ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Francis Santiago grew up in a big family in Puerto Rico, as the oldest of four sisters. Growing up, she was surrounded by siblings, cousins and a lot of neighborhood kids. She knew early on that she wanted to have a big family of her own one day.
"I always knew that I wanted to have a big family, but life happens and things change," Santiago said.
During the pandemic, Francis went through a divorce. The 36-year-old became a single mom to her 3-year old son, Oliver. That is when she started to look at her options, because she still wanted her son to have siblings. After several months of back and forth, she decided to move forward with freezing her eggs.
Santiago is far from alone.
During the pandemic, fertility clinics have seen a huge jump in women wanting to freeze their eggs and take control of their future motherhood. Dominion Fertility saw their appointments for egg freezing go up by nearly 50% this last year.
"Women are all born with a million eggs," Santiago's doctor, Dr. Kay Waud at Dominion Fertility in Arlington, said. "There are two things that are happening as we age. One, the number of eggs we have diminishes. Two, the quality. What we're trying to achieve by freezing eggs is trying to stop those two processes in time."
The egg freezing process only takes about two weeks, but it is demanding. It requires ultrasounds, monitoring appointments and self-injections to stimulate the eggs. Eventually, those eggs are retrieved and frozen.
"As soon as we freeze them, we store them and they are kept in our lab," Waud said.
The eggs are kept in liquid nitrogen tanks, and there are plenty of backup generators and tight security around the lab.
Santiago documented her egg freezing journey along the way.
"It's a lot because you have this picture in your head how your life is going to be, and then things change," she said. "But you have to keep going and do what you actually want to do."
Doctors theorize that there was a lot of time for women to reflect during the pandemic, but with dating at a standstill and the flexibility of working from home, they guess that more women started pursuing egg freezing to give themselves myriad options.
Natalie Sofia is a registered nurse and IVF Coordinator at Dominion Fertility. She walks patients through the medications before they get started. Three years ago, she also froze her eggs.
"I haven't done anything with the eggs yet, but I like the idea of just having a little bit of control over it and the possibility of it," Sofia said.
Shady Grove Fertility has also seen the same demand in egg freezing over the last year.
"It's been remarkable, honestly," Dr. Andrea Reh said. "Egg freezing used to be a small fraction of the patients we see. Since the pandemic, it's gone up by about 50%."
On some days, Dr. Reh spends her whole day in egg freezing consults.
"Women find it empowering," she said. "They find they are able to take control over something they may not have control over, which is time, or not having a partner for example."
While it may be an empowering process, it's not a cheap one. The cost can range anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000, and the required medications can rack up thousands of dollars more. Though some newer tech companies cover this procedure, more insurers and employers do not. There is also no guarantee those eggs will survive the freezing and thawing process when you're ready to use them.
"It is not a guarantee, but it is certainly the most we can do for women at this point," Dr. Reh said.
Freezing the eggs is just one step of the process. What Francis Santiago will do with them is another chapter.
"I know that I want to have more kids," she said. "It might not be now, it might not be next year, it might be next month, who knows? But now I have options and I know I can do it at my time and pace, which is super important to me."