In the next four years the business grew, and so did Thomas’s family. In 2000, she managed the construction of a home office from her hospital bed, where she was in preterm labor with her twin sons, Emerson and Nolan, a "gift" from Tiffany Bates, a donor whom Thomas had recruited to X and Y the year before. By this time, she was experienced at brokering relationships between donors and clients, and well understood the pitfalls. "Everyone in this business faces legal situations," Thomas says. "Your clients may have spent thousands of dollars vetting a donor, and then the donor says, ‘Gee, my boyfriend doesn’t like this.’ I have had to learn how to negotiate those situations over the years."
Also in 2000, Thomas decided to go national. She took her business to the Web (eggdonorsnow.com), where she posts photos of donors alongside lists of their talents and interests — a sort of match.com for the childless. "I’d get the fallout from these fly-by-night operations that were started by donors who thought, this looks like an easy way to make money," Thomas says. "My resolve was to be as good and ethical and knowledgeable about my business as anyone can be." She says her biggest challenge was charging for her services: "It probably sounds odd, but I knew from a recipient’s perspective how unbearably expensive the whole process was. My goal wasn’t to create another barrier for anyone."
Then, in 2002, she attended a conference on reproductive technology and heard for the first time about a theoretical method called cryopreservation. Embryos had been successfully frozen since 1986; this would extend the technology to freezing donor eggs, which would make the need to synchronize cycles obsolete. Instead of flying donors around the country to meet a recipient for egg retrieval, Thomas would only need to ship the eggs, dramatically reducing costs. "I knew it would be the future of the industry," she says.
Helping Other Women
The following year, Jeffrey Boldt, PhD, scientific director for assisted fertility services at the Community Health Network in Indianapolis, published a research paper in which he demonstrated a 46 percent pregnancy success rate using cryopreservation. Thomas and Akin, from the Bluegrass Fertility Center, met with Boldt to discuss starting a commercial egg bank, and the trio formed CEI. They enlisted six physicians to invest; Thomas, who owns 60 percent of the business, contributed $60,000.Akin would act as medical director, and Boldt would supervise the lab as scientific director.
For the first frozen-egg retrieval, Thomas boarded a plane with 15 recruits and met Akin at the lab in Lexington. "I felt like a den mother," says Thomas, who regularly traveled with her young donors (now chaperones go in her place). "They were all in their twenties and on hormones. They acted like 16-year-olds, I’m afraid, but it was a lot of fun." The experience convinced her that frozen-egg banks would soon become as ubiquitous as their sperm counterparts. Now she is aiming to become a leader in the global egg bank market; already 85 percent of CEI’s inventory is sent to Europe.
But as CEI came together, Thomas’s marriage fell apart. She and Best legally separated in 2005, and their divorce became official in 2007. Thomas attributes the split, in large part, to their protracted experience with infertility. "Having children became both a mutual goal and a consuming focus in our lives," she says of the 10-year stretch. "Once we completed our family, we realized that without a joint goal to focus on, we had little in common." Best declined to comment for this story.
Today, with the boys ensconced in their routines (August is now 12 and the twins are 8), Thomas says she couldn’t be happier. "I love being an older mother," she says. "And it’s rewarding to know that I have cut the learning curve in half for others like me who have had to figure out how to have a baby when our biology says it’s too late."
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.