Oct. 28, 2013 -- They were some of Sandy's smallest survivors: embryos trapped in a flooded fertility clinic and eggs ready to burst from the bloated ovaries of 21 worried women.
Now, one year after the superstorm, seven New Yorkers have babies known as "Sandy Saves" – sons and daughters conceived in a lab against all odds. Another six women are expecting, according to Dr. James Grifo, director of the NYU Fertility Center.
"We were able to salvage all of those cycles, and that's huge," said Grifo, whose staff's "heroic" efforts bought precious time for Sandy's cellular refugees. "Our pregnancy rates stayed the same, as if the storm had never happened."
The Manhattan fertility clinic, tucked one block inland from the East River, lost power during the storm. A generator perched atop the eight-story building kept incubators running through the night, but flooding in the basement cut off its fuel supply.
Without power, the incubators housing delicate embryos at womb temperature for in vitro fertilization threatened to fold. But Grifo and his team took action, hoisting five-gallon drums of diesel fuel up darkened stairwells to feed the failing generator.
"Thankfully, there were so many people who worked together," Grifo said of the rescue mission. "To be a part of that was just amazing."
For some of Grifo's patients, the saga began two weeks before the storm with daily injections of drugs designed to coax their bodies into ovulating – a painstaking process that's both expensive and emotionally taxing.
"The financial piece is huge, but the emotional piece is even bigger," said Grifo, explaining how the costly treatment by no means guarantees a healthy baby. "And on top of the stress of not knowing what might happen, you suddenly have to worry that all your efforts might get lost. You can't measure how awful that is."
The injections culminate in a "trigger shot" – a jab of human chorionic gonadotropin that frees the fragile eggs for collection exactly 35 hours later. Rain or shine.
"The backup power protected the incubators, but we couldn't take the chance of doing an egg retrieval," said Grifo, describing the meticulously timed surgical procedure to recover the eggs. One patient had her egg retrieval scheduled for 10 a.m. the morning after the storm.
"I loaded her, her husband and their 1-year-old baby into my car," said Grifo, recalling how he rushed the family to another clinic up an eerily-empty Madison Avenue. "And she had a baby from that cycle!"
The uptown clinic, Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, welcomed the patient, even though it was one of NYU Fertility Center's "fierce competitors."
"It really shows the quality of people in this field," said Grifo. "When push comes to shove and a patient needs us, we respond."
Clinics across the city pitched in, offering up office space for patient monitoring and operation rooms for procedures.
"It was an inconvenience to them, but they didn't compromise their patients' care or ours," said Grifo, recalling the flood of calls from doctors around the city offering to help. "It was amazing."
Embryo Rescue Earns Clinic Award
The teamwork even earned Grifo and his staff the National Infertility Association's hope award – the "Oscar" of the fertility world, according to association president and CEO Barbara Collura.
"As we dug into it we realized how really extraordinary this was on so many levels, and we wanted to reward that," said Collura, adding that Manhattan-based New Hope Fertility Center will also be awarded at a Nov. 6 ceremony for its willingness to take on extra patients. "Both clinics totally get what it's about. They did this under an extraordinary set of circumstances. Some of their staff were working night and day living out of in hotels."
But it was well worth it, according to Grifo. The rescued eggs and embryos were frozen until the NYU clinic was back up and running, and not a single cycle was lost. Eggs frozen during the storm yielded a 60 percent live birth rate – a rate on par with a national average calculated under less stormy conditions.
Grifo said he still has a bit of "post-traumatic stress" from the ordeal, but that he now feels prepared for just about anything.
"Another hurricane? Yeah, we're prepared," he said. "This showed us the importance of having backup plans for your backup plans. We did, and it saved a lot of cycles."