How Safe Are Your Embryos During a Natural Disaster?

Living in a coastal city for many years, ever so often our meteorologists will tease us with the impending threat of a nearing hurricane or some other nefarious natural disaster looming about. We’ll go through the list of things to do to prepare, such as bring in the patio furniture, fill up the gas tanks or stock up on bottled water (or wine, lots of wine). That is, if any grocery stores within a 200 mile radius have not already been pillaged. If we are asked to evacuate, well, we board up our home to the best of our ability, clear the floors and take the most important things like photos and important paperwork along and hope for the best. Leaving the uncertainty of your home and livelihood in the unpredictable hands of Mother Nature is unsettling, to say the least.

You know what else is unsettling? Leaving my embryos in the path of a natural disaster. Like millions of other people with infertility, I’ve done some time in the stirrups of a fertility clinic. As a result, I have three gloriously perfect embryos that lay waiting to maybe one day become a mini human. Luckily, we have not had to experience anything larger than a tropical storm flirt our coast since my embryos have been frozen. Sadly, this is not the case for many other infertile couples who have had to undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and have their sperm, eggs and embryos stored.
Some couples have to undergo repeated IVF cycles just to have one or two viable eggs. For others it is their last semen sample prior to cancer treatment where they would most likely become sterile. These canisters hold the hopes, dreams and the only chance of a biological family for couples who have to seek reproductive treatment

When Hurricane Katrina hit and rocked New Orleans, several law enforcement officers, Dr. Belinda Sartor of The Fertility Institute of New Orleans and their clinic’s lab director, Roman Pyrzak, made a daring rescue in flat-bottom boats to retrieve nearly four large metal canisters, storing 1200 embryos in total. With the temperatures rising at the flooded hospital they were held at and no promise of restored power in the immediate future, this rescue was critical to ensure these embryos would survive.

So how safe are your embryos when a natural disaster strikes? This question, along with my masochistic obsession with the news, is the scary stuff that goes bump in the night for me. Having been a patient for over a decade at my local clinic (they really should plaque my name on the stirrups one day), I sent them a barrage of questions. They in return sent me a barrage of responses. I wanted to know first and foremost: What happens to my embryos if there is a natural disaster?

I came to find out size does actually matter…

in the thermos-like storage tanks they use, that is. These canisters are filled with liquid nitrogen, which is what keeps those little frosty-embryos cold and safe. There are also several sizes of tanks, and the size a particular clinic uses depends on the average storage time. Ours clinic happens to use tanks that have an average storage time of 76 days between a fill and require no electricity, so they are self-sufficient. Essentially, they can be abandoned until it is safe to return or can be easily recovered and evacuated to a safe location.

Gerald Celia, the embryology lab director for the Jones Institute says this:

Disasters like Katrina have taught us to be prepared for the worst – long periods of down time without utilities or access – and to take action early and decisively to ensure the best outcomes for our patients. While we cannot prepare for every scenario, most patients will never suffer more than the inconvenience of rescheduling when it comes to IVF and natural disasters these days. It’s not always comfortable, but we are better than the mail when it comes to working around Mother Nature (“neither rain, nor snow, nor dark of night, etc.”).

What about patients who are in the middle of an IVF cycle?

My head, heart and ovaries hurt thinking about patients who have just started their (costly) IVF protocol. These patients spend months of testing and planning to begin a single round of IVF. Allow me to get all science-y for a sec. In a fresh IVF cycle, the woman’s egg(s) are retrieved. This is called a retrieval.  The sperm is then donated in a not-so-romantic plastic cup. They are combined in a culture dish or through a process called ICSI, and three to five days later bada-bing bada-boom: glorious embryos.

I also asked my embryologist about this exact scenario. Here’s what he said more or less: During a disaster scenario the most critical tasks for an IVF laboratory are to stabilize the embryos in the lab and account for disruptions in a normal IVF cycle. They can either do this by adjusting the timing of the cycle, provided it does not impact the chances of getting patients pregnant, or through cryopreservation. Their techniques and skill level are such that they can freeze embryos at virtually any stage of development in a matter of minutes and recover them after the danger has passed with approximately 99-percent success. Unfortunately, there are no 100-percent situations in biology.

This is good to know. It is hard enough for people who are in the path of a major storm. Diving headfirst into such a rigorous and emotionally and physically demanding process like IVF, the last thing you want to consider is how likely the weather may ruin your plans. Rain is good luck on a wedding day; a natural disaster is not welcome under any conditions.

Before you run out and join the masses in clearing out the bottled water from the shelves of the grocery store, consider asking your clinic a few important questions.

If you have frozen embryos, sperm or eggs, here’s what to ask:

1. What size tanks do you have?

2. When was the last time the storage tanks were filled?

3. Request a disaster-relief plan. Knowing what steps they take will help you calm your nerves in an already tense situation.

If you are about to begin or are in the middle of a cycle prior to a natural disaster, consider asking these questions:

1. Is there an emergency number that will be fielding calls to patients?

2. What is my protocol if I have to abruptly stop my IVF cycle?

3. If my embryos are at an early stage, do you have the capabilities to freeze them and then continue to grow them once the storm has passed?

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Getty image by Eric Overton

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