CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Nearly a month after University Hospitals' catastrophic fertility clinic freezer failure, we are getting answers on what may have caused the potential loss of thousands of patients' eggs and embryos.
In a letter UH sent to patients today, the hospital system said that a remote alarm system was supposed to alert a hospital employee when the temperatures in the cryostorage tank began to fluctuate on the weekend of March 3-4.
But apparently, the alarm had been turned off.
Today, I sat down with Dr. James Liu, chairman of the hospital system's Obstetrics & Gynecology Department to find out what went wrong.
"The liquid nitrogen tank was low on liquid nitrogen, causing the temperature in the tank to rise overnight, and the remote alarm that was hooked to a computer remote system failed to activate. It was deactivated," said Liu.
So was this a mechanical breakdown or human error?
"Right now, we do not know whether it's mechanical or human, or a combination," said Liu.
Dr. Liu told us an outside company hired by UH is responsible for monitoring the alarm. The alarm is supposed to ring a UH embryologist when there is a critical temperature change. "That did not happen, because the alarm was deactivated," said Liu. "We are in the process of identifying the exact sequence of when this occurred and who ordered the deactivation."
As of right now, UH does not believe anyone intentionally deactivated the alarm, and there currently no criminal investigation into the malfunction.
UH also admitted today that it was aware of an ongoing problem with the storage tank in question before the incident earlier this month.
"I think the events that lead up to this was that we were in the process of maintenance on the tank and had a loaner tank almost ready to go when this event occurred."
The hospital system says there had been issues with the storage tank's liquid nitrogen automatic fill feature for several weeks prior to the system failure. UH told patients it was working with the tank manufacturer to correct the problem, but to do that, all of the eggs and embryos would have to be transferred to a temporary tank. The maintenance process was underway at the time of the incident, but no eggs or embryos had been moved yet.
UH says the malfunction may have affected more patients than previously thought.
Initially, it was believed that eggs and embryos from around 700 fertility clinic patients were impacted.
But today UH revealed more than 4,000 eggs and embryos from approximately 950 families were affected by storage tank failure.
"We are heartbroken to tell you that it's unlikely any are viable," UH stated in a letter to patients.
I asked Dr. Liu, "What do you say to a patient? How can they put their trust in this hospital knowing what happened here?"
"I think what we do and what we say and how we take care of patients will really reflect on UH," Liu replied. "We take full responsibility for what's happened. We are very sorry that this happened."
In addition to refunding any storage fees that have been paid, and waiving storage fees for the next seven years, UH is also offering affected patients free counseling services.