'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (2024)

Amelia Hawkshaw and her husband Zach Longe's round of IVF produced 17 embryos. Seventeen chances to make their dream of becoming parents come true.

"We were so overjoyed," Amelia said.

But that dream turned to tragedy in August last year.

"We got a call … to say that the embryos had been contaminated with bacteria and so those 17 had to be destroyed, just all of them," Amelia said.

"Those 17 embryos, I think they were all like potential children that we could have had."

The couple had used a fertility unit at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The low-cost clinic is state-government-funded and run in collaboration with one of Australia's big-three IVF companies, Genea.

Ten months on, the couple's still fighting to find out how the contamination happened. Time and time again their attempts have been stonewalled by the company.

A Four Corners investigation into the lucrative IVF industry has found when things go wrong, corporate giants like Genea don't always own up. There's a lack of transparency and companies aren't being held to account.

'Anger, frustration, heartbreak'

Vikki Muller and Chris Homer's journey through IVF has also been one of setbacks and struggles.

They were forced to delay trying for a baby after Chris was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago.

'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (1)

Then, when Vikki underwent an egg retrieval procedure, a blood vessel was pierced and she suffered an internal bleed.

Even through the pain, she was relieved that her fourth round of IVF had produced two healthy embryos.

"Two embryos for us was the best chance we've had to get pregnant in five years," Vikki said.

She was still recovering in hospital when they learned their precious embryos had to be destroyed.

"They were like gold to us," Vikki said.

"I remember just switching off like a machine and just dropping my head, and I just went into a bit of a blur."

The couple was told there had been contamination in Genea's lab — bacteria in the embryology solution was believed to be the likely cause.

That just left them with more questions.

"How on earth does that get infected? Just delve a little bit more into that to me, please. Was someone not wearing gloves [when] handling it? I mean what happened?" Chris said.

"It just became a source of anger, frustration, sadness, heartbreak."

Questions and no answers

Both couples pressed Genea for more information.

Vikki said there was little communication and no offer of psychological support.

"It was like as soon as we got discharged from hospital, we were non-existent. They basically made me feel like a bad person for wanting to have a baby," Vikki said.

'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (2)

Early on, Amelia and Zach were told by Genea that a staff member with dermatitis on their hands had been working at the lab that day.

Amelia said since then it's been "absolutely impossible" to extract information from Genea.

"It's clear that human error was involved in the incident and human error does happen, but for us, what's really caused the trauma and affected us long-term has been how we've been treated since the incident occurred," Amelia said.

What the families are after is the report from the company's investigation, known as the root cause analysis.

Genea has refused to hand over the report due to the presence of "sensitive private patient data and confidential commercial information".

Vikki said that explanation was "rubbish".

"That's just protecting themselves. That's going into damage control.

"Give me some information and some answers. Regardless of if you are private or public, it's my body, it's our embryos that you destroyed or didn't look after. How difficult is it to be honest and open to someone? I don't understand."

Last month, the couples enlisted the help of Jacqui Munro, a member of NSW parliament's upper house. They hoped political pressure would force Genea and NSW Health to be transparent about what went wrong.

But the public release of the root cause analysis was blocked after Genea raised "significant concerns" with NSW Health.

NSW Health did not respond to Four Corners' questions about what those concerns were.

Ms Munro said it was a concerning lack of transparency.

"When we have public-private partnerships, it is absolutely incumbent on governments and departments to ensure that private organisations are accountable and are actually doing the right thing by taxpayers and by their patients, particularly in women's health," Ms Munro said.

'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (3)

Amelia's sister Sophie, who donated the eggs the couple used to create their embryos, has been with the couple every step of their fight.

"What does this [root cause analysis] have in it that they're trying so hard to prevent us from seeing?" Sophie said.

"We're not going away … if it takes going to court, we're not going away.

"I think people need to know that when things go wrong, this is what Genea does, this is how they treat people, this is the company you're getting into bed with."

Genea told Four Corners that it "follows strict protocols and takes every care to avoid any contamination risk. However, in rare instances, contamination can occur."

"Before commencing treatment, patients are informed of and consent to such risks," it said.

The company said it had been "transparent about the incident with all stakeholders" and had "engaged in open disclosure with the patients".

Revenue and responsibility

This lucrative industry is only getting bigger. One in every 18 births in Australia is now an IVF birth.

The three big companies Genea, Monash IVF and Virtus account for more than 80 per cent of the industry's total revenue.

These companies benefit hugely from Australia's Medicare system.

An IVF cycle at one of the big clinics can cost between $10,000 and $12,000, and about half that cost is covered by taxpayers.

Fertility researcher Karin Hammarberg said that money should come with an expectation of transparency.

"If shareholder profits are to an extent drawn from taxpayers' money, I think the taxpayer should have the right to know how the money is spent and where the money is going," Dr Hammarberg said.

'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (4)

Professor Bill Ledger, a fertility specialist who's worked for 30 years in public and private IVF clinics, agreed.

"To my mind, it's quite unique that taxpayer money is transferring pretty much directly into private equity companies via a healthcare provision," Professor Ledger said.

"It's a system that has evolved … over the years. Maybe it's time for a major review just to ensure it's all functioning as it should."

The future

Ten months on from losing her precious embryos, Vikki is now with a new fertility clinic.

She turned down Genea's offer of a free cycle through the public system.

"To be honest, that was sort of an afterthought I think from Genea, and it was a bit insulting, if I'm completely honest," Vikki said.

She's trying her best to stay optimistic but says the experience is still taking its toll.

"I think I've changed a lot. I think I'm a lot sadder and not as positive as I used to be."

"I feel like I sort of got hit by a big thunderstorm and it just seems to never be ending."

Amelia and Zach are now pregnant and are expecting in November.

"The trauma is still there but we're hoping to be moving on with growing our family, which we're really excited about," Amelia said.

"We're never gonna forget what happened … it's always gonna affect me in some way.

"What's important to me now is that patients are supported in the future if something like this were to ever happen again."

Watch Four Corners' full investigation When IVF Goes Wrong now on ABC iview.

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'We're never gonna forget what happened': The trauma of Amelia and Zach's IVF experience lingers (2024)

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