Holly Schecter’s poignant 2014 story, “Genealogy,” puts an infinitely human face on the high-tech world of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). As she pictures her seven cryogenically frozen embryos, “waiting to be defrosted like tomorrow’s dinner,” she shares with us stories she’ll tell them, already picturing them as the real-life children she yearns for with such fervor: of “their Bubbie” (grandmother), whose pillow Holly and her sister would fight over after her visits; “her Zeidi,” who buried his father in Pittsburgh and married Holly’s mother in Cleveland the same day; the “ten dollar-a-nail plus a manicure” that her father offered her as a teenager to stop biting them.
I spent the first twelve of my forty-plus years in medicine in low-tech 1960s and 1970s Britain, the latter thirty in the far higher-tech environment of a major U.S. university medical center. I never really got over the culture shock. Even after twenty years as full professor, the machinery of intensive care still daunted. Trying to hold my end up in consultation with intensivists, neurosurgeons, even respiratory therapists, I’d quickly lose track of their specialist language. The concept of masterful inactivity—“don’t just do something, sit there”—was utterly foreign to the type-A American residents I was privileged to mentor.
Holly helps me befriend “high-tech,” perhaps for the first time—I can clearly picture those frozen embryonic cells as babes-to-be. And I’m transported back to hard-scrabble Glasgow, Scotland. To Annie, a fourteen-year-old lassie from the Gorbals, Glasgow’s biggest slum, who’d just given birth, on New Year’s Eve, 1973, to micro-preemie twins (father unknown). Far from being yearned for, these new arrivals were decidedly unwelcome—at least to their great-grandmother, already raising three other children, alongside Annie, in a single tenement room with a multi-family outdoor privy.
“What chance do they have?” my boss quizzed me when I—a wet-behind-the-ears resident on my first neonatology on-call—phoned for guidance. “Those infants just don’t make it… and mother wouldn’t have the faintest clue how to raise them… best not to do too much.” Primum non nocere, UK, 1970s style.
So much for our policy of benign neglect. For the irony of these two tales is that Annie’s boys went on to survive—a world and generation away from today’s routine neonatal intensive care—advanced imaging, intravenous nutrients, and mechanical ventilation support. Meanwhile, Holly’s story is yet to end. Despite the burgeoning success of IVF, we know from her story the outcome is far from certain. As she tells us, three of the initial ten embryos have already succumbed to miscarriages—“the universe giving me the finger.” I offer a fervent prayer for a joyful outcome for her and her family.
John Graham-Pole is a graduate of London University (1966) and professor emeritus of pediatric oncology and palliative care from the University of Florida. He’s published/co-edited six books on arts health and poetry, and his short stories and essays have been published in Ars Medica, CMA Journal, Hektoen, Medical Humanities, and Yale Journal of Humanities. He’s just completed a novel and a memoir. He lives in blissful retirement with his wife, Dorothy, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. His essay "Premies" appears in the Spring 2016 Intima
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine