associated with the hormones, the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation, which can require hospitalization and has in rare cases lead to death. Nor do we react to the news that we could face a lawsuit if we back out mid-process.  We don’t even flinch when Catherine assures us, with a practiced smoothness, “There’s nothing that links egg donation to infertility.”
Only the syringes make us shudder. Our decades of experience with needles – all those vaccines and tetanus shots as kids – have told us how to feel about them: scared. But egg harvesting?  None of us has been through that before, so we’re not sure how to act. While explaining the twice-daily injection regime, Catherine passes around the syringes. I uncap one and inspect it; it looks as thin and fragile as mechanical pencil lead. But the second one, the intramuscular, reminds me of a fat sewing machine needle that can plunge through denim. My hands sweat.
“Don’t worry, the big one is used only once. It’s the final shot, the ‘trigger shot,’ which prepares the ovaries for retrieval,” Catherine says. “By then you’re used to giving yourself the injections. Donors tell me it’s no big deal.”
I want to believe her. The entire process doesn’t sound dreadful; it actually seems simple and straightforward. But a refrain keeps playing in the back of my mind, asking, “Could it be that easy? Can I actually do this?”
As I muse, I realize I’m staring at a sleeping baby—bald, button-nosed and eyebrow-less—resting in glossy Technicolor on the cover of the donor information packet. The coral-colored infant has a generic look, like it could be a photo of me as a newborn.
When I was born 27 years ago, the option to become pregnant through another woman’s eggs didn’t exist. The first pregnancy accomplished with a donated egg occurred in 1984 in Australia and was considered at the time to be a break-through childbearing option for women either born without ovaries or whose ovaries had failed because of early menopause, radiation or chemotherapy.
In the decades since, egg donation has spurred much controversy as people saw using donor eggs as a way to prevent passing on undesirable traits as serious as genetically transferable diseases and as superficial as male pattern baldness. But, ethical questions aside, egg donation has become a proven method for prolonging a woman’s childbearing years far beyond the norm. A woman at age 41 has a 17 percent success rate getting pregnant with her own eggs, compared with a 50 percent success rate using eggs donated by a younger woman. (In December a woman in Spain used donated eggs from California to become, at age 67, the oldest recorded woman to give birth.) In the 90s the average egg recipient was in her thirties. Now she’s 42 ½. The use of donor eggs has tripled in the last decade.  More than 15,000 donor eggs were used in U.S. in vitro fertilization procedures in 2004, the most recent year of data available.
Today U.S. egg donation is an estimated $38-million-a-year, largely unregulated industry.

This story was originally published in Etude, The Journal of Literary Nonfiction. 
SEE THE FULL STORY HERE. This story was later selected for inclusion in the Norton anthology Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 2.

Genius Among Us 
Prodigy conducts Ph.D.-level work at UO before graduating high school

Dmitry “Mitka” Vaintrob has the perfect mind for math. At age eleven he learned calculus during summer vacation without a textbook. In eighth grade, he enrolled in graduate-level math courses at the University of Oregon. And before he could vote, Mitka earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in mathematics.

“I was doomed from the start,” Mitka says. The slope-shouldered eighteen-year-old with the crown of bubbly dark curls is the son of two academics: UO math associate professor Arkady Vaintrob and Julia Nemirovskaya, a UO adjunct professor of Russian literature and culture. His parents, who emigrated from Russia when Mitka was two, cultivated their son’s curiosity from the beginning, and even then it was startling.
His mother remembers bringing her toddler to a playground full of slides, jungle gyms, and clamoring potential playmates. Mitka surveyed the scene, scooped up a pebble, and asked, “What does this consist of?”   ...
Published in Oregon Quarterly Autumn 2007.

Published in Oregon Quarterly Autumn 2007.

The Doctor Is In

Local Physicians Help Revive the Human Physiology Department

The prognosis looked grim for the Department of Human Physiology in the early 1990s. Legislative budget cuts forced faculty layoffs, leaving just five professors. And the student population dwindled to 20 -- the future wasn't promising.

Less than 15 years later, there are now nearly 700 undergraduates majoring in human physiology, plus 42 graduate students are conducting independent research on how the body responds to exercise, disease and trauma.

The department, in other words, has made a dramatic recovery from a student interest point of view. But faculty growth has not kept pace -- with only 10 faculty members, the faculty-to-student ratio is now about 70:1.

Nevertheless, human physiology has become a program that attracts millions of dollars in grants funding cutting-edge research, and its professors are publishing in the best academic journals while undergraduates are successfully applying to the country's top medical schools.

How did this tiny department on the verge of extinction take a 180-degree turn and start attracting attention nationwide?  In part -- a major part -- the revival is the direct result of dozens of professional partnerships with Eugene's medical community.

"Our local physicians have become the cornerstone of our department," said retiring Department Head Gary Klug. "We couldn't be doing what we're doing without them."

Today more than 40 physicians work with the department as instructors, research consultants, guest lecturers and student mentors. This is nothing less than phenomenal for a department with humble roots as a physical education program. Such extensive collaboration is normally the province of a university with a large medical school. But of course there’s no medical school at the UO — not yet.  

This story was originally published in CASCADE MAGAZINE. See the rest of the story HERE.

A Cinderella Story 

Fairy tales ain’t what they used to be

“Five – Six – Seven – Eight – One – (breath) – Three – Four – Five – Six …” whispers Mattea Rae Hagglund, marking the cadence as she goes though her paces.  A dance move is paired with each beat: One – head up. Two – kick. Three – turn. Four – shoulder roll. Moonwalk for four counts.  Someone has just told her she has ten minutes before she’s due onstage, so this hallway recital is her final cram session.  Mattea stares intently into space and takes it from the top. “Five – six – seven – eight—…”
Mattea is dressed in a black leotard with a halter-style, backless tuxedo shirt, a black-sequined bowtie and one sparkling silver glove.  She has arrestingly long legs, womanly curves and an ample cleavage.

She is 14. Younger girls pause to gape on their way to the dressing room. The teen-aged male wait staff make extra trips through her practice space to catch a glimpse. Even middle-aged mothers steal looks.

Mattea represents something different to each passerby. She’s what younger girls want to be, what mothers worry their daughters will too soon become and what boys of all ages fantasize about. But at the core, Mattea is just a girl with a dream, dancing to the rhythms of a different generation.
Her dream: She wants to be famous by next year.

In a time when anybody can rocket to celebrity status via American Idol, reality television, You Tube and the blogosphere, Mattea’s desire to be famous isn’t unusual or out-of-date. What’s old-fashioned about her dream is that she, a girl from the rural town of Gold Hill, Oregon, population 1,073, wants to reach Hollywood by way of beauty pageants. ...

This story was originally published in Etude, The Journal of Literary Nonfiction. SEE FULL STORY HERE.

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