Katrina Rescue Team Saves Abandoned Embryos

One of the more dramatic rescue stories from Hurricane Katrina comes from New Orleans East, where doctors and law enforcement officials saved more than 1,000 frozen embryos from a flooded and abandoned hospital.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall, doctors and staff from the Fertility Institute moved embryos from their clinic to the third floor of nearby Lakeland Hospital. The embryos were stored in four large metal canisters weighing about 80 pounds each.

"Altogether there were about twelve hundred embryos, or about 300 in each canister," said Roman Pyrzak, laboratory director of the Fertility Institute. The fertilized eggs came from more than 200 patients.

Rising Temperatures Made Rescue Critical

The containers are lined with insulation material that, in combination with liquid nitrogen, can preserve a frozen embryo for about 30 days when stored at room temperature.

But rising temperatures inside the hospital -- there was no electricity or air conditioning -- as well as security risks made a rescue mission critical to ensure the survival of the embryos.

"They have the potential to be live people," Pyrzak said of the fertilized embryos.

With the assistance of Louisiana state Rep. John Alario, the clinic's staff was able to accompany Louisiana state troopers, members of the National Guard and Illinois Conservation Police to the abandoned hospital.

"We started with the police and the National Guard about 7:30 [in the morning] and we got there about 12:00," Pyrzak explained. "The Army was guarding the hospital."

Dark and abandoned, the first floor of Lakeland Hospital was flooded with several feet of water. Using an abandoned skiff they found nearby, the rescue team carried the canisters out of the hospital by flashlight.

"There were about 20 people involved," said Pyrzak. "They helped us a lot. Without them, the mission would have been impossible."

The canisters, still intact with sufficient liquid nitrogen to preserve the embryos, were then taken to the Fertility Institute's offices in Metairie, La.