NEW ORLEANS — The baby album for Rebekah Markham’s soon-to-be-born child could include something extra special: photos of officers using flat-bottomed boats to rescue the youngster’s frozen embryo from a sweltering hospital in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Markham is about to give birth via Caesarean section, nine months after being implanted with an embryo that nearly thawed when the flooded hospital lost electricity.
“It’s going to be exciting for the little baby, once he gets old enough to realize what it went through,” said Markham, a 32-year-old physical therapist whose husband, Glen, 42, is a New Orleans police officer. “Katrina’s history. A big part of history.”
The baby — the Markhams do not know whether they are having a boy or a girl, but are guessing it’s a boy — will be one of the first children to be born from the more than 1,400 embryos that were rescued from New Orleans’ Lakeland Hospital two weeks after the storm.
And it isn’t just the Markhams who are tickled.
“That is great! I’m going to call all our officers and tell them. They’ll be pretty excited,” said Lt. Eric Bumgarner, one of seven Illinois Conservation Police officers and three Louisiana state troopers who sloshed through floodwaters to remove the embryos. Bumgarner said he has often wondered what happened to the embryos: “One of these embryos could be the next president.”
The C-section is set for Jan. 16.
Because of fertility problems that afflicted both husband and wife, a clinic created embryos from her egg and his sperm in 2003. Two were implanted immediately, and one grew into their first child — a boy who turned 1 just before Hurricane Katrina. The rest were stored in liquid nitrogen tanks at about minus 320 degrees to be used as needed. The Markhams had always planned to have at least two children.
Their embryos, along with those belonging to hundreds of other couples, were kept at the Fertility Institute’s laboratory at the hospital. Two days before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, the clinic took steps to protect the embryos by topping off all its tanks with liquid nitrogen and moving them to the third floor.
But Katrina’s eight feet of water knocked out the electricity, and the temperature climbed. A freshly topped-off tank is safe for three to four weeks in an air-conditioned room, but “I’m sure the temperature was over 100 degrees in that hospital,” Dr. Belinda “Sissy” Sartor, a fertility expert for the institute.
Fearing the embryos would be ruined, she contacted a state lawmaker, who called Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and on Sept. 11, Illinois officers on loan to Louisiana set out in National Guard trucks, towing flat-bottomed boats.
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A flat surface was essential: The 35- and 40-liter nitrogen tanks, which weigh 75 and 90 pounds, had to stay upright. If one tipped over, the nitrogen would spill.
In the hospital parking lot, the boats puttered past cars still flooded almost up to their windows. The boats were taken through the flooded halls, and the embryos were floated out. They were taken across town to a hospital that had not flooded.
The embryos, which are kept in separate labeled vials inside the tanks, were undamaged, doctors said.
The Markhams were too busy during Katrina — she and her son fled to a relative’s home, and her husband was on the job — to even think about the fate of the stored embryos, and they did not find out about the rescue until afterward.
But if the embryos had thawed, each woman who wanted another baby would have had to undergo another expensive round of fertility drugs, egg harvesting, and in vitro fertilization. Markham estimated her first pregnancy cost $12,000; the second $2,000. Her husband’s insurance covered that, but had a lifetime cap of $15,000.
The Markhams, who live in suburban Covington, have not picked out names yet. But if the baby’s a girl, she won’t be called Katrina.
“There’s nothing good associated with that name,” the mother-to-be said.
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