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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Mother's Helper

Dr. Richard Marrs pioneered fertilization techniques for women who want to be moms but have biology working against them. He can't promise miracles, but he does offer hope.

May 11, 1997|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The room, not much larger than a storage closet, was cluttered with outdated surgical equipment, most of it better suited to a museum than the Women's Hospital at County-USC Medical Center.

Most people walked by, oblivious. But Dr. Richard Marrs, a young obstetrician-gynecologist fresh from Texas to pursue a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology, eyed the tiny quarters with great interest.

He had recently obtained approval to launch an in-vitro fertilization program and had already assembled some basic equipment.

What he needed was space for a laboratory.

This broom closet might be just the digs.

He broached the topic with the operating room supervisor, who needed some persuading. Where would the stored equipment be put?

Quickly, Marrs found a final resting place: the hospital roof, where other abandoned pieces of equipment were already soaking up the smog and sun of East L.A.

After a long weekend of scrubbing and disinfecting, the IVF team set up shop. Then things happened quickly. Marrs can still recall one of his first attempts to join egg and sperm outside the body: "I couldn't sleep that night." In the morning, he hurried back to the lab. "The egg was fertilized. And I thought, 'This is unbelievable. We can do this.' "

The fifth patient treated got pregnant and gave birth in June 1982 to the program's first IVF baby--the first one born west of the Mississippi.

*

Since that success, Marrs has remained on the fast track. While he is not a household name, he is definitely a VIP in fertility circles. Four years after the USC program's first successful IVF pregnancy, Marrs helped produce the country's first frozen embryo pregnancy. Over the years, he has published more than 100 articles in medical journals and textbooks and helped to draw up a code of ethics for a fledgling specialty.

When he presented data at scientific meetings in the early days, the room fell silent, say people who were there. "Marrs would go to meetings, and he'd be like the Pied Piper," recalls Dr. Daniel R. Mishell Jr., USC professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology, who gave Marrs approval for the IVF program back in 1981.

Now 49 and silver-haired, Marrs is medical director of the Center for Assisted Reproductive Medicine at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center after stints at two other L.A. hospital fertility programs. He also heads California Fertility Associates, where he practices with three other physicians.

Just published is his new book, "Dr. Richard Marrs' Fertility Book" (Delacorte), co-written with a former patient (now the mother of twins) and her television-writing partner. Next month, the West Coast's first "test tube" baby turns 15, and Marrs is busy organizing an international scientific conference in Hawaii for later this year, where presenters will glance back and look ahead.

The saga of the broom-closet-turned-lab not only reflects Marrs' tenaciousness but demonstrates just how quickly the IVF technology has evolved, thanks to the efforts of Marrs and others. Back in 1981, IVF centers were often the target of protesters, some of whom contended the technique was "going against nature." Within the span of a decade and a half, the burning question has evolved from "Should IVF be used to help a woman conceive?" to "How old is too old?"

But there's no reason nor time, Marrs contends, for laurel-resting. He lobbies for better insurance coverage for infertility treatments, tries new approaches to achieve pregnancy and denounces the money-back guarantees offered by some of his competitors. In a cutthroat field that has been subject lately to investigations for fraud and theft of eggs and embryos, Marrs is a fertility doctor above reproach, even his most jealous competitors acknowledge. And even with three other physicians in his Santa Monica private practice, he still works, by all accounts, like a young gynecologist on a fellowship with something to prove and a demanding department head to please.

One co-worker estimates that Marrs works 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Pure hyperbole, Marrs at first insists during an interview in his office across the street from the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

"I do work seven days a week," he says, "but that's because for 15 years I've tried to figure out how to make women ovulate Monday through Friday, and that's been one of my biggest failures. If I'm going to do this work, I need to be here when the patient's ovulating."

In practice with Marrs are his wife, Dr. Joyce Vargyas (from whom he is separated but on friendly terms), Dr. Andrea Stein and Dr. Guy Ringler. Vargyas was a senior resident at USC when she met Marrs; they married soon after and spent the next decade together working and researching. When they separated five years ago, they decided the split should not extend to their practice nor to the parenting of their two children, Ashley, 15, and Austen, 9 (both conceived without IVF).

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