Connecting with donor siblings: Helen's story

"I really urge donor-conceived people to take on the advice from VARTA counsellors and join the Facebook support group. Also, don’t forget to speak to your family (if you can) as well as the clinic where you mother had treatment for extra information that could assist in the search," - Helen

 

Helen* was conceived using donor sperm. Her sperm donor died before she was able to contact him, but she has since connected with her donor’s son and with other donor-siblings through the Voluntary Register.

When did you find out that you were donor-conceived? How was that experience?

I found out by accident when I was around 11 years old (I was born in May 1982). From memory I was watching Home & Away and IVF was mentioned in the story line. Mum told me that was how I was conceived and left it there.

That weekend I went to stay at my dad’s house and asked him why he never told me I was conceived via IVF. At this stage I thought I was conceived with dad's sperm, so you can imagine my surprise when he said he was worried I wouldn't love him anymore. I didn't have the heart to tell him he was the one breaking the news to me (as unfair as that may sound on my mum), and immediately replied that of course I would still love him. 

Later, my mum said she always wanted me to know so I didn't partner with a half-brother but in those days you were told to keep it secret (my grandparents don’t know, even now).

When did you decide to find your donor? Can you tell us what was involved?

My mum told me I would never be able to find out who my sperm donor was because that is what she was told. So, I didn't look at first. It wasn't until my twenties that I started to search. I had watched a movie that referenced IVF and I thought I would look into it. My partner at the time also encouraged me.

I did a Google search and joined the free Voluntary Register via VARTA (then, the Infertility Treatment Authority). I also spoke to Melbourne IVF and they helped provide me with my donor’s non-identifying information. I had his dark blonde hair and blue eyes - my mum’s were green and dad’s were brown. Melbourne IVF also offered to search for my donor. My mum was great about it all, providing the required information and signing the form for me to have access to her medical file.

I was just curious and keen to share a letter, photo or even meet my donor if he was interested. Sadly, there were no matches on the Voluntary Register. 

How did you learn that your donor had passed away? How did you feel about this?

In my late twenties I updated my address with VARTA and Melbourne IVF and took them up on their offer to search for my donor. Unfortunately, they could not find my donor in Victoria which meant that he was outside the state or had passed away.

Hearing this meant that it wasn’t as much of a shock to learn that my donor had passed away. At the time I was disappointed, but the blow was softened as they said they might be able to search for my half-siblings. For health reasons, however, I was keen to know my donor’s date of birth and reason for passing. 

Based on information from the clinic, we knew I had a slightly older half-brother (born early 1982), so Melbourne IVF posted a letter to his mother asking for her to simply contact them. She did respond, but explained that she had never told her son, and now would not be a good time. Again, I was disappointed but had to respect her decision and hoped she may change her mind. To date I have not heard anything more about him. 

How did you connect with your donor's son? What has this experience been like?

On 29 June 2015, Victorian donor conception legislation changed. Donor conceived people born before 1988 were allowed to seek permission via Births Deaths and Marriages (BDM) for identifying information from the Central Register. Melbourne IVF advised me that I could put in an application about my donor’s next of kin.

In order to do this, I had to have a counselling session with VARTA. I didn't feel I needed this, especially seeing I had been to a few donor conceived support group meetings, but it was fantastic. The counsellor helped me draft an excellent letter - the required statement of reasons. I didn't know the audience as it could have been a wife or child (I knew from his non-identifying information he had his own children) and given donors of that era often didn't tell their families it could come as a big shock. 

The day before my wedding I got a call from BDM saying they had received a reply from my donor’s next-of-kin. I couldn't believe it. When I opened the email it simply had my donor’s full name and his next-of-kin’s email address and mobile number. With my bridesmaids around me in the nail salon, I have to admit we all started Googling and in no time we found that this was in fact my donor’s only son. Lucky for me his social media was not private so I had a name, photo and the area he grew up!

I couldn't believe it, I was getting married the next day on the Mornington Peninsula and that was where he lived. I felt like he was going to walk past the ceremony (of course this didn't happen). Given I was soon off on my honeymoon I felt compelled to reach out briefly and sent him a quick SMS to thank him for providing his contact details and to let him know I going overseas and would contact him on my return. He replied to say he would like that, so a month later I emailed him providing some information about myself, and some questions I had, indicating I would be open to further contact if he was. 

After a few nice emails (including photos of my donor) we organised a Skype call that went so well we arranged to catch up for lunch at a café. He brought his then wife and children and I took my husband and half-sister (you will read more about her in the next answer). Since then we have kept in touch via social media and caught up twice more - the last time for him to meet my newborn daughter at his place.

He has been very empathetic and forthcoming in providing information about my donor, his father. The things we have in common are uncanny. We both love photography, go for Geelong football club - and my brother-in-law was his best friend in high school. I found out that at one point I was living a street away from my donor, so went past his house regularly - I probably even served him at the local shops where I worked. Now my half-brother is dating a theatre nurse who was at my C-section. It’s such a small world! 

I also found out my donor has two daughters, my half-sisters, and recently met one of them. She is also a photographer - she even took some pregnancy photos for us! At this stage my other half-sister is not keen to connect. I was disappointed, but respect her decision, and hope one day she may change her mind. 

How did you connect with your other donor siblings? How has that experience been?

Only four months after connecting with my donor's son, BDM contacted me about two matches on the Voluntary Register. One of my donor siblings had joined a result of the Australian Story profile on Lauren Burns; the other following encouragement from their family. I was surprised as Melbourne IVF told me only one other family used my donor to conceive one child. However, I later found that my donor’s sperm was also used at Monash IVF and Prince Henry's Hospital.

As a result of these connections I had to have another counselling session with VARTA and submit my statement of reasons again. In return, I received my donor-siblings’ statements of reasons. Similar to my donor’s son, these connections initially started with email, then moved to Skype and SMS.

I have caught up with my donor-sister from Prince Henry’s a number of times now. She has met my family and vice versa - even came to my baby shower and is considered aunty to my daughter.

When VARTA told me my donor-sister’s first name, I went searching on the Australian Donor Conceived People Network Facebook group. There was only one person with her name and as we looked a little similar, I commented on one of her old forum posts. Very soon I received a private message reply saying "G’day Helen, turns out we’re related!! What a lovely surprise”.    

The other match, my donor-brother from Monash IVF, lives in New Zealand. I do hope to meet him one day. My donor-sister and I were hoping to visit him last year, but then I fell pregnant so that threw everything out - even though he was so welcoming and offered for us to stay with his family. It was a little harder to connect with him as he isn’t on social media, and can’t receive picture messages on his phone, but text and short emails has worked great. I recently connected with his wife on Facebook which has been lovely. I have also connected with his ‘social sister’ (raised in the same family, but with a different donor). She was also on the Facebook forum and commented about how happy she was I had connected with her brother.

Do you have other donor siblings? Would you like to connect with them all?

Yes and yes! We are still on the search for a female born mid-1982 and a male born early in 1982. I understand that current legislation helps donors find their donor children, but it doesn’t help donor children or donors’ next of kin find their donor siblings. This means, if you find your donor, they may be able to help you find your donor siblings.

What advice do you have for other people who are thinking about applying for information about their donor?

I would highly recommend applying for donor information, but appreciate you need to be in the right headspace to do it. If you want to meet your donor, don’t leave it too late - just in case. If I had of applied for information earlier I might have been able to meet my donor. However, I also need to consider he may not have wanted contact and then I would never have met my half-brother or sister.

I really urge donor-conceived people to take on the advice from VARTA counsellors and join the Facebook support group. Also, don’t forget to speak to your family (if you can) as well as the clinic where you mother had treatment for extra information that could assist in the search.

I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to my dad about my search until I had been in contact with my donor's next of kin. This was mainly because I didn’t want to hurt dad's feelings. However, after explaining why I wanted this information (focusing on health reasons) and reassuring him of our bond, he was very understanding. He even asked to see photos and said he would be open to meeting my donor siblings one day.

What advice do you have for other people whose donor may have died?

Whilst sad, perhaps it is important for all donor-conceived people to consider this could be a possibility, especially if you start your search late and your donor donated later in life.

If and when you can, I think it is important to focus on the positives – especially, how this man helped your parent/s have the baby they so desperately wanted. Sometimes I wonder why my donor donated: was it the money or altruistic reasons? But at the end of the day, it does not really matter. 

We need to be grateful for people who fought (and are still fighting - join in too if you can!) for the rights of donor-conceived people to find out as much information as we can. Every time I thought I had hit a dead end (pardon the pun), I found out more information. I believe my curious but tenacious attitude helped. However, you also need to be patient.

Do you feel that the Voluntary Register is important? Would you recommend other people register to have their information on the Voluntary Register?

Yes and yes! Connecting with my donor siblings been a wonderful experience – especially as I am an only child. The majority of the stories I have heard from the donor-conceived support group meetings have been overwhelming positive when matching to donors and siblings. I understand to some people this might seem scary, but for me it was exciting.

Is there anything else from your experience of being donor-conceived or connecting with your siblings that you would like to share with people?

DNA tests are another great way to connect with donors and siblings - this could be to search or confirm you are genetically related to someone. I initially did 23andMe, then Family Tree DNA which is how I confirmed I matched to my half-brother.

 

* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.