An alarm system turned off on a fertility clinic storage tank that had been malfunctioning for weeks led to a failure that likely ruined more than 4,000 eggs and embryos, double what the clinic first thought, it said Tuesday.

The clinic run by University Hospitals in suburban Cleveland does not know who shut off the alarm or why it happened, according to a letter sent to its patients.

The alarm should have alerted staff when the storage tank’s temperature began to rise on the weekend of March 4 when no one was at the lab.

“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. We are still seeking those answers,” the letter said.

The failure and a second one the same day at a fertility clinic in San Francisco were the biggest such losses on record in the U.S., causing centers around the nation to review their procedures.

So far, there are no known connections between the two failures.

Couples who had stored their eggs and embryos at the clinics say they’re devastated because they may not be able to have their own children. Some had been trying for years to get pregnant, suffered multiple miscarriages or undergone cancer treatments that destroyed their fertility.

Mark DiCello, a Cleveland attorney who represents some of the patients, said he believes someone at the clinic turned off the alarm because “they were having problems and they made the decision they weren’t going to deal with it.”

“That was a decision. That wasn’t an oops,” he said.

He said his clients are furious. They believe the clinic had to know soon after the failure that the alarm had been turned off, but didn’t say anything to the patients until now, DiCello said.

University Hospitals said about 950 patients were affected and that it doubts any of the 4,000 embryos or eggs are still viable.

“We understand that our patients are grieving and we grieve with them,” Tom Zenty, the system’s chief executive, said in a videotaped statement. “We failed our fertility clinic patients. We are sorry.”

The hospital system described in the letter to patients how the storage tank was having trouble for weeks with a system that automatically fills the liquid nitrogen that keeps the embryos frozen.

The clinic was planning to transfer the embryos to another tank, but in the meantime the clinic’s staff had to manually fill the tanks, the letter said.

Monitoring during the two days leading up to the failure showed the liquid nitrogen levels were correct “but we now suspect that may not have been the case,” the letter said. “We do not yet know if this fill process may explain the rise in temperature over the weekend.”

The clinic said it is now using new storage tanks and alarm systems and has changed how it monitors the tanks.


Seewer reported from Toledo.

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JOHN SEEWER
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