Sarah and Joanne Gardner went to great lengths for the chance to preserve their fertility—but is their approach safe?
You've heard of freezing your eggs to preserve fertility, but what about freezing your ovaries? It may sound crazy, but when Sarah Gardner learned at 34 that her fertility resembled that of someone 10 years her senior, she wanted to pursue all options.
"I knew that being a mom was something I wanted in my life," Sarah said, according to NPR. "And I knew that it would be very difficult to achieve that, given that I was about to be single. So, yeah, I was devastated."
Sarah found a solution after meeting Sherman Silber, M.D., a surgeon at the Infertility Center of St. Louis who performs a controversial fertility procedure that involves the removal of healthy ovaries. Once the ovaries are removed, Dr. Silber freezes them to preserve their youth, then reimplants them into the woman when she is ready to have children.
Excited about the prospect, Sarah told her twin sister, Joanne, about the procedure and they both opted to undergo it. They each had an ovary removed in 2009. "What it gave us was huge amounts of relief," Sarah said. "It really just took a huge weight off us."
Sarah, now 44, is recently engaged and ready to have a baby—so she and Joanne returned to St. Louis in June to have their ovaries reimplanted.
But is the procedure safe? According to Mickey S. Coffler, M.D., a reproductive specialist with HRC Fertility affiliated with Tri-City Medical Center, there are risks that may outweigh the benefits of this method. “This process is still very experimental," he told Fit Pregnancy. "It may be suitable for patients that don’t have alternative options, but [not] for patients who have the option of purely just freezing their eggs. That [procedure] has smaller intervention, is more simple and doesn’t require the risk of surgery. [Freezing an ovary] is a totally different risk. I don’t see the justification [in freezing ovaries], just because a woman is concerned about her fertility, to perform such a drastic procedure. This is a significant, significant procedure."
Dr. Coffler pointed out that along with the surgery required to remove the ovary, one must also undergo an additional surgery for reimplantation—this presents risks associated with major surgery, including bleeding, injury to organs or complications that can arise from anesthesia use. There's also the risk that the procedure won't work, according to Dr. Coffler. “There are very few centers that do this procedure," he said. "Those centers might be excellent, but [the data] is still very limited. Freezing the eggs is a very established procedure and the results are excellent."
Still, freezing an ovary is not unheard of—in fact, a number of cancer patients have undergone the procedure as life-saving cancer treatments can affect a patient's fertility—but the Gardner sisters may well be the first healthy women to ever pursue this avenue.
According to NPR, Dr. Silber stands by the procedure's merits, claiming that freezing, thawing and reimplanting an ovary is much easier than egg freezing, in part because it saves a woman from having to undergo hormone injections associated with egg retrieval. He also countered that both ovary retrieval and reimplantation can be done as outpatient procedures. "There are huge advantages to this," he said.
The Gardner sisters both hope to be pregnant by the end of 2016. Even if they're successful, it will likely be a long time before freezing your ovaries becomes as commonplace as freezing your eggs. Still, it's nice to know that doctors are staying on the cutting edge when it comes to fertility treatments.