CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — In vitro fertilization (IVF) was relatively new when Randy and Bella Noka approached Women & Infants’ Fertility Center in 2001 about starting their family.
And with the birth of their son, they were ecstatic, while also looking into the future with their other viable embryos in mind.
“We always knew that we would have another child,” Noka said. “They are our children. They are life.”
But far off the pavement, in the woods of the Narragansett Indian Reservation, they reflected on what happened to their embryos in the coming years.
“This is our church,” Bella Noka said, referring to a natural spring.
The ocean was where the Narragansetts talked to their creator, Noka said, but their land no longer goes to the Atlantic.
So, now the spring is where she worships and honors loved ones who pass.
“My mother is buried right up the road,” she said. “This is where I would come to say goodbye, but I can’t say goodbye because I don’t know if they’re out there.”
Frustration and sadness came streaming back for the Nokas recently with a lawsuit filed by a North Attleboro woman.
Marisa Cloutier Bristol filed the federal complaint earlier this year, citing a surprising 2017 letter from Women & Infants that told her she had an embryo in storage for what adds up to 13 years.
But she claims she didn’t know about it, and her husband passed away about 11 years ago.
“Its continued existence, and the knowledge of the child she might have had, is a source of constant emotional distress,” the lawsuit states.
The Nokas’ distress is also tied to a letter.
The 2006 document asked them what they wanted the hospital to do with their remaining embryos.
“We knew they were there,” Bella Noka said. “We planned on having another child.”
She said she told hospital personnel they wanted to try again more than once.
But when they asked about the embryos in 2008, they were told the hospital did not have any of their embryos.
“It’s pain, it’s hurt,” Noka said. “I put my trust, every bit of my trust, into people.”
The Nokas contemplated legal action but were told by their attorney there was a lack of legal ground to base a complaint on in what was still a relatively new science in 2008.
And now, the statute of limitations has run out on their case.
“I can’t put anything to rest right now because I will never, ever know, and they will never tell me,” Noka said. “It’s going to take a miracle.”
Women & Infants spokesperson Amy Blustein said the hospital could not comment on the specifics of the Noka and Cloutier Bristol cases.
“At Women & Infants’ Fertility Center, our approach to care is guided by comprehensive policies and procedures that evolve as our services, technology, and the needs of our patients change,” Blustein said. “We understand how emotionally and physically challenging fertility treatment can be, and maintain a commitment to open and honest communication with all patients.”
According to the U.S. Society of Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART), about 62,000 babies were born through IVF in 2012.
SART data also indicates about 1 million have been born through IVF and other technology since the late 1980s.
Cloutier Bristol’s attorney Jeffrey Catalano said hospitals need to be especially vigilant about how they handle and store embryos as more and more parents chose IVF.
“They need to really be sure that these [parents] understand all the implications,” Catalano said. “They should be very careful about doing anything with these frozen embryos without getting the full and formal consent of the patients.”
Catalano said parents also have to ask the right questions, carefully read all paperwork and make sure they have a plan for changes they may not be focused on when going through the In Vitro process.
“What happens if they’re separated, divorced or if one of them dies, which is what happened in [Cloutier Bristol’s] case,” Catalano said.