Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Noah's Ark for Egg and Sperm

How One Fertility Team Saved Their Patients' Precious Commodities

Anyone who has ever been through the roller-coaster ride of fertility treatments—the ups and downs of good news and bad news and the hormonal ride from pumping drugs in and using drugs to wipe other hormones out, knows that every day—every moment—counts. A cycle lost because of a laboratory glitch or a faulty egg or embryo means that all of those injections, all the anticipation, all the clinic visits were for naught.

So when Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast, one New York University team was determined to get his batches of eggs and sperm and embyros out safely. It became a feat of utter determination.  

The rains started to come down Monday night so at the crack of dawn—sometime around 5:30 the next morning—Dr. James Grifo, the clinic’s director, launched his sperm- egg-embryo-salvation mission. He got in his car, leaving his own flooded downtown neighborhood, picked up his embryologist, andrologist and administrator and dashed to the fertility center on 38th street and 1st Avenue. The firemen were already there and threated to shut off the generators, a potential fire hazard. The generators were on the roof but the fuel supply was in the basement.

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Frozen products—sperm, eggs, and embryos—don’t rely on power.  That wasn’t the issue.  Grifo and his team worried about the fragile embryos growing in incubators. There were about six of them in varying stages of development, he said. Each embryo represented a nervous couple hoping that their chances of pregnancy that month weren’t dashed by the rains. The clinic had battery packs but they only last six hours. With the elevators shut, the building staff and Grifo were allowed to trudge 5-gallon fuel containers eight flights of stairs to the roof. The hope was to keep the embryos going long enough to freeze them

Meanwhile, one of Grifo’s patients showed up for her egg retrieval, a process of fertility that is timed exquisitely. There was zero chance of doing the procedure in the powerless NYU clinic so she and Grifo got into his car and headed uptown to a Mt. Sinai affiliated clinic.  Dr. Alan Copperman, that clinic’s director, welcomed them to use his office. “We are in this competitive field,” said Grifo, “but you work with people who care about their patients so when push comes to shove everyone figured out a reason to cooperate.”

Grifo also contacted Dr. John Zheng at New Hope Fertility Center, where he did 11 egg retrievals in one day. Of course, saving the embryos does not guarantee a baby. But so far—one month out—four of six women who got to use their Grifo-rescued embryos have had positive pregnancy tests. So what seemed like an awful forecast for a few couples, is really a happy ending. Or really, a potentially exciting beginning.

 

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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