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Embryo donations make 'What was meant to be'

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Laura and Josh Rowland with their three children, Carson, 2, Chloe, 4 and Carleigh, 1.(Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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Kim Grizzard

Sunday, July 3, 2016

This is not the family that Laura Rowland had planned.

For as long as she can remember, she had always wanted a house full of kids. She had hoped to have five of them.

But after nearly a decade of marriage, she and her husband, Josh, still didn't have even one. Their efforts to conceive had wiped out their savings. And after their attempt at in vitro fertilization had failed to result in a pregnancy, doctors discovered Laura had cancer.

Wendy Gray Hudnell knows all about life not going according to plan. In 2007, she and her husband, Landry Gray, fought their own battle with infertility. Though Wendy had two sons from a previous marriage, the couple could not conceive. Their in vitro fertilization procedure had yielded a dozen embryos, but Wendy had not gotten pregnant on the first attempt to transfer them. As the couple prepared to try again, Landry was diagnosed with a brain tumor that took his life shortly after their son's first birthday.

But what happened five years later helped two heart-breaking situations to become one heart-warming story. Wendy donated the four remaining embryos to the Rowlands to help give them a family of their own. Their daughter, Carleigh, born in March 2015, is a child some would call a “snowflake” baby, a name given to frozen embryos that are made available for adoption.

Across the country, there are more than 600,000 frozen embryos in storage. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 60,000 of those could potentially be made available for adoption.

Dr. Cal Hayslip, division director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine, said only about a third of in vitro fertilizations result in an abundance of embryos. In many of those cases, embryos are frozen for later use by the couple who created them. But in others, the couple must choose whether to pay to keep the embryos frozen, donate them to another family, designate them to be used in research or give their consent to have them destroyed.

“Unfortunately there are a number of them that are destroyed once the couple gets to the number of family members that they want,” Hayslip said. “(But) a lot of couples — for moral, ethical, religious reasons — don't want to destroy their embryos. … Embryo adoption is a wonderful way for couples to ensure that (there is) every possible chance for an embryo to result in a baby.”

The embryos that Wendy and Landry Gray created in 2007 have resulted in three babies. The first, Micah, was born to the couple in 2008. Due to her husband's illness, Wendy chose not to attempt additional pregnancies. But, after his death, she could not bring herself to have the rest of the embryos destroyed. So when the fertility clinic asked what she wanted to do with those that remained, she opted to pay to keep them frozen.

“To me, destroying those embryos is destroying a wonderful piece of Landry,” Wendy said. “I already had part of my heart taken when he died, so I know I would never have been able to destroy them. I really wanted to be able to turn around what happened to him and use it in a good way.”

A few years later, Wendy would have a chance to do that. An educator in the exceptional children's program, where both Wendy and Landry had worked, began talking to Wendy about the struggle she and her husband were having with infertility. Unaware that Micah had been conceived through IVF and that Wendy had nine frozen embryos remaining, the woman confided that doctors had advised her to consider embryo adoption.

“I said, 'Well, I have a gift for you,'” Wendy recalled. “So (now) there's a little girl out there.”

The couple, who did not want their identity to be released, have since moved out of state and are said to be planning a second pregnancy using the remaining donated embryos.

While embryo donation is rare, accounting for less than one percent of embryo transfers, “directed embryo donation,” in which the donor selects the recipient of the embryos, is rarer still.

“Sometimes it's more comfortable for (a couple) to go through something like Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, where a couple in California adopts the embryos,” Hayslip said, adding that in most such donations, identities of donors and recipients are not disclosed.

“There are not too many people who feel comfortable with that knowledge,” Hayslip said. “This is unusual, no doubt about it. … I think it takes special people to be able to do that.”

After their failed IVF attempt in March of 2012, the Rowlands didn't go looking for an embryo donation. Laura had to have her kidney removed due to cancer in June of that year, and she wasn't sure she should undergo more fertility treatments so soon after the surgery. So she and Josh began exploring other options for having a family. Because private adoption seemed financially out of reach, they decided to pursue adoption through the foster-care system.

The couple got their foster-care license and their first placement in 2013. Carson was a 6-month-old with Down syndrome, along with some other medical complications.

“He had never been out of the hospital,” Josh said. “A special ed teacher (Laura) and a nurse (Josh), we said, 'Well, this is perfect,' so he came home with us.”

Carson came with a big sister, Chloe, who had just turned 2. Having this new family of four was a dream come true for the Rowlands, but they could never be sure how long it would last.

“We didn't know whether they would end up back with their (birth) family or end up with us,” Laura said. “I had friends who had kids go back and forth a thousand times, and then they actually placed them back with the family. So you try not to get too attached to the idea that these are going to be your kids.”

Besides, Laura couldn't seem to forget another dream she had, a literal one involving a positive pregnancy test.

“I dreamed that I was standing in my bathroom with a positive pregnancy test,” she said. “I was like 'OK, that's my bathroom, so it has to be mine, not a friend's or anything like that.' So that kind of kept coming back to me and coming back to me. I felt like that's God telling me something.”

Laura, who by then was nearly 40, had all but set aside any thoughts of pregnancy. But the idea came up again one day when Carson and Chloe were being dropped off at day care. Wendy, who owned the child care center the children attended, had asked the Rowlands why they had chosen to become foster parents. When she learned of their struggle with infertility, she offered a remedy.

“I know what it's like to be infertile, so I could empathize,” Wendy said. “... It was very natural. I didn't go home and think about it. I didn't pray on it.”

The Rowlands took a little longer to decide. They had two children that they loved but were not sure that they could keep. They had already been through the disappointment of one failed embryo transfer, and even a lawyer friend of theirs was unsure of the kind of paperwork an embryo adoption would require. (In most states, embryo donation is considered a property transfer, but there is no compensation involved.)

“We thought about it awhile,” Laura said. “I kept thinking back to that dream. I kept thinking, 'OK, this would not have happened if these two specific children hadn't been placed with us, one of whom had special needs. UPC (United Cerebral Palsy children's center) was full. This was the only other day care option in Pitt County, so that's what led us to Wendy, who just had embryos and decided to offer them. It's too much to be a coincidence to me.”

Laura began fertility treatment to prepare for the embryo transfer, which took place in July 2014. Within a week of learning of her pregnancy, the Rowlands were back in court for what they expected to be a routine hearing involving Chloe and Carson. To their surprise, they learned that the children's birth parents had relinquished their rights, meaning the siblings were now available for adoption.

“So then all of a sudden, it wasn't one that we were having, it was 98 percent sure three kids that we were going to be getting,” Laura said, laughing.

Their adoption was finalized in February 2015. Carleigh was born the next month, a few weeks early but healthy.

“It was definitely all God,” Laura said. “Here are the kids you're going to foster. Here's the day care that one's going to need to be at. Here's the person with the embryos. Here's the dream to make sure you understand.”

The Rowlands' three children are no longer in day care; Laura took some time out from teaching to be a stay-at-home mom. Wendy sees the children each week at Ignite Church, which she attends with son Micah and husband John Hudnell. Wendy sometimes walks by the nursery to take a peek at Carleigh.

At 8 years old, Micah is too young to know that the blonde baby in the nursery is his genetic sibling. That explanation will come later.

“The question has been asked of me: Isn't it weird to be around her?'” Wendy said. “It's not at all. What's beautiful is I get teary-eyed when I see little parts of Landry looking back at me. It's just wonderful. … This is their child, not mine.”

Following the embryo donation, all that Wendy asked of the Rowlands was that if they did not plan to use the remaining embryos for their family that they consider donating them to another couple rather than having them destroyed. The remaining two embryos are still frozen.

“We weren't going to have them destroyed or anything like that because it's the beginning of a person,” Laura said. “I know it 's not technically a person, but it gave us a baby, so that can be a blessing to another family.”

Though Laura had once hoped for five children, she is quite content with three. Chloe is now 4; Carson turned 3 last month. Carleigh, who celebrated her first birthday in March, has started walking.

The Rowlands, both 42, are happy to be running to keep up with a preschooler and two toddlers. When they go out with Carson and Carleigh in the stroller and Chloe walking close beside, people often comment, “Boy, your hands are full,” and wonder aloud if the younger two are twins, although they are not genetically related.

“You get a lot of comments,” Laura said. “... I'm sure there are days (people) think we're insane for somehow ending up with three kids under the age of 5, and honestly some days I think I'm crazy, too, but we didn't necessarily plan it that way.

“This isn't necessarily how we thought it would happen,” she said, “but it's right.”

Wendy agreed.

“Never did I think when I graduated from high school, 'I'm going to be a frozen donor that would help a family have a child,'” she said. “But I feel like God puts you in a place, and that's my story. This is what was meant to be.”

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