Three patients who lost frozen eggs and embryos in a cryogenic tank accident described feelings of shock, anger, disappointment and numbness after learning their reproductive tissue was damaged by an equipment failure in 2018.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Taking the witness stand on the sixth day of a jury trial over a shocking fertility clinic accident, three patients described the sense of loss, sadness and anger they felt after learning their frozen eggs and embryos were damaged in a cryogenic tank failure.
“I never thought this would be my story,” said fertility clinic patient Adrienne Sletten. “I felt really sad.”
Sletten is one of five plaintiffs suing cryogenic tank manufacturer Chart Inc. over a March 2018 equipment failure that prematurely thawed thousands of frozen eggs and embryos at a Pacific Fertility Center lab in San Francisco. While the lawsuit involves only five plaintiffs, it could establish Chart’s liability for the loss of human reproductive tissue belonging to hundreds of patients.
The plaintiffs say Chart caused the catastrophe by using a weaker weld near a liquid nitrogen inflow pipe, making the tank susceptible to cracking, leaks and failure. Chart denies those claims and says the accident was caused by fertility clinic employees misusing the product.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Sletten described how she decided to freeze her eggs at age 38 in 2016 because she always wanted to have a family but hadn’t met the right person yet.
“It was buying myself some hope — insurance — just hope that I would never have to use these eggs because I wanted to get pregnant naturally, but if I didn’t, it would give me another chance,” Sletten said.
With some financial help from her parents, Sletten paid about $14,000 to retrieve, freeze and store two eggs. To prepare for the procedure, she gave herself injections twice daily and endured uncomfortable side effects.
“I was bloated, felt terrible, felt weird,” Sletten said. “I was emotional — a lot of things — I also felt like less of a woman and sad.”
When she learned doctors had successfully retrieved and frozen two eggs, she said it gave her hope. But that sense of optimism crumbled in March 2018 when she saw newscasters discussing a fertility clinic accident on NBC’s “Today” show.
Sletten said the news made her feel “awful, sad, angry, disappointed.”
Sletten, who works as an office manager for a tech company, is now trying to get pregnant with her long-term partner of almost two years. She told jurors that not having a backup plan in the form of two frozen eggs is disappointing, but the prospect of going through another round of grueling fertility treatments at age 43 feels daunting.
“I can’t move forward, and the logical part of me knows that I’m delaying my biological clock, but the emotional part… I’m stuck,” Sletten said. “I’m scared. The whole thing is just paralyzing.”
Rosalynn Enfield is another patient who decided to freeze her eggs at age 34 in 2013. Testifying on the witness stand, she described taking hormones on a daily basis to prepare for the procedure. It made her feel “bloated, irritable and emotional,” circumstances she had to cope with while working in sales for an insurance company and traveling across Northern California for work.
“I was driving everywhere, and it was just very uncomfortable,” Enfield said. “It was very challenging.”
Enfield paid about $17,000 to freeze 18 eggs about one week before her 35th birthday.
After freezing her eggs, Enfield got married in 2016 and got pregnant through natural conception. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy in January 2017.
When she learned about the tank accident in March 2018, she was pregnant with her second child. Enfield said she was shocked and disappointed by the accident but felt blessed she was already pregnant at the time. Then, at age 40, Enfield went in for a routine doctor’s appointment and was told the baby inside her had no heartbeat. She had miscarried, and she instantly felt “crushed.”
“I just kept thinking, “Why’d this happen? Is it something I did or didn’t do? Was I working too much or too much stress?’ And there’s no answer,” Enfield said while choking back tears.
The tank accident that compromised her frozen eggs added to her pain, she said. Her backup plan for having children was no longer available. When Enfield got pregnant again through natural conception, she reported feeling scared and anxious that she might have another miscarriage. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. She gave birth to her second son in May 2019.
Enfield said she always wanted to have a girl, but she now considers her family complete, “not by choice but by circumstance.”
“I’m 43,” Enfield said. “My eggs were taken from me. My 34-year-old eggs are gone so after having a miscarriage, I know the chances of that are greater now than even when I had it the first time. The eggs I have in my body are older and unreliable, and I don’t feel like I have the best chance to have a healthy child.”
The final witness to take the stand Wednesday was Kevin Parsell, a 39-year-old farmer from Ohio. Parsell and his wife Laura were both diagnosed with fertility conditions in 2011. They went through a grueling round of fertility treatments in 2012, which included an excruciating surgical procedure designed to increase blood flow in Parsell’s testicles.
“It was extremely painful,” Parsell said.
In 2013, the Parsells traveled to San Francisco to undergo additional fertility treatments. Doctors were able to bank some of Kevin’s sperm and extract eggs from Laura to create seven embryos. One embryo was immediately transferred to Laura, who became pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s first child, a baby boy, in 2014. The other six embryos were frozen and stored.
“We made a commitment we were going to return for all of them,” Parsell said of the remaining six embryos.
In 2015, the couple thawed their first embryo and transferred it to Laura, but the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.
“It hurt really bad,” Parsell said. “We had plans for all of them. Losing that one hurt.”
In 2016, the couple tried again, and Laura give birth to a baby girl in January 2017.
The couple was tentatively making plans to thaw another embryo in the fall of 2018 when Parsell heard a news report on the radio about a fertility clinic lab accident in San Francisco. When he called the clinic and learned he and his wife’s embryos were in the tank that failed, he said he “felt numb.”
Despite the tank failure, the Parsells tried to thaw each of their four remaining embryos to have another baby. After three failed attempts, the couple was advised not to transfer the last remaining embryo because it was found to be damaged. They decided to try anyway.
“We were hoping for a miracle,” Parsell said.
But the attempt failed. None of the four embryos involved in the tank failure resulted in a successful pregnancy.
“It was the end,” Parsell said in a solemn, sober tone.
“After that, I don’t trust anything or anybody,” Parsell said. “I have no trust anymore.”
The Parsells paid about $40,000 for fertility treatments and the storage of frozen embryos, including the cost of travel from Ohio to San Francisco.
After each plaintiff testified, Chart attorney Kristine Reveille asked if they currently have claims pending against the fertility clinic. Each plaintiff confirmed they do have claims pending against the clinic, which were sent from federal court to private arbitration in 2019.
Prelude Fertility acquired Pacific Fertility Center in September 2017, and Prelude’s subsidiary Pacific MSO now manages the San Francisco clinic.
The plaintiffs are suing Chart for product liability and failure to recall the tank’s allegedly defective controller device that measures liquid nitrogen levels and sends off alerts about tank problems.
Chart recalled its cryogenic storage tanks on April 23, 2018, saying it needed to investigate a “vacuum leak and/or failure which may be due to inadequate adhesion of the composite neck to the aluminum unit.”
The trial overseen by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley is expected to continue through June 10.