In an email shortly after my first IVF, Dr. Malpani introduced me to his surrogacy program. What I did not realize then was that most other REs in Mumbai do not run their own surrogacy programs, they outsource this to surrogacy agencies (examples: Surrogacy India, Little Angels), who, atleast going by Surrogacy India’s program, do a very thorough job of screening and caring for their surrogates.
Dr. Malpani charges a similar amount of money as them. This is the way he runs his surrogacy program: he has found a "handler," who has been a surrogate herself in the past. This appeared to be an uneducated woman. She finds and recruits surrogates and takes them to him. After he selects a surrogate, the handler seems to handle it all: she takes these women to their appointments, liaises between the OB's clinic and gets the reports to Dr. Malpani's clinic eventually (there seems to be a lag of 1-3 days). I was not given copies of the test reports up front. I always had to ask, sometimes repeatedly. To my great shock, this woman also informed me that she gives the injections, rather than a trained nurse, as I would have expected. Trying to get her to convey what injection she had to give was a fun experience all right, and we ended up with a serious case of crossed wires about the steroid shot. From my experience, this woman, who basically coordinated the pregnancy handling was unprofessional (she would avoid my phone calls for days when she did not want to talk to me), missed appointments (she wanted to skip out on the 36th week checkup; I spoke to the surrogate and made sure she turned up, and on that day, we discovered her BP was high enough to warrant immediate hospitalization) and had no medical know-how.
Surrogacy India'a (SI) program is something I like a lot. They have an immensely large staff dedicated to the various aspects of running surrogacy, and there are 2 doctors who have no other job other than look over the pregnancies. They have housing on their premises, and make sure that if the surrogates live at home with their family, they relocate close to their office and can be mobilized rapidly (they have an ambulance on site to ferry people to Hiranandani hospital). Every blood test/test report is immediately uploaded and is made available to the biological parents through their website and they have an electronic record available at all times (to this day, I have only seen J's file and made copies of certain things, but do not have all reports of when she was pregnant with my child). SI staff (who, importantly, are not "friends" or from the same community as the surrogates) conduct “home visits” to check if the surrogates have clean drinking water, etc, and they keep checking throughout the pregnancy. This is important because there have been instances where women have become Hepatitis E-positive during pregnancy due to unclean drinking water and miscarried. They also check the husbands every 3 months for STDs (this is really important and sensible, IMO). They offer very strong and robust oversight over the entire program, and their pregnancy screening (which appears to have multiple doctors at very reputed hospitals running and reviewing the ultrasounds) is very through. They also handle post-pregnancy finances (for example, if you want to set up an educational trust for your surrogate’s children, they will handle the disbursement of the finances).
Dr. Malpani, as stated above, seems to have a staff of one to handle the pregnancy, and it is a woman from the same community as the surrogates. He assumes the OB will handle all the medical aspects after the 3rd month. In contrast, SI has assured me that while the OB does a lot, the two doctors who oversee the team do a lot of monitoring and keeping tabs throughout the pregnancy. One of the doctors there tried to impress upon me that this very involved approach pays off- the SI babies apparently have a higher weight at birth, and rarely require NICU admissions for medical reasons.
In the case of the second surrogate chosen (who eventually went on to carry Gauri), she had told him that she had been a surrogate once before, with Surrogacy India. I spoke to them and accidentally found out that she had been a surrogate twice before with them. This was her 5th child, not her 4th, as she claimed.
What SI repeatedly impressed upon me is that surrogates lie to try to pass the screenings, because they desperately need this money. Hence such responsible agencies are very through in their screenings to prevent a potential disaster from unfolding (such as a surrogate who has carried 5 babies already and is trying to carry a 6th, and runs into the risk factors associated with the multigravida state). It is, IMO, imperative that the doctor doing the screening be exhaustive in his/her investigations to verify the past medical history.
What Dr. Malpani told me (and what went on official record) was that she had been a surrogate only once before. This was contradicted by my verbal exchanges with Surrogacy India, the OB-GYN (who told me this was her third surrogacy and 5th pregnancy, not her 4th), and finally, J herself, in a conversation after the birth.
Additionally, my surrogate was Rh-, and he put Rh+ embryos into her. On realizing this by accident (!!) due to the astute questions asked by the excellent Dr. Bhansal at Mediscan, I asked for and checked her initial blood reports: there was no report testing whether she was indeed still unimmunized against the Rh antigen after 4 prior pregnancies. If she had been immunized, it would have possibly resulted in a pregnancy loss.
During a pregnancy, the nuchal translucency screening for Down’s syndrome is only accurate if done between 11 weeks and 14 weeks. If Dr. Malpani was aware of this, he did not impress it on the handler, who of course had no idea. She took the surrogate in to Hiranandani for the first time only at 14 weeks (based on the ET date), and she would have missed the window for accurate screening. Thankfully, I had arranged for the screening myself between the 11th and 12th week, and had paid for this necessary test (as I had multiple others) from my own pocket.
Other things that Dr. Malpani did also vexed me: His receptionist emailed me to tell me that the next payment was due at 20-22 weeks. A few days later, Dr. Malpani emailed me to tell me that this payment "due at 20-22 weeks" was now overdue! We were 19w1d along on that day! You had to laugh, because otherwise you would cry.
Communication was also rather painful: his fee schedule was such that his own receptionist could not seem to understand it. He initially emailed me that I have to pay 9000$ in three installments of $3000 each. I paid the first one. At the time of the next installment, his receptionist emails me to tell me that my next payment of $2000 was due (she thought the total payment was only $6000---can’t blame her given the ambiguity of the schedule, which I will be putting up in the next post). It took several phone calls to sort it out, and at one point, she told me Dr. Malpani was charging me the fee for twins, which is why the amount was higher: I nearly pulled my hair out at that point.
After our relationship turned hostile because I had expressed my surprise over the way things were handled and anger over multiple issues (I also had the pregnancy jitters and nerves that made me fly off the handle far too quickly, and that was my fault) I came up against a wall. Emails were not returned, questions/concerns were ignored entirely. The only way I seemed to encounter some action was to write a blogpost about it.
The shit really hit the fan towards the end of the pregnancy. J lives in a slum area in a dwelling called a chawl. It is very difficult to get cars in and out of in case of a medical emergency. Her bathroom is outside, and I was honestly rather nervous about her moving around at night when she was so large and unwieldy and groggy at night: I was afraid of a fall and a placental abruption. It was also summer, and one day out in the country with no air conditioning had nearly given me heatstroke, and I was nervous as to how she was coping at nearly full term. I was also concerned about UTIs at this late date, given that the sanitation is far from ideal. All in all, I was trying to get her to move for the last 2-3 weeks into safer and more comfortable housing. Most surrogacy agencies, given the poverty that the surrogates live in, have some arrangement of housing in case of emergencies, and for the final weeks if required. As a standard policy, SI told me that the wishes of the biological parents are always taken into consideration while deciding where the surrogate will spend the final weeks.
As mentioned previously, Dr. Malpani offers one uneducated woman to coordinate the whole process, in combination with his oversight of the pregnancy (you can decide the state of that based on what I told you above). He offers no housing to house surrogates that I was made aware of, no means of transport in case of an emergency (J would have had to hail a cab in that neighborhood and make her way with the handler, who was pregnant herself). Anyway, given the lack of acceptable housing and knowledge of her home situation, I was happier with the surrogate spending the last 2-3 weeks in the hospital where she would be well monitored. I had discussed this with the surrogate, and she told me she was willing to get admitted on the 2nd of April, which would be the 36th week. However, when we went in for the 35th week checkup, her blood pressure was high, and the OB-GYN admitted her for monitoring, as per her standard policy. Note that the surrogate was not happy with this. She was also started on IV antibiotics for a suspected vaginal infection, and this was continued for around 4 days. I wanted the surrogate to be in the hospital till delivery (I suspected we would not get very far past 37 weeks).
One day, I tried to contact the surrogate to just see how things were going, and I could not get through. Nobody took my calls that day. Frantic, I finally texted the OB, and apparently verbal exchanges between the OB and Dr. Malpani had taken place, resulting in the surrogate being discharged “Discharged Against Medical Advice.” This was what the OB told me, and she also informed me via text, that Dr. Malpani was aware of it. He had not bothered communicating all this to me. I literally needed sedation that night, I was that terrified. My state of mind just did not seem to matter. Importantly, he gave me no information either about the discharge or about her state of her health (I did not know if the BP had settled, or whether her antibiotic treatment was complete). Things were only explained (and became less frightening) when my mother went and talked to the OB the next day, and she explained that she had taken all possible precautions before letting the surrogate be discharged against medical advice.
Since I was not on good terms with Dr. Malpani at this time, my mother, who is a doctor, called him about when J could go back to the hospital. My mother, who was a lot more level headed and far less paranoid than I was, was also having nightmares about J, who was a 5th gravida, delivering in a cab in the middle of the night, as labor can progress very rapidly in these women. When my mother conveyed these fears to Dr. Malpani on the phone, he responded that birth is a natural process and women have been delivering for millennia without OBs hovering over them (!!!). Obviously, this did not reassure her, and she emphasized that she wanted the delivery to take place in a hospital “natural birth process or otherwise.” He also famously told her that the weekly checkups after the 36th week point were excessive (!!!). Nonetheless, he agreed that she would present herself back at the hospital at her weekly appointment, which coincided with the 37th week based on the embryo transfer date. Overall, Dr. Malpani’s philosophy (that she should stay home for as long as possible, and only make her way to the hospital when “labor was eminent”) filled us with utter dread, and to our utter helplessness, he was the person calling the shots at that point. Waiting for that checkup date to arrive was an experience no one in my family ever wants to live through again.
Ironically, while Dr. Malpani was pushing for a natural birth, the surrogate herself had no intention of a natural birth, and asked for a c-section. This was a really comic situation, if you took away the very high stakes.
While I am also very much a fan of natural delivery over c-section, the surrogate’s wishes had to come first in my book: to try to get an unwilling woman to go for a vaginal delivery is a ridiculously bad idea, in addition to being unfair to her.
This aside, it was rather amazing that what I (as the biological mother) wanted as per day of delivery and plan of action apparently figured so little with Dr. Malpani. Our situation was even more ironic considering that the system is supposed to work in a way where the person who sets up the surrogacy program is supposed to help the biological parent, communicate the day-to-day events clearly, take their wishes into consideration (this is their child after all), and ensure that the process is as less tension-fraught as possible.
What happened on the day of delivery: On the day she was discharged against medical advice, the OB ran a high vaginal swab that was clear, showing no infection. When she returned for the agreed-upon checkup one week later, she had a greenish vaginal discharge, which is normally indicative of a trichomonal infection (an STD). Thank god I did not know this when the OB told me about the discharge.
Alarmed, the OB planned a C-section, which also coincided with the surrogate’s wishes. After the birth on the same day, my baby had excellent Apgar scores and met all the benchmarks of maturity, but had rapid breathing and grunting which is sometimes observed after a c-section. They admitted her in the NICU for monitoring, expecting that it should clear up within the next 12 hours. When it had not, the pediatrician suspected infection (he says he sees this sometimes in babies born of surrogates), and preemptively started antibiotics.
Within 24 hours of being on the antibiotic, the respiratory distress had cleared, but a blood test showed mild sepsis. Given that this was an otherwise healthy and subsequently hardy baby, it seems unlikely to me this was a hospital-acquired infection, and seemed more likely that this was something unexplained acquired in utero. When I think about the fact that her vaginal swab at the time of her discharge against medical advice was clear, that she showed up one week later with likely an STD, and the fact that my baby had a respiratory infection that looked like it was acquired in utero, I get really, really angry. The universe and the doctors at Hiranandani were really watching out for this child, so it all ended well, thank god, despite the 4 pregnancies the surrogate had carried before this one, despite the Rh mismatch, and despite the infection that J apparently had in the end. I think getting Gauri out when we did may have resulted in us catching the infection at an early timepoint when it was easily controllable. And for that, thank you, forces above, and Dr. Soni (the OB) and Dr. Ahuja (the pediatrician).
I honestly very much wish I had known about the nitty gritty of surrogacy in India before I had started this, and today, I make this information available to you all. Make of all this what you will, but had I known what I know now, I would NEVER have gone to Dr. Malpani for surrogacy. I would definitely have been spared a ton of stress (especially in the horrible final three weeks), and who knows, my daughter may have not needed that NICU stay and those repeated invasions of her oh-so-tiny veins. The day they stuck yet another IV in her for the fifth time in one week, our hearts broke.
The next part will be the finances of surrogacy with Dr. Malpani: that definitely requires a blogpost of its own.