Report on us and our dear patient Hillevi on Swedish Television SVT. Read the story on SVTNews (in Swedish)
Anna-Maja Persson Reporter, St Petersburg | Pelle Wickman, Lars Lyrefelt, Vadim Simakov & Vladimir Kovesjnikov Video | Ida Linde Video reporter | Anna H Svensson Web reporter
What do you do when the longing for children grows and grows, but no solutions work? For Hillevi Hertz the yearning for children began 20 years ago, but the road was long. In the end, she went on a flight to Russia for treatment.
We sit in Hillevi Hertz kitchen in her one room apartment at Södermalm in Stockholm. The coffee and pastries are one the table and Hillevi is having a cold, but it's probably not just the fever that makes her eyes shine when we talk. It is noticeable that the conversation topic concerns. For a long time, her longing for motherhood was so strong that she even saw it as a betrayal when friends married and had children.
– I was jealous. I also wanted what they had. Have someone coming running towards me shouting mom. I wanted that too!
When Hillevi was 30 she suffered from a severe illness and her life turned upside down. After treatment she became healthy but had to struggle for a long time to find her old self. Time passed and because she did not meet any man, the thought of children was put on hold.
I chose to put love on hold to avoid being hurt, not having to confront the dream and longing to become a mother which might not be realized, for who would really like me?
It took a long time but eventually Hillevi decided to go to a clinic in St. Petersburg in Russia for help with getting pregnant. By then she already knew that the quality of her own eggs was bad.
– When I decided to give it a chance – that sorrow, the weight that dropped from my shoulders, it was absolutely incredible. I understood it was possible, maybe I could be a mom! Then I also realized what an incredible sadness this has been, that I have not talked so much about. I did not really want to take it in.
Guilt and shame
About 70 people of different ages, most women but also a few men, have come to Strandvägen in Stockholm to meet the fertility specialists from St. Petersburg. The interest is so large that the clinic now regularly travels to cities in the Nordic region to attract new customers. The manager and doctor Olga Zaytseff holds lectures and answers questions.
– Many women feel guilt or shame and we spend a lot of time talking about it. The woman thinks it's her fault when there are no children. It's a surreal thought to use someone else's egg to create a child. It takes time to make such a decision, says Olga Zaytseff.
The clinic is located in the central boulevard Nevsky Prospect in Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg. Last year, nearly 500 Swedish women sought help here. Not everyone starts a treatment but demand grows.
About 30 people work at the clinic, almost all are women. The premises are bright and the shoe covers are in place in the waiting room. It looks like any Swedish clinic.
When we sit down for an interview, Olga Zaytseff says that a treatment with egg donation can cost up to 220,000 Swedish crowns. A double donation treatment, i.e. with both donated eggs and sperm, can cost up to 120,000 crowns. But, she says, the packages include a child guarantee: If there are no children after a certain number of tries, you get a portion of the money back.
– But usually there is a child after two attempts, says Olga Zaytseff.
An employee shows us the clinic's donor database where around 200 Russian women are listed. They are anonymous but there are pictures of the donors as children so that the patient can choose someone who is similar to herself. Anyone who wants to donate their eggs can answer 150 questions about themselves, all to facilitate the selection. For the donation they get around 10,000 Swedish crowns.
The treatments take place downstairs. There are operating rooms, laboratories and an egg bank where 50,000 eggs and embryos are frozen by cryogenics.
We are allowed to enter the operating room when a woman is about to donate her eggs. She is anesthetized during the procedure and the operating team is deeply focused, but it's all over in 25 minutes. Then the doctor Elena Lapina has picked out the eggs and she is very pleased.
The actual fertilization takes place in the lab next door.
A little later, Elena Lapina makes an embryo insertion on a patient. Here the woman is awake and can follow the procedure on a screen. Afterwards, everyone looks at the ultrasound pictures together. The atmosphere is happy, almost giggly, and it feels remarkable to be involved.
– I love my job, Elena Lapina cries out.
"I'm not alone anymore"
There are similar clinics in other countries were Swedes are going for help with having children. In Sweden, egg donation is only allowed for women under the age of 40 and the waiting time is long. Since it was allowed with assisted fertilization also for single women, the queues have become even longer. And those who need both donated eggs and sperm must go abroad, even if it is proposed to be legal in Sweden.
For Hillevi, who was nearly 44 years old when she decided to go to Russia, there was no chance of getting help in Sweden. In Russia, women under 51 can get both eggs and sperm donated.
The day goes on and I arrive at the clinic at 3.30 pm. I am showed into a room with two beds and I change to a paper gown, loops on my feet and a paper shower cap...
– I know exactly what time I got pregnant. First they showed a picture of my uterus that was empty, on the next picture there where two dots. And I remember I went to a café afterwards and was thinking: I'm not alone anymore!
Hillevi Hertz twin girls Elin and Lisa are almost three years old. Hillevi chose to insert two embryos in St. Petersburg and had two children on the first attempt. The fact that she has no genetic link to the children does not matter, she says.
– This is the most amazing thing I've done, actually. It's probably the best gift I've given myself. Just the feeling when they run against me and cry mom, that's amazing! So yes, I cannot feel they would be someone else's children. They are my girls!