CLEVELAND-- University Hospitals acknowledged the scope of a storage tank failure at its fertility clinic is far broader than first estimated and an alarm system on the tank designed to alert employees to temperature changes was off.
The incident happened at UH Ahuja Medical Center on March 4. The hospital said the temperature of the tissue storage bank at the fertility clinic unexpectedly fluctuated. At that time, UH said it involved 2,000 eggs and embryos, and 700 patients.
On Tuesday, a University Hospitals spokesman said more than 4,000 from 950 patients are likely no longer viable.
In a letter sent to impacted patients Tuesday, UH also said the clinic knew the tank was not working properly for several weeks. The health system said an autofill system that adds liquid nitrogen to the tank to keep eggs and embryos frozen was not working, and employees were manually filling the tank for several weeks.
In the letter, hospital administrators said staff monitored the tank’s temperature and liquid nitrogen levels in the days leading up to the failure, and levels "appeared to be appropriate, but we now suspect that may not have been the case.”
“We failed our fertility clinic patients. We are sorry. I am sorry. And we're going to do everything we can to regain our patients' trust,” CEO Thomas F. Zenty III said in an online video statement.
"These failures should not have happened, we take responsibility for them - and we are so sorry that our failures caused such a devastating loss to you," said the letter, signed by several UH executives, including Zenty.
The letter states the remote alarm system was off through the weekend when the temperature fluctuation occurred, so an alert was not sent to an employee as the temperature began to rise on March 3, at a time when the lab is not staffed.
"We don't know who turned off the remote alarm nor do we know how long it was off, but it appears to have been off for a period of time. We are still seeking those answers," the letter said.
In response to the malfunction, UH launched an investigation and made changes to its storage. New storage tanks were already purchased and there will be a new alarm from a different vendor.
At least 17 familes have filed lawsuits against University Hospitals, which is still assessing why the failure happened. The letter said its investigation has not led to that ultimate answer.
"We hope our actions will restore your trust in us," the letter stated.
The health system offered to offer tailored medical services to affected patients, refund storage fees, and waive future storage fees for seven years.
On Monday, 30 attorneys met with a judge to discuss how to handle the suits.
“Just more heartbreak, more anger,” said Jeremy Plants.
He and his wife, Kate, had five embryos stored in the tank before Kate underwent surgery for ovarian cancer.
“What were you waiting for? Were you just waiting for something to happen, for countless families to lose their chance at a family?” Plants said. “How are you going to refund our 5 chances at children. We can't get that back.”
University Hospitals is not disclosing the manufacturer of its tanks. The hospital said it had been planning to transfer eggs and embryos from the affected tank to a loaner tank, but the new tank still needed to be decontaminated.
“We had no idea it was that bad. It's gone from feeling like they were negligent to it feeling like a deep betrayal,” Kate Plants said.