'Our future children': Families speak after loss of frozen embryos in tank failure

Families speak after loss of frozen embryos
Families speak after loss of frozen embryos

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Families speak after loss of frozen embryos 03:04

Story highlights

  • Families gathered for a memorial service to grieve
  • Most say that undergoing fertility treatments again is not an option
  • About 4,000 eggs and embryos belonging to 950 individuals were lost

(CNN)Kate Plants organized a memorial service Saturday near Cleveland to grieve for the eggs and embryos that she and hundreds of others lost in a tragic accident in March.

For Plants, who was diagnosed with and treated for with ovarian cancer, that was her last shot at having a biological child.
"I think about who they could have been and what they would have been," Plants said. "Those were our future children."
    She was one of about 950 patients of a fertility clinic that lost at least 4,000 eggs and embryos because of a system malfunction the first weekend of March. Many of them had gone through grueling fertility treatments so they could freeze eggs and embryos, which they stored at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
    A bench was "dedicated to the memory of the lost eggs and embryos of 2018" at the Woodvale Union Cemetery.
    Sierra Mathews also was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Now 22, she harvested her eggs at 19 so she could have a child in the future.
    "I didn't even want to go through fertility treatments, and I felt like I just went through all this trauma for nothing," Mathews said.
    All for nothing, she says, because of what happened the weekend of March 3.
    Eggs and embryos had been stored in a liquid nitrogen tank at University Hospitals in Cleveland, which was equipped with a remote alarm system that should have alerted an employee to any temperature change. But the hospital says the alarm was off, so an alert was never issued when an apparent malfunction caused temperatures in the tank to rise. Because it was Saturday night when the lab wasn't staffed, no one noticed the continuing rise in temperature. As a result, the eggs and embryos thawed.
    Carrianne Mahoney, who froze her embryos due to polycystic ovarian syndrome, was crushed when she learned that they had been damaged. "Now, they're gone," she said. "Now, I'm never going to know what those babies are going to grow up to be or anything. That's how it hurts me."
    Dave Sierra and his wife also lost their embryos. "I lost my reason for being alive, really," he said. "I'm average on my best day, so starting a family was really all I had as far as a purpose.
    "They can't replace what they took. ... Nobody is going to get back the eggs they ruined."
    After the incident in March, Dr. James Liu, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, told CNN affiliate WOIO, "We take full responsibility for what has happened. ... This is a catastrophic event for patients."
    University Hospitals declined CNN's request for an interview, citing pending litigation, but said in an email that patients are its first priority and that it is working to improve the operations in the fertility clinic, such as new freezer tanks and a different remote alarm system.
    Attorney Jack Landskroner is suing University Hospitals on behalf of about 180 families. "These folks have been through hell and high water just to have the opportunity to have a family, to preserve the opportunity to have a child. And it was ripped away overnight," he said.
    There are dozens of lawsuits in progress, though University Hospitals filed a motion Friday to dismiss some of them. "Ohio law requires that all medical claims be accompanied by an affidavit of merit," the medical center said in a statement. "In this matter, the plaintiffs' attorneys did not file the necessary documentation. So we have asked the court to dismiss the claims that were not properly supported when filed."
    Why sue since the hospital has admitted wrongdoing? Landskroner says his clients deserve answers.
    That includes answers about prior incidents at University Hospitals. An investigation for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that the same storage tank as in the March incident experienced problems with the filling mechanism and remote alarm system in January.
    The tank's manufacturer, Custom Biogenic Systems, has denied that its equipment malfunctioned. "Based upon our initial investigation, we have concluded that our equipment did not malfunction. The early stages of our investigation into this unfortunate incident indicate it was the result of human error," the manufacturer said in a statement, adding that the company "did not design, manufacture, install, control, or monitor the remote alarm system that was reportedly 'off' during the time of this incident."
    The hospital said the tank was undergoing preventative maintenance. The autofill mechanism had stopped working, University Hospitals said, and employees were filling the tank by manually pouring in liquid nitrogen, according to the investigation.
    The manufacturer had been working with the hospital on how to re-enable the autofill feature, Custom Biogenic Systems said, but it claims that hospital staff had stopped its "recommended practice at least several days before the incident."
    "I think that we need better transparency. I think, when there's prior incidents, it should be disclosed so families can make a decision whether they're willing to store what is sacred to them in the hospital that may have had a history of problems," Landskroner said. Which is why he and others are suing University Hospitals. "We need to eliminate all pattern of neglect, and that was clearly present here."
    Landskroner also wants tougher regulations for these fertility clinics and freezer tanks. "We certainly know that the tanks are inspected at least every two years. I think that's short of what it needs to be, certainly, given what they're storing and given what is necessary to keep these eggs and embryos safe. They should be in there regularly."
    University Hospitals is offering to refund the storage fees for those families affected, in addition to seven years' worth of free storage for future eggs and embryos. But the families CNN spoke with in Ohio say it's all too little, too late.
    "I just think it's because since it's such a time-consuming thing, and it's so hard on your body, I don't want to go somewhere again where I put trust in them, and then they broke that trust," Mathews said.
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    Plants says she can't do another round of IVF because she fears that estrogen could increase her risk of ovarian cancer recurrence. "I'm still technically in the danger zone."
    Age is also a problem for many who lost eggs and embryos, according to Landskroner. "Many of these folks who potentially go back and have another round of IVF are older now. So it's harder to get embryos and eggs as you age, and there's increased risk when an egg and embryo is taken for someone who's at 30 years old versus 38 years old."
    Mathews doesn't want to see other families get hurt. She offered this advice for others looking to freeze their eggs or embryos: "My message is, make sure you do research. Ask a lot of questions. Don't be afraid to ask doctors questions. Ask them about the rules and regulations. Ask them if they've had any incidents in the past."