Snow's no obstacle for fertility patients

Couples and clinic staff take urgent steps to keep from missing appointment

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 20, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Time waits for no man. Or embryo.

Imagine enduring weeks of hormone injections, probes and antibiotics - not to mention thousands of dollars in expense - for the chance to solve an infertility problem through a lab-aided procedure called in vitro fertilization.

Then the critical day arrives, when eggs must be collected from ovaries at an appointed hour, and the prospective mother looks out the window and sees mountains of snow standing between her and the fertility clinic that can make her pregnancy dream come true.

These are the moments that illustrate the capacity of a major snowstorm not merely to inconvenience, but to change lives.

"This can be a very emotional situation," says Ricardo Yazigi, a fertility doctor at Greater Baltimore Medical Center who worked during the just-ended snowstorm.

Yazigi says it is testament to his patients' dedication - and the innate reproductive drive - that he hasn't yet seen any miss a key appointment because of bad weather, not even last weekend.

"People just show incredible determination to get here," he said. "We've had patients in the past that have come in cross-country skiing. Their motivation overcomes rain or snow."

This past weekend, one of Yazigi's patients found herself snowed in on the day of an appointment to confirm her readiness for egg retrieval. He said she picked up a shovel "and did the driveway, but it wasn't just the driveway but more - some of the street too. Her husband was just amazed."

Snowed in himself, Yazigi trudged 20 minutes to the office, which remained open during the storm.

In Columbia, a patient persuaded a neighbor with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to take her to a critical appointment during the storm at the Shady Grove Fertility Reproductive Science Center in Rockville. The center managed to stay open, in part, by paying for staff members to stay at a nearby hotel to avoid having them snowed in at home.

Part of the urgency is that in vitro fertilization, first used successfully in the 1970s, demands precise timing down to the hour.

Eggs must be collected just before ovulation, but not afterward - or else they will enter the fallopian tube. After retrieval, the eggs are fertilized with sperm in the lab and the resulting embryos are transferred within three to six days to the uterus.

But the procedure also produces stress when its unyielding deadlines threaten to be undone by happenstance.

Hearing ominous weather predictions, nearly a dozen couples decided they couldn't risk missing scheduled fertility appointments last weekend at Shady Grove.

Independently, the couples checked into a hotel near the center - the same hotel where eight of the clinic's staff member were staying.

Patient-staff contact is usually cordial, if reserved. But at the hotel, "people in the lobby kind of congregated and ended up having one of those snow parties," said Robert Stillman, Shady Grove's medical director. He said that 10 egg retrievals were performed Sunday, when snow fell all day, and that the center operated with normal weekend staffing.

Sometimes, fertility patients outdo themselves in their zeal.

Stillman says he recalls a patient once hiring an ambulance to take her home so she could immediately begin the period of rest required after the lab-grown embryos were transferred to her uterus - the procedure's final stage.

"I don't know whether or not they had the lights flashing," Stillman said.

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