Read the prologue to Inconceivable by Carolyn and Sean Savage, who underwent an in-vitro fertilization procedure that transferred the wrong embryos to Carolyn, leaving her pregnant with someone else's baby. This web exclusive is part of the Dateline report from Sunday, January 6th.
We have three children. Or do we have four? A strange ques tion, but the kind that parents who have lost a child ask themselves from time to time. That absent child is always with you, a loss you feel some days as yearning and other days in a gasp of pain. My husband Sean and I still grieve the son we lost, despite the unusual way he left us. Or rather, we still grieve him and the circumstances that forced us to give away a baby we thought of as our own. This was a child whom I nurtured and we both protected from the forces conspiring against his survival. Yet I understand that I may never hold him in my arms again and that the next time I see him, he will think of me as a stranger. Perhaps I will never be able to heal the ache that is the place he occupies in my heart. At the same time, I know that if Sean and I had this decision to make again, we’d do exactly the same for Logan.
For us, having children has been the biggest challenge in our sixteen years of marriage: twenty ovarian stimulation cycles, three in vitro fertilizations (IVFs), two frozen embryo transfers, and four miscarriages in the twelve years that we tried everything we could to expand our family. We knew that our struggle was coming to a close on the morning of February 6, 2009, when we entered the fertility clinic for one last try. I was nearly forty years old, and if this at tempt at transferring our last embryos did not work, we were done. We would thank God for our three beautiful, healthy children and move forward. Two of my three pregnancies had been difficult, and one nearly lethal, but we were determined to fulfill our pledge to give every embryo a chance at life. Our beloved fertility doctor, who had helped us conceive our third child, Mary Kate, when other doctors had failed, would perform the transfer that morning. Little did we know that, because of a terrible mistake, I would receive another couple’s embryos and eventually give birth to a baby we would not be allowed to raise.
All through the Christmas holidays of 2008 and into the New Year, I had been anxiously preparing for this day: taking estrogen pills, injecting lupron and progesterone, and enduring the bloat ing and grumpiness brought on by those drugs. Although I had started out thinking that I didn’t want to go through all of it again, that I was tired of all the anxiety surrounding our infertility treat ments and pregnancies, when Sean and I arrived at the clinic we were hoping for a second miracle. I had just slipped on my hospital gown when the fertility doctor entered the examining room. He was brusque and efficient, a man who clearly had many things on his mind as he described the condition of our thawed embryos.
“The five that survived all have developed to between nine and twelve cells. How many will you be transferring today? Remember, I don’t do selective reductions.”
He meant that if he transferred all five and they survived, he would not eliminate any in utero to give me and the others a better chance. His policy on this was one of the reasons we chose him as our doctor. Besides, I wasn’t sure any of these embryos were going to make it. Nine cells after four days in a Petri dish was not robust growth.
“Can you give us a moment?” I asked.
“I’ll see you in the operating room. Let me know then.”
“Sean, they should be eighty to a hundred cells by now. They are very, very behind. I think we should transfer three. I actually don’t think any of them will take.”
Sean knew how well I had educated myself about pregnancy, miscarriage, and the science behind IVF these last ten years.
“What happens to the other two embryos?”
“They’ll watch them until tomorrow, and if they are still alive, they’ll refreeze them. The ones we aren’t transferring probably won’t survive.”
“Okay. Three it is,” Sean said.
Before the nurse led me into the operating room, she had me check my wristband to confirm the information there. “Carolyn Savage.” “Yes.” “Social security number . . .” “Correct.” “Birth date . . .” “Wait . . . actually, the day and month of my birthday are correct, but my birth year is wrong. It’s 1969, not 1967.”
This didn’t seem like a serious error, so I didn’t think anything of it. The nurse wrote a nine over the seven, fastened the bracelet to my wrist, and escorted us down the hall.
In the operating room, I lay down on the table and placed my feet in the stirrups. Sean came in a few minutes later, gowned in surgical attire.
“How many are we transferring?” the doctor asked me. “Three,” I said.
“We’re doing three,” he called back into the lab. A few minutes
later, the embryologist entered the room holding a catheter.
“You are Carolyn Savage?”
He flipped my wrist over and confirmed my answer with a
glance at my hospital wristband, then handed the catheter to my doctor. Sean held my hand tightly.
The nurse squirted ultrasound gel on my stomach and rubbed the wand over my abdomen. Up popped a vivid image of my uterus on the screen.
“There’s the catheter entering the uterus through your cervix,” the doctor narrated. “Now watch. Do you see that?”
I could see the catheter moving into my uterus, and although I couldn’t see the embryos as he released them, I thought of them as light and graceful orbs. I pictured them nesting gently.
“Congratulations. You are now officially pregnant.”
I looked at Sean and smiled. Now that our embryos were back where they were supposed to be, they might grow happily.
“That’s it, guys. All finished. Good luck. I’ll talk to you in ten days, after your pregnancy test,” he said as he exited.
I lay still, standard procedure immediately following a transfer of embryos.
“How does it feel to be pregnant with triplets?” Sean said.
I laughed. “Don’t look so worried! I know that however this turns out, we’ll be able to handle it. Triplets? That would be scary, but we’d survive. Twins? No sweat. A singleton? Perfect! No preg nancy? We’ll be okay with that too!”
“Mr. and Mrs. Savage?” A gowned man asked as he entered the room.
“For your baby album!” he said as he handed me a picture. Sean and I marveled at this snapshot of our three embryos, labeled with my name, Sean’s name, and our personal identifying information.
“Their first picture, you know? Congratulations,” the man said to us.
Sean and I looked at the picture and beamed at each other.