How Safe Are Your Embryos During a Natural Disaster?

frozen embryos safe

Living in a coastal city for many years, every so often our meteorologists will warn us of the impending threat of nearing hurricanes, or some other nefarious natural disaster. We’ll go through the list of things to do in order to prepare, such as fill up the gas tanks and stock up on bottled water (and wine, lots of wine). If we are asked to evacuate, we board up our home, grab our valuables, and hope for the best. Leaving our home and livelihood in the unpredictable hands of Mother Nature is unsettling, to say the least.

You know what else is unsettling? Leaving my unprotected embryos in the path of a natural disaster.  Like the millions of people with infertility, I’ve done some time in the stirrups of a fertility clinic. As a result, I have three gloriously perfect embryos that lay waiting to maybe, one day, become a mini human. Luckily, since we have had them frozen we have not had to experience anything larger than a tropical storm flirt with our coast. Sadly, this is not the case for many other infertile couples who have undergone in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and have their sperm, eggs, and embryos stored.

For some, it’s not just embryos that are stored. There are many people who have had repeated IVF treatments just to produce and store one or two viable eggs. For others, it is the last semen sample prior to a life-saving cancer treatment. (The chemo could render the men temporarily or permanently sterile.) These are the stored hopes, dreams, and possibly only chances of a biological family for couples who have to seek reproductive assistance.

When Hurricane Katrina hit [there was] a daring rescue in flat-bottom boats to retrieve four large metal canisters storing nearly 1,200 embryos.

When Hurricane Katrina hit and rocked New Orleans, several law enforcement officers, Dr. Belinda Sartor of The Fertility Institute of New Orleans and their clinic’s lab director, Roman Pyrzak made a daring rescue in flat-bottom boats to retrieve four large metal canisters storing nearly 1,200 embryos. With the temperatures rising at the flooded hospital where they were held, and no promises made of restored power in the immediate future, the rescue was critical to ensure that the embryos would survive.

How safe are your embryos when a natural disaster strikes? This question, along with my masochistic obsession with the news, is the scary stuff that goes bump in the night for me. I decided to send my fertility clinic a barrage of questions. I wanted to know what would happen to my embryos if there was a natural disaster?

I found out that size does actually matter.

In the thermos-like storage tanks they use, that is. The canisters used to house the embryos are filled with liquid nitrogen, which is what keeps the little frosty embryos cold and safe. There are also several sizes of tanks, and the size a particular clinic uses will determine the average storage time. Our clinic happens to use tanks that have an average storage time of 76 days between nitrogen refills, and require no electricity, so they are self-sufficient. Essentially, they can be abandoned until it is safe to return or can be easily evacuated to a safe location. I’m good with that, or, at least I would feel a little less anxious if a disaster endangered the storage facility.

I decided to send my fertility clinic a barrage of questions. I wanted to know: What would happen to my embryos if there was a natural disaster?”Gerald Celia, the embryology lab director for EVMS The Jones Institute said this: “Disasters like Katrina have taught us to be prepared for the worst—long periods of down time without utilities or access—and to take action early and decisively to ensure the best outcomes for our patients. While we cannot prepare for every scenario, most patients will never suffer more than the inconvenience of rescheduling when it comes to IVF and natural disasters these days. It’s not always comfortable, but we are better than [the post office] when it comes to working around Mother Nature (as in ‘neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night’ will stop us.).”

So what about patients who are in the middle of an IVF cycle?

These patients spend months of costly and time-consuming testing and planning to begin a single round of IVF. Normally, in a fresh IVF cycle, the woman’s egg(s) are retrieved—this is called a retrieval. The sperm is then donated in a not-so romantic plastic cup, they are combined in a culture dish or through a process called ICSI, and three to five days later, if all goes well, bada-bing bada-boom, Houston, we have embryos.

I asked my embryologist what would happen in this scenario during a disaster threat. He explained that the first priority is to stabilize the embryos they have in the lab and account for disruptions in a normal IVF cycle. Both can be accomplished by either adjusting the timing of the IVF cycle, provided it does not impact the chances of helping their patients to become pregnant, or through cryopreservation (preserving via freezing).

At some clinics, there are new techniques to freeze embryos at virtually any stage of development, in a matter of minutes, and to recover them with a high probability of success after the danger has passed. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are no 100% success scenarios when it comes to biology.

This is good to know. It is hard enough for people who are in the path of a major storm. Diving headfirst into such an emotionally and physically demanding process like IVF, the last thing you want to consider is if the weather may ruin your plans.  Rain is good luck on a wedding day; a natural disaster is not welcome under any conditions.

Before you run out and join the masses in clearing out the bottled water from the shelves of the grocery store, consider asking your fertility clinic these questions in advance of any wayward weather.

If you have frozen embryos, sperm, or eggs:

  1. What size storage tanks do you have and when was the last time they were filled with nitrogen?
  2. What is your disaster relief plan?

If you were in the middle of an IVF cycle prior to a natural disaster:

  1. Is there an emergency number that would be fielding calls from patients?
  2. What is the protocol if I have to abruptly stop my IVF cycle?
  3. If my embryos are at an early stage, do you have the capabilities to freeze them and then continue to develop them once the disaster has passed?

No one knows what will happen in a natural disaster, but get some relief in advance by knowing how protected your embryos, sperm, or eggs would be in a crisis situation.

Candace Wohl

Candace Wohl

Candace Wohl is a freelance digital marketer, writer, speaker, infertility advocate, mother through surrogacy, and co-author of the blog, Our Misconception. Candace and her husband were also featured on MTV’s True Life, “I’m Desperate to Have a Baby,” a documentary on couples struggling with infertility. Her writing and their blog has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, and many other publications. Follow their antics on Instagram @Ourmisconception or Twitter @rmisconception

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