An IVF mix-up left a Los Angeles couple distraught as they realized the baby they’d carried through the pregnancy and given birth to, wasn’t their child. Daphna and Alexander Cardinale on Monday filed a lawsuit against their fertility clinic, California Center for Reproductive Health.
According to the lawsuit, the couple sought IVF services at the clinic in 2019 and entrusted Dr. Eliran Mor to help them have their second baby with IVF after years of suffering from secondary infertility.
They were thrilled to achieve a healthy pregnancy with IVF but the birth of their baby girl left them confused.
Unlike the two parents and their older daughter, who was blonde, the baby had darker skin and very black hair.
The Cardinales “expected to see a fair child, much like their older daughter. Instead, their birth daughter came out with much darker skin and jet-black hair,” said their lawsuit. “She looked to be of a different race, which made no sense in light of Daphna and Alexander’s respective backgrounds.”
They were shocked. “It was sort of a primal reaction,” Alexander, 41, told PEOPLE as he recalls standing in their Los Angeles hospital room, totally confused. “It was a little jarring, but I shook it off and cut the umbilical cord.”
Shocking DNA test results
In three months’ time their doubts were confirmed by a DNA test as they found out that the child that Daphna delivered in September 2021 was genetically not related to them. They’d been carrying another couple’s embryo while theirs was transferred to the uterus of a different woman.
Clearly, they’re upset and furious.
“I was robbed of the ability to carry my own child,” an emotional Daphna said during a news conference. “I never had the opportunity to grow and bond with her during pregnancy, to feel her kick, or to watch her in ultrasounds.”
They felt as if they’d missed a very important time of their child’s life.
“We missed an entire year of our daughter’s life,” Daphna said. “We never saw our baby’s entrance into the world, or cuddled her in the first weeks of her life. I breast-fed and bonded with a child I was later forced to give away.”
It was basically like a child swap without either of the parents knowing. Their newborn daughter had spent the first four months of her life at a stranger’s home while they were raising someone else’s child.
“I was losing a baby at the same time that I was getting a baby,” Daphna said. “So, there’s grief, and so then your heart starts breaking for their family at the same time. Because at the same time, everyone’s gaining a child but everyone’s losing a child.”
Alexandar calls the whole ordeal “a truly impossible nightmare”.
Adam Wolf, the couple’s attorney says that while mistakes can be made by anyone, in most other industries they are pretty harmless and can be reversed but “with fertility clinics, those mistakes can have lifelong consequences. This has fundamentally changed the lives of Daphna and Alexander, as well as their two children.”
The baby didn’t look like us
Alexander said that if it wasn’t for IVF, he’d have just thought it’s genetics. “She just looks how she looks. No big deal,” he said. “But because we’d done IVF, my brain started going to the dark place.”
Infact, his wife at first thought that he was just overreacting, while she kept trying to convince herself that the child resembled her when she was a baby, “but she felt so familiar to me because I carried her and I birthed her.”
Even though the couple and their older daughter, 5-year-old Olivia, were slowly falling in love with the little baby, their family and friends kept fueling their doubts, saying: “She looked like she could actually be a different ethnicity than us because she didn’t really look like us.”
Out of respect for the other couple and their need for privacy, the Cardinales did not reveal the race of the baby.
Devastated over IVF mix-up
One month after the birth of the baby, they got a call from their fertility clinic, requesting for a picture of their child.
“It seemed odd,” said Alexander. “I thought, ‘Do they know something we don’t know?’”
They had no clue as to what had happened until the day Daphna, who was now frustrated with all the comments regarding her baby’s appearance, decided to do a DNA test. She just bought a home DNA kit and was left devastated on getting the results.
“We got an email that basically said that she was genetically related to neither of us,” recalls Alexander. “That’s when our world started falling apart.”
The baby had been with them for almost two months now and naturally, the Cardinales had developed certain affection towards her. They were afraid that they might have to give her up and also that their own biological child might be out there somewhere.
Mistakenly switched embryos
In a few days, their attorney was informed by the clinic that the embryology lab had mistakenly switched the embryos with another couple, whom they had now located.
The other couple, who wishes not to be identified, had also given birth to a baby girl— blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and they named her Zoë.
All the four parents and their babies underwent DNA testing and they found out on Christmas eve that they had infact birthed each other’s children.
“I found out in that moment that she existed, what she looked like and what her name was,” says Alexander, who decided not to change the baby’s name.
However, switching the babies was not easy or straightforward as the two couples had been with their babies for almost three months. The Cardinales’ elder daughter Olivia was besotted her little baby sister and begged them not to switch over the babies.
Luckily, the two couples lived only at a distance of 10 minutes from each other and they decided to start with switching the babies for few hours every day instead of doing it abruptly.
In a few weeks they decided to finally take their respective biological children to their own homes for good.
The other couple was also devastated on finding out what had happened, Daphna said, but it’s been two years and the couple and their children have since bonded with each other over their odd experience.
“There’s no book for this, there’s no person to give you advice,” said Alexander. “So, we ended up just sort of huddling together, the four of us, and it’s a blessing that we all are on the same page.
“We’ve spent every holiday together since then. We’ve spent every birthday together since then and we’ve just kind of blended the families.”
Medical malpractice in fertility treatments
The Cardinales have now sued the clinic for knowing misuse of their embryo, breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress, and medical malpractice. They alleged that besides the emotional torture, the clinic’s negligence took a financial toll on them.
Daphna, who is a therapist, said most of her clientele was lost and for Alexander, a singer-songwriter, this personal ordeal resulted in his record label, Atlantic Records, dropping him as he could not promote his new single.
Earlier in 2016, his single ‘Made For You’ was used in a Coca-Cola commercial.
The lawsuit also names In VitroTech Labs, an external embryology lab, and its parent company, Beverly Sunset Surgical Associates. Both of these practices are owned by Dr. Eliran Mor.
Other IVF gaffes
Earlier in 2019, Adam Wolf had represented a different couple who sued a fertility clinic over a similar IVF gaffe, and settled for an undisclosed compensation.
“Fertility misconduct is becoming more and more common-place,” said Wolf, adding that his law firm has already represented “hundreds of people who have been the victims of fertility center misconduct.
“That misconduct runs the gamut from dropped embryos, to misplaced embryos, to the transfer of embryos to the wrong person, to doctors utilizing their own sperm to fertilize embryos. The list goes on.”
Earlier in June, he was involved in a case where a cryogenic tank maker was ordered to pay $15 million to five, after 3,500 frozen eggs and embryos were destroyed due to a mishap at the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco.
“Fertility centers are almost entirely unregulated,” he said. “Barber shops and nail salons are subject to far more regulation.”
IVF mix-ups although extremely rare, are not unheard of. There have been cases of families finding out that their child’s DNA didn’t match the father because the clinic fertilized the eggs with the wrong sperm.
All these problems are mostly attributed to human error as probably the tubes or dishes in the lab were labelled incorrectly. In some cases, there have been intentional IVF mix-ups by the fertility doctor or clinic.
Anyone can make a mistake and even in medical practice they can never be completely ruled out. However, this is a call for doctors and clinics to have a double or triple-check protocol to prevent any such avoidable gaffes that have serious consequences affecting the entire lives of the patients and their children.