To many former patients, the now-beleaguered Ricardo H. Asch is close to divine--a modest man with an easy humor who helped them conceive when no one else could and then pinned pictures of their children on his office wall for years.
"I believe he works for God. That's my impression," said Ginger Canfield, 39, who tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a dozen years before the world-famous fertility expert stepped in to help her. "There's a lot of compassion in him."
To colleagues, the Argentine-born Asch is a pioneer who has earned respect around the globe in a highly competitive discipline where many strive to achieve his level of success.
Allegations that Asch may have transferred one woman's eggs to another without consent and questions about other alleged improprieties at his multimillion-dollar UC Irvine clinic have left his supporters shaken, hoping that none of it will prove true, and fearing that Asch's career is nevertheless tainted.
"He helped so many people and brought life to so many families," said one colleague who asked that his name not be used because he works for UC Irvine. "Dr. Asch is one of the greatest experts in infertility in the world, not only in the U.S. He has a reputation as an innovative person, as a scientist, as a teacher. For me, I would like to see that nothing of this really happened."
For years, the 47-year-old doctor now at the center of a controversy over the ethics and legality of his fertility work at UCI's Center for Reproductive Health has known adulation in the media and love and dedication from the couples he blessed with babies.
In 1984 he gained international recognition for developing the infertility treatment known as GIFT--gamete intra-Fallopian transfer. He also pioneered ZIFT, zygote intra-Fallopian transfer.
GIFT is the only fertility technique acceptable to the Vatican, because conception occurs in the body after the eggs and sperm are injected. In ZIFT, the egg and sperm come together before they are implanted into a woman's body.
In 1991, Asch was named by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the country's 100 influential Latinos. He also won the Wyeth Award from the Pacific Coast Fertility Society that same year.
"He has so many accolades included within his [resume] that it's akin to a novelette," said his attorney, Lloyd Charton. "There have been very few medical societies that have not acknowledged his genius."
Charton described Asch as a reserved family man who is fond of horses and tennis, but is principally and passionately dedicated to his patients.
Asch spent Saturday out of town attending the university graduation of one of his daughters, Charton said.
"He is distressed because he has such compassion for his patients and he wants to make sure that his patients continue their confidence level in the sanctity of the procedures performed," Charton said. "But he is entirely composed."
Even before he arrived in Garden Grove from the University of Texas Health Science Center in 1986, he touched the lives of women here.
Ex-patient Canfield read an article about Asch's imminent arrival and called him in Texas to set up an appointment. She met with him in a Garden Grove office that wasn't yet furnished, and sat with him in a cluttered room filled with chairs. She knew right away that she could trust him.
"From the minute I talked to him, I felt I could give this a chance, and if it didn't work out I could make it through," she said.
The process did work out, and Canfield and her husband now have a daughter, 7-year-old Tessamarie. Her father, who died two years after Tessamarie was born, filled his last days with the joys of being a grandfather.
When the UCI clinic had its grand opening in 1990, the facility was filled with women that Asch and his partners had helped become pregnant. It was standing room only.
"Dr. Asch is the kind of person who can walk through a room and talk to a senator and then see a janitor and talk to him in the same vein," said Canfield, who was photographed at the opening with Asch.
Whenever her 19-year-old stepdaughter has needed help on research papers she has done on in-vitro fertilization, Asch has been there to provide it. "We go in there and he gives her all kinds of research papers, every kind of pamphlet or catalogue that they have," she said.
Canfield still sends Asch cards every year telling him about her daughter's progress, and when she heard about the allegations against him, she called his office to let him know how she feels. She was told he would call her Monday.
"I just told them to tell him that I loved him very much and that I would do anything for him that he needed," she said. "If he just needed to talk and blow off steam, I would be there."
Canfield said she thinks of Asch, who teaches at clinics in Singapore and the Vatican, as a "South American aristocrat," a gentleman who never talks down to his patients and puts them at ease.