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Chagrin Falls woman donates embryos to those suffering loss in UH freezer incident

March 23, 2018 GMT

Chagrin Falls woman donates embryos to those suffering loss in UH freezer incident

CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio -- Niki and Brian Schaefer have a son, a daughter, and four frozen embryos.

The embryos were in storage at the Cleveland Clinic, left over from in vitro fertilization treatments a few years ago that allowed the couple to get pregnant. Niki Schaefer was unsure what to do with them.

When she heard about the fertility freezer failure at University Hospitals, she knew her frozen embryos could bring hope and joy if she donated them to patients who had just lost reproductive tissue as a result of the incident.

“I felt terrible for everyone involved, and I was in a position to help,” she said.

About 2,000 eggs and embryos stored in a large liquid nitrogen freezer at UH’s Ahuja Medical Center in Beachwood may have been damaged or destroyed March 3-4 when the temperature rose in a storage tank. The situation affects about 700 patients; some may not be able to undergo more rounds of IVF due to the high cost, or loss of fertility.

UH’s incident is under investigation by two accreditation organizations and the Ohio Department of Health. The hospital system has not publicly commented since its initial statement announcing the incident.

Niki Schaefer, 37, decided to help those UH patients because of her close ties to the hospital and Dr. James Goldfarb, medical director of UH’s fertility center. Goldfarb left the Clinic, where he had treated the Schaefers, in late 2010 when UH offered him the opportunity to run the fertility program at Ahuja Medical Center. The $298 million fertility center opened in 2011 as part of UH’s Vision 2010 expansion.

Goldfarb and Niki Schaefer are active with UH’s Partnership for Families, a charity that gives grants to families for fertility treatments. She has helped organize fundraisers for the charity, and she knows some of the patients who lost stored embryos in the freezer fluctuation.

“I have an extra amount of empathy for what everyone is going through,” said Niki Schaefer, who lives in Chagrin Falls. “Those embryos represent people’s hopes of having children.”

Niki Schaefer’s own fertility struggles began soon after her 2007 wedding, when she and Brian, 39, learned she had a condition that prevented her from ovulating. In vitro fertilization at the Cleveland Clinic enabled the couple to welcome son Noah in 2009.

There were no frozen embryos left from that round of IVF, so when she wanted a second child, she turned to IVF again. This time, fertility specialists were able to grow nine embryos. The couple’s daughter Lane was born in 2011.

Four frozen embryos were put in storage at the Clinic, but Niki Schaefer knew she didn’t want to go through more IVF. She remembered how she had felt scared and isolated during that period of her life.

“You are singularly focused on it, because you want it so badly,” she recalled. “It’s hard to think about anything else.”

The couple continued paying an annual fee of about $400 to store the embryos, while Niki Schaefer pondered what to do with them. She wanted to donate them, but it felt weird to allow her biological children to be raised by another family. What if she ran into kids who looked exactly like her kids at the grocery store?

“The thought of it made me uncomfortable. I hesitated to do it,” said Niki Schaefer, a lawyer with Eaton Corp.

When she learned about the fertility freezer failure at University Hospitals, she knew she had to put her discomfort aside.

She said she made her donation public via a Facebook post because she wanted positive news to balance out media reports about lawsuits against UH. While she supports the families’ right to sue, she doesn’t think it will make them feel better in the long run.

Her Facebook post attracted national media attention, and she had to try to explain her decision to her children. At ages 8 and 6, Noah and Lane are a bit young to understand the science behind IVF, but they have learned that doing something nice for others is cool.

Niki Schaefer won’t know which families will receive her frozen embryos. She thinks they will go to couples who can’t try again.

“I hope my embryos work for someone. This just gives them a chance,” she said.

More stories about the UH freezer accident:

UH fertility clinic’s incident: What we know, what we still don’t

Have you been affected by the recent University Hospitals fertility freezer incident?

Cleveland couple double victims of UH fertility clinic malfunctions, lawsuit claims

Couples in UH fertility clinic malfunction face daunting court challenge, retired Judge McMonalge says

Bay Village couple talk about personal loss in UH fertility center’s freezer malfunction

Dozens of lawsuits expected in UH fertility clinic malfunction, lawyers say