New Brunswick

Saint John woman who struggled with fertility gives last frozen embryo to Toronto couple

A Saint John woman who struggled to have children of her own has decided she wants to help a family in Ontario by giving them her last frozen embryo.

Kelli Whitman says she and her husband Larry want to help someone else 'fulfil their dream'

Kelli Whitman, 39, of Saint John, had 13 egg cells harvested in 2015, but says she wishes her doctors had discussed fertility options sooner. (Submitted)

A Saint John woman who struggled to have children of her own has decided she wants to help a family in Ontario by giving them her last frozen embryo.

"Women don't understand what other women go through, who have fertility problems," said 39-year-old Kelli Whitman, who spent five years trying to conceive naturally before turning to in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

"So when you have the opportunity to help another person fulfil their dream, why not do it?"

Whitman's journey with reproductive technology took a critical turn in April 2015.

We didn't want to just leave it, frozen in the clinic, and we knew we didn't want to destroy it.- Kelli Whitman

That's when she had 13 egg cells, or ova, harvested in a surgical procedure at the private non-profit Conceptia fertility clinic inside the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton.

"From there, they grew them in the lab with my husband's sperm to form embryos," she explained.

Three of those embryos were considered viable and two of those viable embryos were transferred into Whitman's womb.

After an uncomplicated pregnancy, Whitman gave birth to their first daughter, Frankie Elizabeth, now two years old.

2nd daughter conceived naturally

Larry and Kelli Whitman spent five years trying to conceive naturally before turning to in vitro fertilization. (Submitted)

About a year later, the Whitmans started planning to use the remaining frozen embryo to have a second child.

But before that could happen, and without any medical assistance, Kelli got pregnant, something that caught her by happy surprise.

She now has a second daughter, Katie, who is nine weeks old.

"They're both healthy babies. We're blessed," she said.

This left the question of what to do with the remaining embryo.

"We didn't want to just leave it, frozen in the clinic and we knew we didn't want to destroy it."

"It's a viable embryo. So really, the only other option would be to donate it to a family."

Kelli, pictured here with her husband Larry and their first daughter Frankie Elizabeth, says they are blessed. (Submitted)

Whitman said it wasn't easy to find a suitable recipient.

She turned to a Facebook group sponsored by a private fertility and surrogacy-consulting firm based in Alberta.

She was inclined to find a couple who were childless, but the first arrangement didn't work out.

Feeling some time pressure to get the matter resolved, Whitman  ended up in discussions with a Toronto lawyer and his wife.

They developed a rapport and exchanged photos.

Whitman said she got a good feeling about them and the environment they could provide.

Katherine came as a welcome surprise and allowed the Whitmans to give their last frozen embryo to someone else who wants a child. (Submitted)

Reached by CBC News by phone, the lawyer asked to remain anonymous because he wanted to protect the privacy of his family, including his three biological children who were all born with the help of a surrogate.

He said other family members don't know about that, and he worried they might not understand or it might somehow affect their relationships with the children.

When asked why not use their own embryos again, he said he and his wife are now at an age when the IVF burden is high and the chances of success are low.

"[Kelli] seemed like a wonderful person," he said. "I saw pictures of the sibling of this embryo. I was talking to my wife about it, and we decided it would be great if Kelli would be interested and would be willing to donate to us, we'd be willing to take it on."

"We want another child," he wrote in a followup email.

Illegal to pay for embryos

Under Canada's Assisted Reproduction Act, it's illegal to pay for sperm, eggs or embryos.

Donors can be reimbursed for expenditures incurred during the course of donation, but such expenses are not defined by law.

Whitman said she would have given the embryo away but in the end, asked to be compensated for the clinic's annual embryo freezing fee.

The entire IVF process was expensive, she said.

According to Conceptia's fee schedule, posted on the clinic's website, one cycle of IVF costs about $8,500.

Tests, consulting and other procedures are extra.

The Whitmans said they did apply to New Brunswick's special assistance fund, which was introduced in 2014.

The fund allows individuals to claim 50 per cent of eligible costs of in vitro fertilization or intrauterine insemination procedures and related pharmaceutical products, up to a maximum of $5,000.

She guessed that her final out-of-pocket costs were about $8,000.

Ruled-out adoption

When the interview turned to the question of adoption, Whitman said she and her husband did consider it.

They even started the paperwork. But Whitman, a nurse, could not attend all the required classes, at the times they were offered.

New Brunswick's Department of Social Development has a mandatory adoption preparation course, also known as PRIDE, that amounts to a commitment of 27 hours.

"And they ask you questions that I don't think are pertinent to having a child."

In addition, she said, she and her husband were put off when they were told the waiting time for an infant could be up to 10 years.

Wanted big family

Frankie Elizabeth, now aged two, and her little sister, nine-week-old Katherine Grace. (Submitted)

Currently, the Whitman's embryo remains in New Brunswick.

They and the recipient still have legal work to complete and the Toronto family is still screening for a surrogate.

As for Whitman's involvement beyond this exchange, she said she's still thinking about it.

She said she would like to be told whether the pregnancy is a success, but she probably won't be asking for photos.

"I don't know about seeing pictures. It may be hard on me, seeing a child that could have been ours."

Whitman said there was a time when she had hoped to have as many as four children.

She said she wished her doctors had started discussing fertility options sooner.

Helping another family grow 

It was only a few years ago that she started trying treatments such as Clomid, a medication that stimulates ovulation.

She also tried artificial insemination three times without success.

By the time she got pregnant through IVF, she had given up on the idea of having a much larger family beyond maybe one sibling for Frankie.

But, she said, she finds comfort in the prospect of helping another family grow.


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.