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THE STATE

UC Irvine Fertility Scandal Isn't Over

While seeking to limit its liability, college admits it failed to inform many patients of wrongdoing.

January 20, 2006|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

When revelations surfaced a decade ago that fertility doctors at UCI Medical Center had stolen eggs and embryos from patients, the university vowed to find the women who may have been victims.

But UC Irvine acknowledged this week that it failed to contact at least 20 couples, some of whom have learned only in recent years that their fertilized embryos produced children born to other women more than 15 years ago.

"I have children, and I don't know where they're at," said Rosalinda Elison, who learned in 2002 that her eggs and embryos had been stolen and implanted in another woman, who gave birth to twins. "I feel so cheated and so betrayed."

Now the Elisons are among 29 couples who have found their lives in turmoil.

After learning from attorneys involved in other fertility cases that their eggs and embryos had been stolen, the Elisons and the 28 other couples sued the University of California system, most of them in 2003. But even as UCI Medical Center, in Orange, has conceded it did not contact patients, it has also moved to minimize the amount it could be forced to pay victims, arguing that the statute of limitations has expired.

"We feel there needs to be an end and a conclusion to this litigation," said Byron Beam, UC's lead attorney on the case. "That's not to say that we're not willing to continue to talk" to lawyers for the women and consider financial settlements. But any settlement, he said, must take into account that the misdeeds occurred as long as 18 years ago.

Lawyers are scheduled to meet today to discuss a possible settlement. The meeting will follow a recent flurry of letters sent by attorneys for the former patients to UC Regents and university attorneys, accusing them of stalling.

Beam acknowledged that UCI didn't contact two-thirds of the patients in the newly filed suits. He said UCI sent letters in 1995, and in 2000, to those whose addresses it had. He said the university even hired a private investigator to track them down.

Some couples did receive letters from UCI, but after talking to administrators they were left with the impression they were not affected, said San Diego attorney John K. Baldwin, who is handling many of the cases. He said his firm had tracked down additional patients to let them know about the thefts and that more lawsuits were likely.

Beam said fertility clinic patients should have known of the scandal from widespread news coverage and could have contacted the university. Now, Beam contends, the cases are "stale" and without merit because most patients were treated off campus. The patients are suing for fraud, concealment and emotional distress.

UCI did not say why it was unable to contact the Elisons. The couple moved, but they said husband Layne Elison's work phone number stayed the same, as did the phone number for his parents, who were listed with UCI as emergency contacts. The couple said his parents had had the same number for 40 years.

For UCI, the scandal seemed to have run its course years ago. In 1995, the Orange County Register first reported that world-renowned fertility doctors had stolen eggs for years and had given them to other women. The scandal sparked international news coverage, investigations, state Senate hearings and 128 settlements totaling about $22 million. It tainted the university, which ignored early warnings and tried to cover up problems.

The fertility scandal was the first of several major problems to plague the medical school and hospital in the past decade. Other problems include misplacing cadavers and selling cadaver body parts without consent. Most recently, The Times reported in November that 32 people died awaiting livers in 2004 and 2005, even as doctors turned down organs that were successfully transplanted elsewhere.

As the seriousness of the fertility cases became public, UCI's top administrator at the time, Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening, and other officials promised to make things right.

"We must never lose sight of the university's first priority: to properly identify those patients who may have been affected, and to contact them to offer assistance," she told the UC Board of Regents in November 1995.

Layne and Rosalinda Elison are among those who say they never heard from the university. She was 26 years old in 1987, with two children, when she went to UCI fertility doctors to reverse a tubal ligation. Drs. Ricardo Asch and Jose Balmaceda waited about 18 months before performing the minor surgery.

During that time, Rosalinda Elison said, Asch and Balmaceda told her that her eggs weren't viable and pumped her full of fertility drugs.

"I was used as a lab experiment, a lab rat," she said.

Fertility clinic records show that seven of her eggs were removed and given to another woman in January 1988. That woman gave birth to twins, who today would be 17.

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