Sarah Conner & My Egg Donation: The “Sacrifice” of Body For Muay Thai
In the world of athletics and motivational memes, the word “sacrifice” gets thrown around a lot. All the things that one must sacrifice in the name of greatness, the hardships of waking up to train, missing out on nights of drinking with friends… whatever. I know people use this word without truly dissecting the concept, it’s just part of sport-speak. But I don’t use this word because it means a lot to me. When I think of the word “sacrifice” I think of giving up something of immense value – sacrifice is painful, not unfortunate or just hard. Abraham willing to sacrifice his son for his god – that’s not the same as giving up social time with your friends or family. Burning the fat of the oxen – the best part of the animal among a society at a time that this probably had actual impact on nutrition and health – is not the same as forgoing tacos because you have to make weight. I know what people mean when they say they make sacrifices for their sport and I’m sure they feel it. Three years ago nothing was as important to me as getting to Thailand. I don’t love going out more than I love training. I don’t love being able to spend money on small amenities more than I love Muay Thai. If there is anything at all that I’ve sacrificed, it’s time I could have with Master K who is like a grandfather to me and the time I could have with my dog Zoa, both of whom I love very much and missing those opportunities does hurt. But it’s not a loss to me because it was an exchange I made to be here and in that exchange I still have something of immense and profound value to me: being here and fighting.
I’m not saying that the road to get here was easy. I’m not saying it isn’t painful to push things and persons to the side in order to clear that path. All I’m saying is that I would make the same decisions every time. And in one particular aspect, I quite literally exchanged a part of myself and pieces of potential future, and even to some degree risked my life (as it turned out) in order to be here. This post which has been 2 years in the waiting is about that exchange, what it meant and felt like. It was an exchange that was absolutely necessary if we were going to be able to move to Thailand.
My Egg Donation Started
Starting at the end of the summer in 2011 I began an In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) cycle as an egg donor. To be perfectly clear, an egg “donor” is given financial compensation for her time and efforts, as well as all the medical expenses of bloodwork, check-ups, treatments and operations being paid for by the recipient. In the loopholes of legal jargon, this means I’m not selling anything as a donor – that’s why I’m called a “donor.” In actual technical fact, I received money in compensation for taking unfertilized egg cells out of my ovaries.
As part of this donation I had to make long trips down to New York City for very early morning doctor appointments, costing me both time and money in a significant commute from where I lived in the Hudson Valley at the time. That was “inconvenient” in terms of time but it was considerable in terms of paying tolls and gas and parking each time. This is to say that if “donors” were donating in the sense of absolutely no monetary compensation, it would be a significant expense to be a donor.
The notion to become an IVF egg donor came about as a means to make a large sum of money in order to make our move to Thailand possible. The compensation was $8,000 for a few months of appointments, an intensely uncomfortable period of time taking hormones and a risky, potentially dangerous operation to retrieve the eggs while under general anesthesia. Kevin and I talked it over a lot. We’re not at a place in our lives where children are on the immediate horizon and at the time I fell into the perfect age range for being a donor. It was a heavy consideration with multiple facets, not the least of which are my own personal health, as well as whether or not I have any feelings whatsoever about my DNA being used to produce another person who will not be in any way part of my life in the future. Maybe I’m especially keen at detachment, but I don’t consider the removal of a cell from my body to be in any way at all similar to a child, so there wasn’t much thought spent on the psychological or emotional trials of having a kid “out there.”
What I didn’t fully consider was the psychological and emotional trials of putting one’s body into extreme physical states. I do that quite regularly with Muay Thai, even when I was still in the US and not training anywhere near the capacity to which I’ve become familiar here in Thailand. But nonetheless my physique then expressed Muay Thai in the way my muscles were always visible to my customers at the bar where I worked and the frequency of bashed up legs, sore spots and black eyes (my boss was, in retrospect, incredibly cool to never bother me over them) definitely demonstrated that my body was in a state that was, to some degree, “unnatural.” But it was unnatural in a direction away from what is fairly universally recognized as feminine. Muscles are coded as masculine; bruises and sore spots and combat sports in general are not signifying femininity to most people. But I liked my body this way because it was a by-product of doing what I love. Waking up in the morning and trying to get out of bed while my muscles screamed and ached with just the movement of rolling to the edge of the mattress was okay – because I knew what I’d done to be this way. The physical state had a meaningful origin and once I got back to training the would then discomfort fade into the background of focusing on movements.
The state I put my body into for egg donation was the exact opposite. The first stage was getting on the birth control pill. I don’t take birth control on the regular – I did at one time but I found that the hormones affected me in a way that I hated, my mood became very flat all the time, so I found other methods. But for this process the recipient and I had to be on the same cycle, so we both went on the Pill in order to sync up our cycles. This way, when my body was getting ready to let an egg implant in the uterine lining that had grown in preparation for this exact purpose, her body would be doing exactly the same thing and the egg could be transferred from one body to another where both bodies are all ready to embed that cell.
When I start injecting hormones to develop the egg follicles I’m surprised by how quickly my body starts to change. Within a week, I have breasts that heave over the top of my small bras and actually get in the way of my upper arms during execution of some Muay Thai techniques. In complement to these new curves a feminine softness has developed on my body, laying itself over my muscles like a layer of snowfall. And I hate it. The size of my breasts has been a way to gauge my efforts – in the way many women will use the fit of their jeans rather than a scale to determine if they’ve gained weight. I see the growth in my breasts as evidence that I need to be working harder. The softness in my body feels good to the touch and looks good in the mirror, but it doesn’t serve my purposes. I don’t spend hours in the gym trying to get my arms to look a certain way – my arms look the way they do because I spend hours in the gym punching things; they’re strong so that I can work hard, not the other way around.
Training was perceptibly different but I couldn’t claim that any of it was noticeable from the outside perspective. I felt like my strength had just been dialed down a measure, not “weak,” just not as powerful. What would maybe best be described as the feeling of an “off day” became every day. Not only in training, just even walking around I felt like I was in someone else’s body.
Seeing Doctors in Someone Else’s Body
Sitting in a medical gown with a white sheet over my lap, my socked feet dangling high above the footrest, posed on the table and playing with my wedding ring while I tried not to look at the cold, stainless steel stirrups, I would wait for the doctor in a windowless room. He’d rush in, fresh from rushing with some other patient. His cheeriness came off as habitual, practiced in the same way he rattled off questions to which he barely registered the answers. I had to tell him two or three times if I was experiencing something concerning, like when my heart started to hurt. (I have a small hole and prolapsed valve in my heart, part of what’s called a “murmur” in irregular rhythms. It causes cramps in my heart when the inverted valve doesn’t allow blood to pass from one chamber to the next smoothly. I don’t take medication for it and there’s nothing really to be done, but it’s a big red flag in a medical sense – I have to take wide-spectrum antibiotics just to go to the dentist, for example.) He dismissed my mentioning of the heart pains a couple times, then maybe caught the murmur listed on my chart and then became alert to the topic. This rushed, detached and inattentive approach makes for a really unnerving experience for me on an emotional level. I didn’t have any say over who the doctor was for this whole process but for my own personal check ups I avoid male gynecologists entirely. It has been my experience that women doctors will proceed with the same hurried pace but will make an effort to communicate what they’re doing before touching you, which is very meaningful to me. “You’re about to feel pressure,” or “I’m removing the speculum,” or anything like this is worth everything in comparison to the wordless or even side-bar conversation while going about procedures that quite literally involve penetrating a woman’s most intimate physical space. I did not like this gynecologist and on regular visits he’d have to use an ultrasound to look at my ovaries, in order to monitor egg development. This kind of ultrasound is called a “wand” and is inserted up through the vagina and pretty much moved around to different angles to see each ovary. It’s always uncomfortable and is sometimes painful. This guy was just mechanical in his whole process – he does this all day long, whereas his patients may have this experience only once, or even if it’s repeated like in my case, you don’t get used to it. I wonder if it simply never occurred to him that the psychological and emotional phenomenon that recognizes itself as “I” and “me” is attached to the body he’s investigating – that I’m experiencing his process through far more senses than he is. Women doctors, in my experience, have never neglected this consideration. Male doctors, in my limited experience of three, always do.
Funny thing, I don’t need a training partner to tell me, “I’m about to hit you.” I expect to be hit – it’s the hitting game. I suppose, equally, I could expect to be inspected in just such a way when I’m reclined in a gynecologist’s office – it’s the alien probe game – but even with that expectation it doesn’t get easier. But even in training, if you have a trainer or partner who is beating on you and not paying mind to it, not aware of what their strikes are doing to you, what the pressure or dominance of that experience is doing to you, that’s a far more difficult and potentially damaging experience than someone who nonetheless doesn’t back off or take it easy on you but is aware of what you are experiencing. Worlds apart.
This doctor who I don’t like tells me everything looks great and a few months into the process he wants me to start injecting myself with a hormone that will cause my ovaries to develop multiple eggs at one time. He tells me the nurse in the next room will walk me through the process, then he gives me a cheery smile and asks if I have any questions and gets up before waiting for my answer. The nurse next door is on auto-pilot also and hands me a box with the hormones and a little tool-kit with a zipper; inside is a reusable syringe and a few rows of disposable needles. It isn’t until my next visit, when I need to refill this vial of hormones, that I ask her about how I’m supposed to dispose of the needles and she hands me a red, plastic tub with a bio-hazard sign on the front and a needle drop slit at the top. I’d been putting them in a plastic bottle at home because I know you can’t throw that stuff in regular trash, but who the hell knows what other people know? On this first visit, when I first get the injectable hormones, the “walk through” I get on how to inject myself with a dose of medicine is basically how much to put in the plunger and to do it at the same time every day. I’ve never injected myself with anything, I don’t even know how to put the needles on the syringe but I’ve seen how to draw the liquid into the plunger in movies so I assume that part is manageable. The nurse puts everything in a bag and sends me out. I have to look up how to shoot this stuff – and where to put it – on the drug’s website page.
Injecting Hormones – And a Fight
December 2012 – I start injecting the hormones into my thighs or pinching my stomach skin to get it in there while I’m working as a bar manager at night. I have to untuck my button down shirt and mess around with my belt buckle to access my injection points and I feel weird going in and out of the bathroom with a little kit of needles. I suppose diabetics have to deal with this. My pants start to feel tighter after only a few days on the hormones. My breasts are now always puffing over the top of my A-cup bras and the buttons on my work shirts are working harder. I hate this feeling, like my whole body is swollen. Customers look at my chest over the bar now, something that was far less common when I was flatter. It’s a certain kind of man that focuses in on a flat chest and I can handle that guy – it’s every guy that scopes out a rack and I’m not used to this attention. I’m squirming under my own skin.
January 2012 – Several weeks into the hormone injections I’m at work and I see a missed call on my phone from a fight promoter. I call him back and he tells me they’ve had a last-minute pull out from a fight against a woman I’ve fought once before. He says he knows it’s a long shot but that he hopes I’ve been training and can step in. The fight is tomorrow night, about 24 hours away. I tell him I’ll call him back and I call my husband. We talk about it for a minute. I haven’t had a fight in a long time and have been frustrated. All I want to do is fight and there’s been nothing; it actually seemed as though I had already had my last bout in the US and I’d probably have to wait until we got out to Thailand to get back in the ring, months away. I haven’t been training for a fight, my trainer Kaensak was away in Thailand, and I’ve just been doing my regular three sessions per week but what’s the big difference? As a rogue Muay Thai practitioner without a gym affiliation and team there isn’t a “fight camp” for me anyway. I’ve fought this woman before and there’s a little bit of bad blood between us from the first one (her camp freaked out when I put the video of the fight online, which I always do) – I’d said I would fight her again after the last one and I’d meant it, now here was the chance. In the last fight she outweighed me by a lot, but this time I’d gained more than a few pounds because of the hormones and was actually near what the fight would be at – I didn’t have to drop any weight and I wasn’t as far under it as I’d been before. So I called back and accepted the fight. Undefeated Angela Hill, more or less the top female fighter on the East Coast, on 24 hours notice, redeux.
my vlog update the day of the fight (above)
On such short notice I had to come down to NYC the next morning for my pre-fight medical, something everyone else had done the night before at weigh-in. My weigh-in would be that night. My opponent, too, had checked weight the night before and had certainly gained back whatever she cut overnight. I, on the other hand, would be stepping on the scale literally minutes before getting in the ring. Whatever, weight is never in my advantage anyway. The morning medical is in the hotel room of a doctor who is doing a favor for the promoter. I meet him at the door and we go up to his room. He’s very young, maybe only a few years out of medical school. And he’s uncomfortable. We chat a little bit and talk about the promoter and how this guy knows him. Then he looks over the medical sheet he has to fill out and starts working down it, line by line. There’s blood pressure, vision and hearing checks, following his finger with my eyes and some questions about whether or not I have any medical issues. At most fight medicals that’s about it – they have you do a squat and if you don’t pass out you’re good to go. But this guy has never done this before, so he’s going by the book and he gets to a point that wants him to check for scoliosis and some kind of internal organ thing. I don’t know if that’s even on there, the organ check, but it’s at practically any physical you get for sports in school so maybe he knew it was part of a general check up. For the scoliosis check he asks me to take off my shirt and bend over to touch my toes so he can see my spine. I’m uncomfortable for many reasons, most of them better reasons than being insecure about my body at that point, but that one stood out.
“Look, I know that’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a doctor to request of a patient for medical purposes,” I start, “but given that we’re not in an office but rather a hotel room, I’m going to say that in this context you’re just going to have to make do feeling my spine from through my shirt.” He looks uncomfortable now, but it’s hard to say whether it’s because we’re both uncomfortable or because I’m saying “no” to his medical authority. “I’m not saying you’re a creep,” I continue, “I’m just saying there’s no fucking way I’m taking my shirt off in your hotel room.”
He checks my spine and then has me lie on my back – on his bed – so he can feel around my stomach and see if my organs are about to explode. To my surprise and probably not his, he doesn’t feel anything is wrong. I feel like every organ inside of me is about to burst through my skin, but that’s kind of become normal at this point in the whole IVF cycle. We shake hands and he says he’ll see me at the fights. Then I have to drive an hour back home, take a nap and then head to work. I’m fighting that night but it was such short notice I don’t even have the shift off. So I go to work at 4 PM, work the dinner shift and because I’m bar manager I don’t have to ask permission to leave but I do have to wait until the other bartenders can clearly manage what’s left of the crowd and head over the George Washington Bridge with my husband and my cornerman – Augie, who is fucking amazing for helping me with this stuff – to the fights.
It’s probably 10:00 PM already and we get stuck in traffic on the bridge. We’re literally not moving at all and I’m texting with the promoter. They’ve moved the fight to the very end of the show to wait for me and it’s looking like I might not even make it in time. The car inches forward once every 10 minutes and the messages from the promoter have more Caps Lock and more exclamation points with every text. We manage to arrive just before 11:00 PM and I run in while Kevin parks the car. We go to the dressing room, which looks like a conference room after a party with cups and chairs all around from where fighters and their corners have already prepared, fought and gone home. Still in my work pants I get pulled over to a small area on another side of the cathedral and stand on a scale – 108 lbs, exactly, the weight for the fight. I run back to the dressing room and Augie wraps my hands, then I try to put my hair back but it’s basically just a ponytail. That will never stay in and everyone in my corner is a boy – when it comes out, they have no idea how to fix it. It’s a hair-bomb waiting to explode.
I barely even have been there 10 minutes when the guy with the walkie talkie is telling me it’s time to get in the ring. I laugh out loud and tell him I need a minute to warm up. He speaks into the wire hanging down from his ear and then nods at me. I get about 3 minutes to pound my gloves into Augie’s fists and then we’re headed into the ring.
I’ve never felt like that in a fight, before or since. Sure, I wasn’t training fully, I was coming off of a shift at work and my opponent wanted more than anything to knock me out, but that wasn’t what made it such a strong experience. What was so remarkable was that my body felt like it wasn’t mine, like I was wearing somebody else around me – like putting your fists into gloves that are already sweaty from a previous fight. That’s what my body felt like. I had no power, no balance, no coordination – not in a “I just wasn’t ‘on’ tonight” way but more a feeling that my body was betraying me. If I were to run my hands over my own body, it wouldn’t feel like me. I imagine this is what it feels like for ex-fighters who go soft in retirement, growing a belly just puffing up all around – like a layer of snow fallen overnight, that just covers everything you expect to see. You know where things should be, or how they should look or feel, but it’s covered by something blank and indistinct. It’s beautiful too, but undefined and strange. The body I’d built through my love for Muay Thai had been swallowed up by this body that was created by something that had no meaning for me. It was still mine – that softness and those curves and the weight was all mine, it was me – but it didn’t do anything. Like handing a sculptor a pail of water to make something.
What Taking These Hormones Does To Your Body
I’ve explained the hardness with which I train to people by saying, “you take care of your body so that in a fight your body can take care of you.” I truly believe that by hardening yourself physically and reaching toward extremes (working within and at times past fatigue for example) is necessary for being able to trust your body to do what it needs to do in the context of a fight, and that your body will work without you having to think about it to minimize damage. There was something about that fight that cut through the core of this belief, illustrated to me through the pain of my body not taking care of me. The hormones are morphing my body into a softness that I cannot understand or appreciate and I realize at this point how far away from the shore of Muay Thai I have been dragged; and I’m barely treading water here.
A week after the fight we flew down to Mexico for my brother’s wedding. We’d told him that we couldn’t come, it was simply a financial impossibility. In the end we decided we could lose two months in Thailand, financially, in order to go down to Mexico and stay at an affordable hotel an hour away from the resort where the wedding was held. It was a huge decision – the cost of losing time in Thailand, which was already limited and we believed we may only be able to stay six months at that point – versus the cost of not participating in celebrating my brother’s marriage with my family. It was especially trying to make this call while I was currently undergoing an increasingly difficult medical process in order to afford my dream of getting to Thailand at all. My parents paid the extravagant fee for us to spend the day of the wedding (and one day after) at the resort, so that we could all be together. It had felt horrible to be bloated and spilling out of my bathing suit top at the resort pool and I was just exhausted all the time. My dad told me I looked great and much healthier now that I’d “filled out.” He didn’t know I was on hormones – I didn’t tell anyone in my family about the IVF cycle while it was happening because I worried that they would either be concerned or perhaps have moral qualms about it. My parents did see me carrying an insulated lunch bag with my hormone vial in it – we had no refrigerator at our hotel in Mexico and this stuff has to be kept cool, so I’d carry it in the lunch bag and keep it in my parents’ refrigerator during the day, or sitting in the sink in a bowl of ice in our room overnight – and my dad had asked with concern what kind of medicine it was. He thought I might have diabetes or that I might be very sick.
Kevin and I were in the airport on the way home from Mexico when I decided I wanted to write a blog post about this experience. I wanted to explore the spectrum to which I’d pushed my body in both directions: to be a fighter whose body would take care of me under pressure and impact, versus becoming a viable environment in which a secondary life could be hosted and developed – an extreme physical state in which taking care of me is actually secondary to nurturing the cells that will eventually become another life, separate from me. At this point, I hadn’t even experienced the full power of this process yet. The final movement in the overture had not yet begun – the egg retrieval pushed my body nearly to the breaking point.
The Finale – Egg Retrieval
A couple weeks after my brother’s wedding the doctor is looking at my ovaries with his horrible ultrasound “wand” and I’m feeling like I want to cry. The rounded end of the wand is being pushed up against the skin under my bellybutton from the inside and if I look down I can see a mound appear under the skin, roll around like a tongue pressed to the inside of a cheek, and then disappear. He’s not talking to me, but he’s counting while he looks at the grainy image on the black and white screen attached to the ultrasound wand. “Twelve… thirteen… fourteen… fifteen,” he announces as he counts flecks on the screen that are barely discernible to my eyes. “Wow, great,” he says as he mindlessly pulls the ultrasound out of me and begins pulling off his latex gloves, “you’re a great donor: 15 eggs.” I feel like the Queen Mother in the Alien movies, with her hive of nearly countless, unhatched eggs. The thought makes me laugh. I’m told that they’re ready for harvest – well, I’m told in more humane terms that the eggs are ready for “retrieval” – and I’m sent again to the nurse’s office to get a heavy-duty syringe with a single dose injection that will cause my ovaries to ovulate. That means release the eggs, guys. That’s what’s happening in your lady friends’ cycle when they feel the most like shit, just to keep you up to pace.
I’m sent home with this enormous needle that looks like it’s long enough to pierce through my stomach and all the way into my organs. It’s not for that purpose at all, it’s just a huge needle. I’m supposed to stop taking the other hormones immediately and in two days I’ll inject this one hormone shot at exactly 9 PM. She makes it clear there’s only a 5 minute window and it must be exactly at 9 PM or within five minutes of it in order to get the timing right for retrieval the next morning at 7 AM. Her insistence about the time makes me laugh again because now I’m thinking about how it’s of utmost importance not to feed the Mogwai after midnight, or else it becomes a gremlin. The nurse shoots me a look, like I’m not taking her seriously. I pull it together and repeat, “Nine O’Clock… on the dot.”
The night I’m supposed to take the injection I’m at work. I feel horrible pain in my heart and I can’t breathe. I call the number that the nurse gave me in case of any problems and I get a receptionist who is utterly numbed to any urgency at all. She puts me on hold for 10 minutes and I listen to jazz music while my heart vacillates between feeling like it’s being stabbed and being crushed. Finally a doctor’s voice jumps on – it’s not my doctor, it’s the guy who will be in charge of my retrieval tomorrow because it’s my doctor’s day off. We’ve never met. His voice is concerned because heart issues are a signal that something is seriously wrong in this process, but his questions are all directed toward whether or not I’m going to be taking this injection at 9 PM. Basically my symptoms boil down to, “I need you to go to the hospital and take the syringe with you.” In slightly nicer words he explains that if I’m in dire emergency the medics at the hospital will cancel the injection and we’ll move the retrieval an entire cycle. If I’m not dying, I can take the injection at the hospital. He tells me to call him and let him know what happens – he means whether or not I take the shot, not whether or not I’m okay. I sit there in the dark, the blue light of my dashboard blurring behind a flow of tears that is pooling on my eyelashes. The pain is immense and I’m not sure I can drive. I’d told the doctor this and he suggested I take a taxi. My workplace is right near the George Washington Bridge, on the Jersey side. My current location is almost exactly equal distance from the hospital – over the bridge in NYC – and my husband and house up the Palisades Parkway to Bear Mountain. In my normal life I never go to the doctor. I’ve not had insurance for any of my independent adult life so my habits are generally skewed toward not going to the hospital. And I’m thinking about having to do this whole fucking cycle again and how terrible I feel and have felt, that maybe I wouldn’t choose to do it again; and I’m thinking about this woman who is waiting to take these eggs into her own body, on Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and I just can’t imagine how horrible it would be for her to receive the message that this thing she’s put all her hope and money into – literally all her eggs in one basket – isn’t going to happen after all. I think about what I want most in the world, what I’ve put all my hope into, and that’s getting to Thailand with my husband to train and fight. Something putting a stop to that, even temporarily, would feel like having my heart ripped out; it would feel like this actual physical feeling right now, but more soul-crushing.
I take some deep breaths, call my husband and tell him I’m just going to drive home and to expect me in about an hour. The drive is an emotional Pollack painting, just every possible feeling hurled at the canvas of my consciousness as my headlights swallow the distance between work and home. I walk through the door at five minutes to 9:00; I swab my thigh with alcohol and inject this enormous needle, pushing the plunger to empty it into my body like the depressor on a dynamite detonator, and start the final countdown. Five minutes later the doctor rings my cellphone to ask what happened. “I took the shot,” is all I say. He chastises me for not going to the hospital when he finds out I just went home, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all on a biological clock now.
The Next Day – Operation
The doctor’s office is always unnervingly crowded – always. There are other women there going through IVF cycles, both donors and women who will have their own eggs frozen or fertilized outside their bodies and then implanted. Everyone is in this cloud of pressure and the panic of feminine failure, for those who are undergoing tests to see why they aren’t getting pregnant, and overall boredom and dissociation by the staff. I check in and sit down with my husband’s hand in mine. My stomach grumbles but mostly I’m thirsty. For the operation I couldn’t eat or drink for 12 hours and I just want some water; it’s the same thirst I feel in the few times I’ve had to make weight for a fight, with so much hanging in the air but the only thought is water. When I get pulled into the operating room it looks like an upper-crust version of the medic tents you see in war movies. Three beds that are barely more than cots with thin curtains between them, which hiss as they are opened and closed on their metal rods. I’m not the only one undergoing this process this morning. A woman is wheeled out of the operating room as I go into the changing room to put on my gown. It feels like an assembly line.
When it’s my turn in the operating room I’m placed on a table and about a half-dozen medical staff buzz around me. It’s early in the morning, they must have been there for hours already – having just completed another procedure – and everybody is in a grumpy, pre-coffee type mood. They do talk to each other in order to coordinate what’s happening, but they’re all treating me as if I’m not even there. Like I’m a cadaver in the room or something. The anesthesiologist shows up and starts getting an IV drip ready for my hand and whatever he’s going to be putting me under with for my arm. He’s the only one acknowledging me, but it’s to ask me how much I weigh and then to perv on me for a second while he puts the needle in my arm, saying, “wow, nice veins.” He disappears behind me and is fiddling with the doses out of view when one of the staff comes over and helps me put my legs up in these enormous plastic stirrups that cup all the way from behind the knee (and up the thigh a bit) to the lower calf, supporting one’s entire leg so that the position is like being seated in a chair but the chair has been laid on the ground so you’re supine. The staff lady is big bodied, strong and very butch in her mannerisms – like a bouncer in scrubs. She takes strips of linen that appear to be torn from old sheets and begins tying my legs at the thigh to these stirrups. I panic at the feeling – I do not ever like being restrained and in this position my heart is leaping around in my chest like a rabbit trying to escape with its life from a predator. My voice comes out so small, so small, and I’m a little amazed by how young I sound when I say to her, pleading, “please don’t… just wait until I’m under; please.” She looks at my face, perhaps ready to explain to me that she has to tie my legs so that when I’m unconscious I don’t squirm out of this position while the doctor is in the middle of the procedure, but as her eyes meet mine her expression changes in an instant. This huge, gruff woman actually puts her palm on my forehead and caresses my face very softly. “It’s okay, baby,” she says and pulls away the linen from around my thigh. All I feel is her hand on my face for another moment and I’m already gone under, the cold flood of anesthetics flooding into my veins like horses pulling the chariot of sleep.
I wake up for a moment, groggy and I can feel my legs stirring against the tether for a second before a voice – male – says, “don’t move.” There are multiple voices at one time and I can’t pick any of them out, just awareness without any understanding like in a dream. I hear a man speaking in that soft, affected way that doctors use to speak to patients as if they’re stupid, or children, or both, “we had to wake you up for a minute but we’re going to put you back under now, so I can go in for the eggs on the other side.” It’s the longest sentence I’ve ever heard, dragged out over the infinity of this cold, vision-less consciousness that must last only a brief moment before I’m gone again.
I’ve woken up during anesthesia before, when I had my wisdom teeth out. I moaned and could hear myself making these sounds without connecting them to my mind as something that I was choosing to do, but I could hear them in my own head, resounding as my own voice. I assumed that this moment of arousing from the drug induced sleep was the same. One time, in a fight against Nong Ying in Chiang Mai, I was dropped to the canvas from a kick to the head that wrapped around the back of my neck and snipped off my consciousness like cutting a marionette loose. I was out, I collapsed, my head hit the black canvas of the ring and there was nothing. Then I began to awaken and it seemed like the slow, warm eternity of feeling the sun rise right in front of me. I felt a warm glow all over, before my brain started to work again, and I felt happy. I felt loved and a comfortable numb that was in reverse of the Pink Floyd song: rather than there is no pain/ you are receding it was as if my ship was coming in, gliding forward toward awareness on a swelling tide. And then all this faded into something more like embarrassment and the sudden knowledge that I must get up. Now! The awakening from my anesthesia didn’t feel like that near knock out. There wasn’t the warmth or the feeling of being content or loved, nor the sudden acceleration of time and urgency to get up. It just felt flat, like the brief moment you wake from a dream and realize you were dreaming before slipping back away. The mind slides around the awareness but nothing sticks.
Later on I awoke again and was being wheeled out of the operating room and into the recovery area, the weird M*A*S*H set of curtains and cots. The nurse asks me how I feel and my mouth barely moves. I tell her I’m good. I tell her I’m very cold. She lays a few folded sheets on top of me and disappears for a moment before returning with my husband. I feel his weight descend onto the side of the cot and he puts his hand on my waist, over the sheets. I can’t see him, my eyes are closed and simply won’t open, but I hear him start to cry. He’s actually weeping. I’m still too out of it to really process this, so I just ask him like a child with neutral non-understanding might ask, “why are you crying?” It turns out that this moment when I woke up during the procedure was not a fluke of me gaining consciousness but rather an emergency in which I was chemically awakened because my heart-rate had dropped dangerously low. I had, I might guess, almost died. My husband was in the waiting room when a nurse ran – ran – from the back room across the lounge and called out for the doctor. I don’t know why he wasn’t in the operating room with me at this point, as he’s the one actually carrying out the procedure. She continued running back and forth and the nurses and staff look very agitated. My husband went up and asked what was going on and the nurse at the desk was short with him, said that she needed to get the doctor but not to worry, to just go sit down. But Kevin was very concerned because, as he put it, nurses don’t run (though they might walk quickly) – especially in a ritzy office and not an ER. The doctor ran back across with the nurse and a few moments later an EMT crew with a stretcher to carry an incapacitated body came through the front door of the office, having been summoned from the hospital across the street. They didn’t come into the back room but were speaking with a nurse at the front desk. Kevin asked one of them what the hell was going on and he was told that “someone’s heart has stopped.” Poor Kevin. With so little communication and so much very clear agitation in the clinic by the nurses and doctor and now the EMT, he had no idea whether his wife might be dead in the back room. He told me later that he immediately suspected there was a problem with the anesthesia because I’m so small; he’d actually thought to tell them before the operation that I’m really quite little and very athletic, and already have low blood pressure and heart-rate; to be cautious. He’s not a medical person, he just intuited that this would be a problem.
When I was finally able to sit up a nurse came over to my bedside to start explaining to me that I can take Advil every few hours and that I need to be drinking Pedia-lite – an electrolyte beverage at high concentration that’s generally used for treating children who are dehydrated from diarrhea. (Incidentally, you’ll see fighters in America drinking this stuff to rehydrate after sever weight cuts.) She told me that I “might experience some discomfort,” from the procedure. That must be some kind of medical tactic, some scheme to under-estimate in language what might in fact be an incredibly painful experience. I’m sure there are studies that have led to this kind of training, that maybe telling someone they will experience pain will somehow psychologically cause them to experience more pain than if you call it “discomfort,” some kind of psycho-somatic situation. But, for me, I wish she’d prepared me for the absolutely incomprehensible pain I would later be experiencing. At that moment, I was very sore and very swollen. It could, at that moment, be very modestly described as intense “discomfort.”
Out in the lobby I waited to sign some papers and receive my “compensation” check for $8,000. As I stood at the counter the doctor came out to talk to me. He didn’t look at my husband, who I’m sure was giving the doctor a stare down to end all stare downs, but gave me a little pat on the shoulder and said, “you scared us there!” I blinked at him. Kevin was furious – he still talks about this – because this phrase rejects all responsibility of perhaps having almost caused my death from the doctor and puts the blame on me, as if I’d done something that caused them a fright. In fact, try it out: the most natural response to such a statement is for me to say, “I’m sorry.” Instead I just looked at him, I was still very groggy: “how many eggs did you get?” I asked. He told me 13 of the 15 were retrieved successfully. That seemed like a good number, although I was disappointed that two were missed, perhaps due to the whole too-much-anesthesia-heart-stopping fiasco. But It’s enough for the recipient to freeze some if she needs to try a few times for a viable pregnancy, or best case scenario if she wants children over a period of years. “Be sure to let any doctors know in the future that you’re very sensitive to anesthesia,” he added as his farewell.
Recovery – Aftershock in the Body
The hour long drive up to our home in the Hudson Valley proved to be a fast progression beyond “discomfort” and into nauseating levels of pain. I felt very full, as though I’d eaten to the point of pain, with the added sensation of soreness and severe cramps that came in waves and doubled me over, even as I was sitting. The nurse had prescribed that I have bed rest for at least 24-48 hours but warned me that lying on my back might cause fluid buildup in my abdomen, so I had to kind of prop myself up. It was difficult to walk. In college I’d had an ovarian cyst that I’d gone to the ER for because I thought my appendix had burst – that’s how painful it was. Back then I was bent at the waist from the pain and walked like this from the taxi to the emergency room of the hospital, unable to fully erect myself for a few days until the damn thing burst on its own. This pain now, after the operation, was very much like that but amplified. I do not have low tolerance for pain. One true gift that I have been given by God or Fate or Karma or genetics, or whatever you wish to ascribe it to, is that my pain threshold is very high and I can push past and poker-face through nearly anything. When my thigh was bashed by a tremendous leg kick by Angela in our second fight and the drive up from the city to my house stiffened the leg so badly that I could not bend it, I forced myself to walk on it until it was healed. I’ve sparred and fought with a broken nose and broken knuckle. I went back to bed after burning the entire surface of my palm on a pot-bellied stove while on an outdoor education trip with my middle school. I suffer pain very quietly. The pain of this egg retrieval was unbelievable. I could liken it to period cramps of the worst kind, to having one’s organs twisted through a meat grinder, or to the sensation of swelling to the point of bursting – all of those descriptions have elements of the sharp, stabbing and dull throbbing pain that’s involved. But what’s hardest to describe is the unique pain that I can only liken to feeling yourself rotting inside – if festering were a painful sensation, that’s the kind of pain that I most felt.
Over the next week I couldn’t sleep more than 30-45 minutes at a time. I couldn’t lie down. I would wake and move to the couch, where I would prop myself against the arm rest against my side with a hot water bottle nestled in my bent-over body, folded between my belly and thighs. The heat didn’t dull the pain but it felt a little comforting. I would fall asleep like this for a short time and wake up with scalding on my stomach and the tops of my thighs from the water bottle burning through the cloth I’d wrapped around it. I didn’t care. The fluid buildup in my abdomen just kept getting worse over the next few days. Several times per hour I would have to stand up and just waddle back and forth on my feet, as rocking seemed to offer a little relief from the pressure I felt in my belly. I did this alone and in the dark throughout the night, thinking nothing – like my brain didn’t work and I was just one giant raw nerve being held against a saw. For about a week after the retrieval the swelling is so severe that my belly protrudes out and I look about 4 months pregnant. As it happens, the two eggs that were abandoned in the retrieval are causing my body’s hormones to surge and I’ve developed Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). I have to go back to work like this and time seems to move not at all. I’m in constant pain and I’m short with the general manager when he invites a group to do shots at the bar after I’ve already closed it. Without consulting me he wants me to play hostess and serve smiles and cheer for hours after the restaurant has locked its doors. I’m sure I wasn’t pleasant to this group, who turn out to be liquor representatives who only buy their own products. A few days later I’m fired from the restaurant.
Losing my job in a very unceremonious manner that made me feel incredibly disrespected, at the same time that I am perhaps experiencing kidney problems as part of the complications of the OHSS and not certain whether or not any of my medical expenses will be covered after the retrieval, had me in a very low place. (There were post-retrieval appointments scheduled for donors, but I refused to go. I just wanted to not be involved in the office anymore and there was nothing they could do for my pain from the operation.) Kevin assured me that losing my job was a god send, that now I could just focus on training in preparation for Thailand. I was now spending money on gas and tolls and training without an income and eyeing our bank account with paranoia and doubt before we ever left American soil. Every dollar in that account was time in Thailand and I felt like I was eating that time at every turn. But gradually, my body began to move away from the intense extreme I’d pushed it into with the IVF donation cycle and worked its way back toward the body I wanted and needed for Muay Thai. The pain of the retrieval and the shock of hormone treatments on my body had kept me from being able to train for a while. Now, turning back to what I loved and what allows me to love my body for what it does, how it takes care of me, I found coherency in the pain I might feel from dinged shins, sore muscles, bruises, etc. They were in context. Discomfort, injury and pain are for the still moments after training, after a fight; there’s just not room for their consideration when the mind is focused on movement and protecting the body and head. Pain is an afterthought. Perhaps the most difficult part of the intense physical pain I felt in the aftermath of the egg retrieval was that the discomfort of the hormone treatments to my body and the unbearable pain of the operation didn’t have meaning for me – it was out of context of how I understand myself. Certainly women who go through pregnancy experience a great deal of discomfort and pain, their bodies change and challenge the woman’s identity and understanding of herself – perhaps permanently. But a pregnant woman understands this and finds meaning in it – her body is doing something. In my case, it was empty and other than feeling that I could offer an opportunity to a woman who wanted this more than anything – and her financial offering to me gave me the opportunity to do what I want more than anything… it is an exchange that allows me to find some context; some meaning.
The Gift of Sarah Conner
Growing up with older brothers I was fed a steady visual diet of Van Damme, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger movies since I can remember. When Terminator 2 came out my mom dropped me and my brother off at the theater with our two best friends. We sat in the balcony for over an hour before the movie started, perched on the edges of our seats in anticipation, chanting “Ar-nie, Ar-nie, Ar-nie,” as soon as the lights dimmed.
The first glimpse the audience sees of Sarah Connor in the sequel is a tight shot on her arms and shoulder muscles flexing as she performs pullups. The weasle-y and patronizing doctor brings a group of colleagues to the little glass window that looks into Connor’s room and he speaks through a voice box. As she turns around her head is tilted down, her eyes fiery, and her breath steady – almost panting – as she stares through her sweaty hair at the psychiatrist.
At 8 years old I’d never seen a woman like this. I don’t think anyone had. Ripley was brave and strong in Alien and even more so in Aliens but she didn’t physically capture strength; she didn’t hold violence in her body the way Connor does. Not only is Sarah Connor physically intimidating and mentally complicated by real pathos, but she’s also a mother. She bridges the masculine and feminine in a way that is neither subtle nor simple. I was captured in that very first moment of seeing this new manifestation and I loved her. I was and, indeed, am still awed by her and she has unquestionably informed and influenced my own personal experiences of being and identifying as a woman.
Now, as an adult and indeed a grown woman whose body surpasses Connor’s once shocking physique – women’s bodies in media have become more aesthetically athletic since the 90’s – what I love most about Sarah Connor, what she symbolizes to me now, is how she bridges this militant, Armageddon physical strength and motherhood. There is a saying that “the most dangerous place in the world is between a mother and her child.” Connor epitomizes that threat – the mother wolf with her teeth bared rather than the cooing, soft-light and downy blankets kind of image that is far more commonly associated with maternity.
Why I think of her as an icon for the retelling of this experience of pushing my body to extremes is because Sarah Connor is an extreme woman. She conceived the savior of the human race, terminated the metal monster while pregnant, and took on the Apocalypse to protect her super-annoying-phase-of-teenager son with guns, grenades, hunting knives and army boots. I think of the scene in Terminator 2 when Connor carves into a picnic table with her enormous knife the words, “NO FATE.” The words are reference to the entire phrase/mantra: There is no fate but what we make. It’s a promise that even Armageddon isn’t predestined – we have to make our own poor choices to get there, but they’re choices. And with this I think about this woman who I don’t know, for whom motherhood was the most important thing in her world, the fate into which she launched herself. Then there’s me, for whom the fate of moving to a strange land to become a better fighter was the True North of all my compass readings. We sit at opposite sides of the world, in a way – but in the character of Sarah Connor 2.0, we are two sides of the same coin. And the value of that coin is the currency which exchanges what we are for what we choose to become.