Malfunctions at fertility clinics in both Ohio and California have left thousands of frozen embryos and eggs damaged and hundreds of patients devastated. Three weeks after announcing that they had experienced a "catastrophic failure," University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland revealed this week that the malfunction, now thought to be linked to human error, has resulted in the destruction of twice the number of frozen eggs and embryos the hospital initially believed they had lost.
A letter that went out to nearly 1,000 patients of the clinic states: "We know that many more eggs and embryos were affected than first estimated and that it’s unlikely that any are viable. All of our records for the storage tank in question have now been reviewed. We now believe about 950 of our patients were affected by the failure of this storage tank. The technical manner in which the eggs and embryos are stored in these freezers complicated our initial determination of how many patients and specimens were affected, and after review, we have determined that the total number of affected eggs and embryos for these patients is more than 4,000, not the estimate of 2,000 previously used."
The letter went onto note that the remote alarm system on the tank (which usually alerts an employee to temperature swings) was shut off the weekend of March 3. The tank temperature began to rise as a result, and in turn, destroyed thousands of embryos and eggs. "We don’t know who turned off the remote alarm nor do we know how long it was off, but it appears to have been off for a period of time," the letter notes. "We are still seeking those answers."
Meanwhile, on March 4, Pacific Fertility Clinic in San Francisco lost several eggs and embryos in a similar incident. Dr. Carl Herbert, president of Pacific Fertility Clinic, told the Washington Post that officials had informed some 400 patients of the failure that occurred March 4. He explained that staff at the clinic thawed a few eggs and found they remain viable, however they had yet to check any of the embryos.
Earlier this month, the clinic released the following statement to KPIX 5: “A single piece of equipment in our cryo-storage laboratory lost liquid nitrogen for a brief period of time. We do know that there is viable tissue from that tank. The rest of the tanks were not affected. The equipment was immediately retired, the vast majority of the eggs and embryos in the lab were unaffected, and the facility is operating securely. 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. We are truly sorry this happened and for the anxiety that this will surely cause."
Patients who had eggs and embryos stored at both clinics have of course been left with a whirlwind of emotions in the wake of this terribly upsetting turn of events. NBC News spoke with Wendy Perriman, who despite having 11 miscarriages, welcomed two healthy children with the help of University Hospitals Fertility Center. Now, she and her husband Rick have been left without the option to have a third. “It's devastating, I think, for us, but it's more devastating because it's taking something away from our kids,” Perriman told the news outlet.
At the same time, the malfunctions have also inspired others to get involved. For example, one Ohio mom named Niki Schaefer took to Facebook to encourage women to join her in donating unused frozen embryos they may have stored elsewhere. "I am the mom of a girl that was a frozen embryo, transferred from this petri dish. I have 4 more frozen embryos that I’ve never been quite sure what to do with," Schaefer wrote in the March 10 post. "I thought I would eventually donate them to research because I couldn’t mentally handle the thought of Noah and Lane’s formerly frozen siblings being on this earth and not knowing them. The unfortunate events that compromised the frozen embryos at the UH Fertility Center changed my mind. ... I contacted Dr. Goldfarb (who now heads the UH Fertility Center) yesterday to tell him I would be donating them to families affected by this tragedy. If you are in my shoes, please consider doing the same."
In both cases, many questions remain. For instance, an NBC News investigation concluded that the manufacturer of the UH Fertility Center's storage tank, Custom Biogenic Systems, has a history of technical problems that go back nearly 15 years. Nothing will truly make up for the loss these patients have suffered, but we can hope that at the very least, the affected families are provided answers and support in the wake of this heartbreaking loss.