The embryos are safe. So are the frozen eggs and sperm at the NYU Fertility Center. But saving them required dramatic effort on the part of hospital workers, as Hurricane Sandy took down power and the backup generator failed.
“There were heroes here,” Dr. Jamie Grifo, the fertility center's program director said in an interview today, describing the scramble Monday night and Tuesday.
The building that houses the Fertility Center is located at 38th Street and First Avenue, which is outside the flood zone. But by Monday evening the power had failed, the basement had filled with water, and the fire department warned they needed to shut down the generator because they feared it was a fire hazard. The staff at the center offered to pump out the water in order to keep the generator functioning, and did so through the night.
Anything frozen, Grifo explained, was never in danger. When sperm, eggs and embryos are stored for later use, they are frozen in liquid nitrogen, which does not depend on a power source. The real risk was to the live incubated embryos, which are created from eggs retrieved from ovaries, mixed with sperm, grown to a specific number of cells, and returned to the uterus, in a complex and carefully timed process.
At 6 AM Tuesday morning Grifo picked up several staff members and drove to the office. They were there prepping for the day when the lights went out, and they quickly diagnosed that the generator, which was on the roof, had run out of fuel. The pump providing that fuel, which was in the basement, had blown a fuse. The alarm system for that pump did not fail, but the alerts it sent, by phone and internet, went unheard because the NYU system was down.
So the staff switched to the third level of backup, battery packs in the lab designed to keep the incubators working in the event of a generator failure. There were only six hours of power in those batteries, and if the generator could not be restarted by then -- a complicated process that involved refilling the reservoir, changing the fuel filters and jump starting the engine -- the embryos would lose their life support.
Meanwhile a patient had arrived for a scheduled egg retrieval. A phone call was made to Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, which is the IVF program at Mount Sinai, and Dr. Alan Copperman agreed to take that patient immediately. Dr. Grifo got his car and drove the patient, her husband and their baby -- who had been conceived via Grifo’s lab -- 60 blocks north to Mount Sinai.
Meanwhile, racing the clock, his staff began freezing the incubated embryos in liquid nitrogen. The half dozen patients who had planned to have those embryos transferred this week will have to wait a month, Grifo said, which certainly adds emotional stress to a process that can be draining -- but no embryos were lost. At the same time, the fertility center's staff carried ten 5-gallon containers of Number 3 generator fuel up eight flights of stairs to the roof, hoping to restart the system.
The generator was restarted and has functioned continuously ever since. Once full power returns to the building, the incubators are waiting. Until then patients are being seen at a variety of offices around the city, particularly the New Hope Fertility Center in Columbus Circle, which has lent Grifo space, and where he did 11 egg retrievals yesterday, two today and has one scheduled tomorrow.
He received offers of help from around the country, he said, a testament to the fact that “the people in this field understand that there is a paitent at the end of this. Everybody is working together not to compromise patient cycles.”
He looks forward to welcoming the babies that he hopes will be born as a result of their work during these chaotic days.
Perhaps one of them will be named Sandy.