Parents grieve their lost embryos

Because treatment could affect Kate’s fertility, doctors encouraged the newlyweds to consider banking Kate’s eggs so they could have children someday.

“So, every day for two weeks we drove 45 minutes each way to the doctor,” Kate recalled. “There were shots in stomach multiple times a day; I was high on hormones; it was very stressful. And the whole time I don’t know if the cancer is spreading and I’m thinking, ‘Do I have time for this?'”

What happened next, says Kate, could only be called a blessing. In the world of in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, it’s not unusual for couples to undergo numerous rounds of expensive, painful procedures to obtain a viable embryo, if it happens at all.

Yet for Kate and Jeremy, the first and only round of IVF produced five excellent embryos.

“The fact that my one working ovary could produce those was a miracle,” Kate said.

Kate Plant in the hospital after receiving news that there were 5 viable embryos.
She and Jeremy decided to store their precious babies-to-be in a long-term cryopreservation tank at the same place she underwent treatment: Cleveland’s University Hospitals Fertility Center.

Then came another blessing. Despite being “gutted like a fish” by the surgery, Kate survived ovarian cancer, after a long, painful recovery. But, she says, her good fortune didn’t last. Another year had barely gone by when symptoms reappeared — this time the diagnosis was uterine cancer. Desperate to avoid “more ripping and tearing at my uterus,” and with her five back-up blessings in mind, Kate opted for a full hysterectomy in May of 2017.

For Kate and Jeremy, the rollercoaster still wasn’t over. Sometime during the weekend of March 3, 2018, the cryopreservation tank at University Hospitals suddenly failed. The temperature of the liquid nitrogen keeping the contents at icy levels unexpectedly fluctuated, possibly damaging the frozen eggs and embryos inside.

More than 2,000 frozen eggs and embryos may not be viable after freezer fails

“This was our main storage area,” said Mike Ferrari, senior media relations specialist for University Hospitals. “We think about 2,100 eggs and embryos were affected, but we have not verified that to date. It affected about 700 families, but this is an evolving situation and it could be less or more.”

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Kate said after reading what she calls the hospital’s “sterile” letter. “But Jeremy took it even harder. The rest of the world looks at it as eggs and embryos, but we look at it as our future children.”

“I actually was very angry,” said 37-year-old Amber Ash. She and her husband Elliott, 36, have two embryos stored in the same cryopreservation unit. They had used a third to conceive their son Ethan 2 ½ years ago, and were recently considering expanding their family.

Amber and Elliott Ash with their son Ethan, who was conceived from a frozen embryo.

“There’s the sudden realization that our future family that was there last week is gone, in a moment,” Amber said. “It’s just shock and disbelief.”

“It makes me pause and ask, what kind of safety methods are these fertility clinics taking?” asked Amber’s husband, Elliott. “Perhaps protocols and practices need to be reviewed to insure they are protected.”

A ‘bizarre coincidence’

The question of safety became more urgent when news broke that another fertility clinic, Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco, also had a mishap with one of its embryo storage units.

“A single piece of equipment in our cryo-storage laboratory lost liquid nitrogen for a brief period of time,” the center said in a statement. “As soon as the issue was discovered, our most senior embryologists took immediate action to transfer those tissues from the affected equipment to a new piece of equipment. We have brought in independent experts and are conducting a full investigation.”

Second US fertility clinic reports egg storage tank malfunction

Strangely enough, it appears both incidents happened on the same day — Sunday, March 4.

“It’s a bizarre coincidence,” said Dr. Brian Levine of CCRM, a national network of fertility centers that also freeze eggs and embryos. “Two incidents in the same day. Both of these clinics are highly reputable, and I’m sure they had policies and procedures in place.”
“What’s amazing is that it hasn’t happened before,” said Dr. Richard Chetkowski, a fertility specialist in San Francisco who uses the Pacific Fertility Center to freeze some of his client’s embryos. “As far as I know it’s the first time first time human embryos have been jeopardized by failure of the storage tanks. It’s a shock to see this risk for a stage of the process we thought was risk free.”

Even though there are no official regulations governing the freezing of embryos, Levine says the gold standard for clinics is to arm every tank with independent sensor and probes that send audible warnings, such as a beep, as well text and email warnings to a wide group of recipients 24-7 if something goes wrong.

“Sensors have to be checked,” Levine said. “We do it daily, with another set of different checks once a week. Alarms have battery backups, and all are on landlines, not cell phones. We have enough liquid nitrogen to last weeks. It’s expensive but worth it to make sure we are prepared.”

Unknown fate

Katie Miller is one of the women affected by the failure of the Pacific Fertility storage unit. She told CNN San Francisco affiliate KGO that she has two healthy children using embryos frozen by the facility, and was undergoing treatments for a third when the news broke.

“It’s a real shock, because you know you put such faith in the process,” Miller said. “For some people this is perhaps their only chance at having biological children.”

Pacific Fertility did not return CNN’s calls but referred us to their prior statement: “The vast majority of the eggs and embryos in the lab were unaffected, and the facility is operating securely.”

The embryo is just a year younger than the mother who birthed her

“I haven’t told any of my patients that their embryos are damaged,” Chetkowski said. “We don’t know to what level the embryos were exposed to high temperature and how much they thawed.”

Chetkowski explained that if there was enough nitrogen left in the tank, there might be nitrogen steam or vapor. And while that’s not the gold standard of being submerged in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 centigrade, it’s possible some may still be viable after transfer to a new storage unit.

“It may turn out that some are more robust and survive and some may not,” Chetkowski said. “And there’s no way at eyeballing it. You don’t know the state of the embryo until the patient decides to undergo in-vitro fertilization and they’re thawed.”

As in Cleveland, the tank contained both new and much older embryos that could have been there for years.

Chetkowski is more hopeful for embryos frozen by a method called vitrification, a quick-freezing process that has been widely accepted over the last decade. Before that, he says, a slower and “less reliable” technique called equilibrium was the gold standard.

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Lou Jones, the founder and CEO of Biogenics, a firm that makes warning equipment for cryopreservation units, is more pessimistic. He argues that eggs frozen via vitrification “will shatter” when put back into liquid nitrogen.

“If you add more liquid nitrogen they are toast,” Jones said. “I’ve been trying to wave this flag for 10 years, telling them that they need separate tanks for vitrification and equilibrium processed tissue.”

Courts will decide

In Cleveland, affected families are starting to turn toward legal action after speaking to their doctors at University Hospitals Fertility Center.

Baby is first to be born in US after uterus transplant, hospital says

“I’ve talked to 20 different patients directly and all have been told their embryos are not viable,” said Tom Merriman, a partner at Landskroner Grieco Merriman, LLC, who is fielding calls from upset families. “I had another 15 emails Monday morning, and phone has been ringing all day.”

University Hospitals’ Mike Ferrari says the hospital will not comment on litigation and refers media questions about the current state of embryos to the hospital’s March 8 statement, which says: “At this time, we don’t yet know the viability of these eggs and embryos.”

“We think this is a lot more catastrophic than what has been reported by the hospital,” said Mark DiCello of the Cleveland law firm DiCello Levitt & Casey. “The families we’ve spoken with that have had meetings with the hospital have not left with any sense of hope; instead there is a sense of utter devastation. We’re afraid it’s a total loss.”

DiCello, who is representing the Ashes, filed a class action lawsuit against the hospital on Sunday. Merriman, who is representing the Plants, says he will also soon file a lawsuit and expects to see more from other attorneys in Cleveland.

“You can seek class action status, but that’s something that’s ruled upon by the court,” Merriman said. “Class action or not all of these cases are going to end up in front of one judge.”

Both the Ashes and Plants are hoping they can use their lawsuits to speak up and advocate for change.

“Our goal is to seek prevention and increased oversight so this can never happen again,” Amber said. ” So, that other families don’t have to receive such devastating news.”

“Those families are not alone,” said Kate Plant, breaking into tears. “When I think about my own grief, I feel like I’m carrying them with me. It’s easy for me to be strong myself, but when I think about all the other women and families and all the sacrifices they make. Those options were taken from them forever.”

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