'Our future family ... is gone': Parents in two cities grieve their lost embryos

Kate and Jeremy Plants with a box of medications needed for in-vitro fertilization.

Story highlights

  • Fertility clinics in San Francisco and Cleveland fail on same day
  • Thousands of embryos may be destroyed; lawsuits filed in Cleveland; more to come

(CNN)When Kate and Jeremy Plants were making plans for their 2014 marriage, they had no idea the future they would face. Just months after they tied the knot, Kate was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a deadly form that the American Cancer Society says takes more lives than any other female reproductive cancer.

Because treatment could affect Kate's fertility, doctors encouraged the newlyweds to consider banking Kate's embryos so they could have children someday.
"So every other 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 eggs was a miracle," Kate said.
    Kate Plants 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 backup blessings in mind, Kate opted for a full hysterectomy in May 2017.
    For Kate, now 33, and Jeremy, 38, the rollercoaster still wasn't over. Over the weekend of March 3, 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.
    "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, 2½ 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."