REPRODUCTIVE MEDICINE After 13 years as frozen embryo, a baby is born
A fertility ordeal ends with birth of girl conceived in same test tube as teenage twins.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Twenty years after her first child was born, it's starting all over again for Debbie Beasley: the diapers, the middle-of-the-night feedings, the constant exhaustion.
The 45-year-old registered nurse says she feels like she has children "in three seasons": a 20-year-old daughter in college, energetic 13-year-old twins who are competitive gymnasts -- and now a 5-month-old daughter who is something of a first in the brave new world of baby-making.
As a two-celled embryo, Laina spent the last 13 years in a state of suspended animation, frozen in liquid nitrogen. That is longer than any other documented case where a frozen embryo has resulted in a healthy baby, according to Beasley's fertility doctors.
Laina has her brother Jeffrey's blue eyes but looks more like her sister Carleigh did as a baby -- wispy brown hair, pudgy cheeks and a vivid smile that frequently flashes across her narrow face.
Despite the age difference, Laina and her teenage siblings are -- in some strange, existential sense -- fraternal triplets. All three were conceived at the same time, by the same parents. But while the twins are about to enter junior high school, Laina is in diapers.
For Beasley and her husband, Kent, a 55-year-old former probation officer, Laina's birth was a miraculous conclusion to an emotionally wrenching, 15-year journey through the world of reproductive medicine.
"I still look at her and can't believe it," says Debbie, who lives with her family on a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Santa Rosa, Calif. "I smell her and kiss her, and I still can't believe she's here."
Their story illustrates the promise that fertility treatments hold for bringing children to couples who otherwise could not have them. But it also dramatizes the perils that patients can face: risks to a woman's health, increased chances of a multiple pregnancy, questions about what to do with frozen embryos and risks associated with a rapidly growing but largely unregulated industry.
When they met in the late 1980s, the Beasleys each had children from previous marriages, but together they were unable to conceive. Living in Orange County at the time, the couple sought help from the University of California-Irvine's renowned Center for Reproductive Health, where they were diagnosed with unexplained infertility.
Typically, a woman undergoing in vitro fertilization is given a regimen of drugs to stimulate her egg production. Once the eggs are surgically "harvested," they are fertilized in a laboratory with her partner's sperm. In Debbie Beasley's case, some of the eggs and sperm were placed directly in her fallopian tube through a surgical procedure.
A 35-year-old woman has about a 50-50 chance of getting pregnant with IVF on the first attempt. And one round of treatment is expensive: about $15,000. So patients will often choose to freeze extra embryos in case they are needed for another attempt. In the Beasleys' case, the doctors used the couple's eggs and sperm to create 12 extra embryos.
But the procedure worked the first time. Debbie became pregnant with triplets but lost one halfway through her pregnancy; the twins, Jeffrey and Carleigh, were born in 1992.
Three years later, the Beasleys found themselves swept up in the biggest scandal ever to hit the fertility business. They learned that for years, their fertility doctor, Ricardo Asch, and his colleagues had taken eggs and embryos from patients without telling them and implanted them in other women or sent them to outside scientists for research.
Some patients learned years later that they had biological children that they never knew about. The Beasleys were told that some of their embryos had been sent to an East Coast university for experiments. They also found out that Asch had harvested scores of Debbie's eggs, many more than were necessary to get her pregnant or to create extra embryos.
The University of California-Irvine clinic was shut down. Asch and his colleagues were indicted, although Asch escaped prosecution by fleeing the country. Along with more than 100 other couples, the Beasleys sued the clinic and the university, eventually settling out of court.
The Beasleys were able to retrieve eight of the 12 embryos that they knew about. But for years, Debbie says, she wondered whether her eggs or embryos were used for research or to create children she doesn't know about. In the face of this crisis, she turned to God for solace.
"To this day, we still don't know what happened to those embryos," she says. "It took a lot of years and a lot of counseling to accept that."