In one of her earliest memories, Rachel Mehl is running around at her brother’s Boy Scout camp.
She was around 5, and another boy, a toddler, fell and scraped his knee. She rushed to his side to comfort him, and both of their mothers remarked on what a good mom she was going to be one day. “I beamed with pride,” Mehl said. Throughout her life, she said, she’s been unwavering in her desire to have children.
That’s why, when Mehl was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38, she made the chance to hold off receiving treatment until she could harvest and freeze her eggs. Chemotherapy, she was told, would likely destroy her fertility.
Mehl, who lives in Pittsburgh, harvested 19 eggs and stored them at an Ohio fertility clinic run by University Hospitals. But in early March, she got a letter from the hospital informing her that freezer storing her eggs had malfunctioned and that they were likely no longer viable. “I felt as though someone had punched me square in the gut,” she said during a press conference on Monday.
Mehl is one of three Pittsburgh women, all breast cancer survivors, filing lawsuits against a Ohio fertility clinic after the freezer malfunction led to the loss of their frozen eggs, they announced in a press conference Monday. They’re represented by noted women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, along with local attorneys from the area. The three women and are suing for negligence and breach of contract, among other charges. Mehl and Deer’s suits have already been filed and Yerkey’s will be filed later this week.
Sarah Deer, 30, had 29 eggs stored at the clinic, and Danelle Yerkey, 37, had 24 eggs stored. Both also delayed treatment to go through the egg extraction process before chemotherapy and radiation damaged their fertility. “I felt like we had secured our future,” Deer said during the press conference. “I am a woman wounded. Robbed by cancer of my health and my body, and robbed by University Hospitals of my future.”
In total, more than 4,000 eggs and embryos from around 950 patents were damaged by the storage tank malfunction over the weekend of March 3. “We are heartbroken to tell you that it’s unlikely any are viable,” the hospital said in a letter to patients.
Mehl says she wasn’t initially angry with the University Hospital health system over the loss, she said: “Things happen that we can’t predict or plan for.” But after learning more about the circumstances surrounding the malfunction, her feelings changed, she said.
For a few weeks before the incident, the clinic was aware that the storage tank holding the eggs and embryos was broken, and was beginning the process to remove and transfer its contents. The automatic refilling feature on the tank, which kept levels of liquid nitrogen steady, wasn’t working properly, and hospital staff was topping it off by hand, they said in the letter. The tank comes equipped with an automatic alarm designed to alert an employee if the temperature in the tank rises, but the alarm had been turned off, and no one was notified that the unit was heating up.
“You better believe that now I’m angry,” Mehl said. “Because of the carelessness of the University Hospital, I have now lost all hope of every having biological children.”
Allred said at the press conference that these women are among the most vulnerable victims she has ever met.
“It’s bad enough when women are treated with callous disregard in any area of life,” she said during the press conference. “But especially in this area, which is so intimate and personal ... we have more questions than we have answers, but they deserve the answers and so much more.”
Allred also called for legislation around fertility clinics, which are largely unregulated, to maintain high standards and put safeguards in place to prevent problems like this in the future. “Regulation is not a dirty word,” she said. “Regulation, depending on what kind of regulation, can ensure safety for consumers so there will be fewer victims.”
In a similar incident, which coincidentally took place over the same weekend, a malfunction at a San Francisco clinic lead to damage to the eggs and embryos of around 400 patients. That incident has led to a class action lawsuit.
A number of other lawsuits have already been filed against the University Hospital system, including two proposed class-action lawsuits, filed at the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland soon after the malfunction was announced. One is in the name of a Pennsylvania couple, and one is by Amber and Elliot Ash, who had two embryos in the affected storage tank.
Elliot froze his sperm over a decade ago, before receiving chemotherapy, according to The New York Times. The couple has one son, conceived through in vitro fertilization, and told the Times that they stored the additional embryos with plans to eventually have a second child.
It’s up to the courts to determine if the suits will proceed individually, said Stuart Scott, an attorney with Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP, the local firm working on the case, or if they will all be consolidated under one class action suit.
But the voices of the individual women filing suit Monday matter, Allred says. “They also want to become fighters for change, so that no other women will have to suffer the catastrophic loss they have had to endure.”