Depending on what’s being carried and how much they can pay, the patient or patients involved will choose either a hand-carry service, a commercial carrier such as DHL or FedEx, or something in between, such as the combination of commercial flights and local couriers that Loewen relied on during the pandemic. The cost of transporting my eggs with FlyVet Europa was 1,300 euros, or about $1,400 at the time. That includes the price of two one-way tickets for Paolo and the egg suitcase, and a few incidental expenses. (When I told Monaco how many eggs were traveling, he quipped, “Uno squadro di calcio!”—a soccer team.)
CryoStork, the division of Cryoport devoted to the fertility sector, offers all three tiers of service—commercial carriers for something that can be easily replaced (sperm, in other words), a middle-tier service using local couriers and air freight, and a door-to-door hand-carry service—for prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to as much as $7,000 or $8,000 for an international hand-carry trip.
Ultimately, the pandemic boosted business for Loewen. Today, he and a team of eight colleagues, half employees and half working on a per-shipment basis, handle around 30 to 40 IVF-related shipments each month. Similarly, when the war in Ukraine began, Loewen and other colleagues received frantic requests from clients desperate to move their biomaterials out of the capital, Kiev, where most of the country’s IVF clinics and surrogacy agencies are based, and business shifted to nearby Georgia. But by September, Loewen was planning to once again deliver biomaterials to Ukraine. “People want to have babies—conflict or not,” he says.
The right stuff
What does it take to be a tissue courier, and how does one get into the field? Everyone I spoke to said that to succeed, you must love traveling, have a calm personality (in case, as happened to Loewen, you’re ever surrounded by a knot of armed Belarusian soldiers at the airport and accused of trafficking human organs), and be adept at problem-solving.
Loewen looks for people with experience in the travel sector, who can navigate new cities and won’t be rattled by a flight cancellation or a grumpy customs official. Mark Sawicki of Cryoport has several former pilots now working as couriers; their security clearances enable them to move through airports more easily than civilians.
Nicole Dorman, 43, has always loved children; she jokes that her current job as a courier is “babysitting.” She has three kids, aged 14 to 22, and has been a teacher’s aide and a school crossing guard, following four years in the US Army. When she’s home for a week or two at a time with her kids in between gigs, she also makes deliveries for DoorDash in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Dorman had begun by transporting stem cells for a Frankfurt-based courier service. When she was looking for work in November of 2020, she emailed a half-dozen IVF courier companies and heard back from Loewen within 15 minutes. She has been working for him ever since, and also does US shipments for the Ukrainian company ARK Cryo, as well as EmbryoPort, a UK-based firm.
Dorman is on the road roughly 70% of each month; when we spoke in mid-May, she was preparing for a weeklong trip beginning with a pickup in Indianapolis, a drop-off in Bratislava, a train ride from there to Prague for another pickup, and then a flight to Greece. Like all couriers who’ve been working for any length of time, she has frequent flier status. In the 18 months since she started, she has transported more than 90 shipments. “Now I can pretty much do it in my sleep,” she says.