Frozen embryo rescued from flood becomes new life


NEW ORLEANS – This is a Katrina rescue story with a twist.

This is the story of hope stranded and saved before it was born.

At St. Tammany Parish Hospital on Tuesday, a baby is expected to enter the world after what some might call a miraculous journey. It was a frozen embryo when it was rescued from flooded Lakeland Hospital in eastern New Orleans on Sept. 11, 2005.

Rebekah and Glen Markham of Covington have a 2-year-old son, Witt, who was conceived through in vitro fertilization. Four other fertilized eggs from that process were frozen for the Markhams and were in storage in a Fertility Institute lab at the hospital when Katrina hit.

Thanks to the efforts of many people, the Markham embryos and 1,200 others were rescued from the sweltering hospital before the liquid nitrogen protecting them dissipated.

In the spring, the Markhams decided to have one of those rescued embryos implanted. Now they eagerly await the birth of their second child, not knowing whether it’s a girl or boy, but definitely knowing that they have many people to thank for his or her safety.

“Having our son, we could see what the potential of those embryos were,” said Rebekah Markham, 32. “To know that they were saved was such a relief.”

For several days after Katrina, Markham was uncertain not just about the embryos but about the safety of her husband, 42, a New Orleans police detective who was assigned to patrol the streets of Algiers, protecting property from looters.

Once she was able to get through to him and knew he was safe, she called the Fertility Institute and heard the story of the rescue of her embryos.

“Thank the Lord they thought about them,” Markham said, giving credit to Dr. Brenda “Sissy” Sartor, a fertility expert with the Fertility Institute who “contacted the governor and got the ball rolling.”

Sartor said that as part of the lab’s emergency plan, a doctor had put the four canisters containing the embryos on the hospital’s third floor and topped them off with liquid nitrogen.

Frozen embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at about minus 320 degrees. They can stay safe in the liquid nitrogen for several weeks, Sartor said. But with the power out at the hospital and the safety of the city in question, she said she began to worry.

“We were troubled about the embryos and how we could easily access the hospital,” she said. “The city was still in lockdown mode, and we knew it would have to be coordinated through a civil authority.”

Sartor managed to contact state Rep. John Alario, who called Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Her office arranged for a team of Louisiana state troopers and Illinois Conservation Police officers to take flatboats through the flooded area and rescue the canisters containing the 1,200 embryos.

The rescue “went seamlessly, which was amazing,” Sartor said.

The 35- and 40-liter canisters, resembling Thermos bottles but weighing between 75 and 90 pounds, were taken out by boat – the only way to travel the still-flooded streets to the hospital, according to Lt. Eric Bumgarner of the Illinois Conservation Police in Springfield, Ill.

“When we got there and opened the doors, there was still about a foot and half of water in the hospital,” he said. “But you could see the water mark of 6 to 8 feet.”

The canisters were taken from the third floor and carefully loaded onto the boats, with doctors on hand to make sure they did not tip over, spilling the nitrogen.

The boats ferried the canisters to National Guard trucks, which carried the load to Lakeside Hospital in Jefferson Parish, where the remaining embryos are still in storage.

The news that children are being born from that delicate rescue has thrilled those involved.

“We were saving human life,” Bumgarner said. “Because of what we do on a day-to-day basis, we deal with tragedies and accidents, we get callous; we have a job to do and we do it. But this was such a unique detail and we understood the enormity of what this meant.

“We don’t know what the future holds for these embryos and their families,” he said. “But we knew they had to be handled properly. “

The Markhams’ baby will be the second delivery from the rescued embryos. A set of twins was delivered in December in Mississippi, Sartor said, and there are several other pregnancies in progress.

Bumgarner, who was part of about 100 Illinois Conservation Police officers on loan to help with hurricane relief, said that when someone from the news media called him about the Markham baby, he knew it would be welcome news for his fellow officers who were in on the rescue.

“We all understood the importance of these embryos,” he said. “Since then, we think about it and talk about it and would have never known the fate of them unless someone called. We are all very excited about it. To be a part of that life, to know we had an impact” is something special.

The Markham baby, scheduled to be delivered by Caesarean section on Tuesday, already will have quite a history upon entering the world.

“It’s always been a special story to us,” Rebekah Markham said. “This is something the baby will always be able to tell, about his rescue and birth.

“There is so much devastation and bad with Katrina, it’s still changing people’s lives, and this is a good story from Katrina,” she said. “People like to hear good from something so devastating. We’re thrilled.”

Bumgarner and his fellow officers in Illinois agree.

“Even in the wake of something like Hurricane Katrina, somehow people still find good things in all this. This is certainly at the top of our list.”