When Covid shut international borders in early 2020, it split families – some of which had not yet even been created.
Invercargill couple Tenysha and Allan Bennie were forced to pack up their lives in Australia last April and move home to a locked-down New Zealand. Now they are bringing home the last piece of themselves they left behind in Queensland.
Currently on its way from a Brisbane fertility clinic, their embryo – or taonga – is the last of three created in a round of IVF in 2018, and a chance for Tenysha and Allan to start the family they yearn for.
“It’s a potential light at the end of the tunnel, just a chance we don’t want to miss out on,” Allan said.
“It’s like having a million dollars sitting over in Australia that we can’t use – so for us to have that over here, I don’t know if you can put a price tag on that.”
More importantly, the couple say they feel a cultural need to be reunited with the missing piece of themselves.
“Māori culture is basically when you’re born, you’re born as a whole,” Allan said.
“And any part of you is to go with you when you die as well. For us to know there’s a part of us somewhere in Australia, it just doesn’t feel natural.”
Tenysha said it had been an odd feeling to have a part of themselves in another country for so long.
“Culturally, regardless of whether and when we use this embryo, we feel that we want it home because this is where it belongs.”
But endless forms, lockdowns and delays pushed out the already-frustrating process of undergoing fertility treatment across closed borders during a pandemic.
In spite of an ever-dimming hope of returning to the transtasman bubble, they received the news this week their taonga had been dispatched from Brisbane and was on its way to the South Island.
“It sounds like our taonga will be here on Tuesday next week,” she said.
“I feel quite excited and quite relieved . . . It’s been a long time coming.”
Tenysha and Allan were not alone in their struggle to reunite with stranded offshore embryos, with demand for courier services skyrocketing as Covid closed borders and changed plans.
Fertility Associates Auckland medical director Dr Simon Kelly said the shipping of embryos, sperm or eggs to and from New Zealand had more than tripled since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Before Covid we’d had something like between two or three patients a month looking to ship embryos in and out of the country,” he said.
“At the moment it’s sort of running at 10 or so a month – quite a significant increase.”
The spike in demand was such that Fertility Associates created a whole new role to manage the shipment of embryos in and out of the country.
Since the role was established in early 2021, frozen assets had been shipped for more than a dozen couples, with another 70–80 currently being processed.
Fertility Associates estimated about 90 per cent of this number concerned the import of embryos – people like Tenysha and Allan who had begun treatments overseas, or those seeking donor sperm or eggs from other countries. A smaller number were attempting to export assets overseas from fertility clinics in New Zealand.
Kelly said the import of assets could be further complicated by differences in legal restrictions around the world. For example, as the New Zealand HART (Human Assisted Reproductive Technology) Act 2004 specified egg and sperm donors had to be both identifiable and unpaid, it was unlawful to import embryos created overseas that breached these laws.
Not only had the volume of transportation increased, but also the risk for patients wishing to ship their precious cargo between countries.
“Prior to Covid, traditionally we arranged it through a human courier, so the courier used to pick up the embryos in a special shipper from the clinic, and deliver it to the clinic at the other end.”
The human courier system had fallen apart when the pandemic hit, resulting in more couples opting to have their assets travel unaccompanied.
Sperm, eggs and embryos were transported in a liquid nitrogen shipping container to keep them frozen, and due to their shelf life needed to arrive at their destination within a reasonable time period.
All going well, this would happen within two to three days.
“The concern is you have a lot less control over what happens with your eggs and embryos and sperm once it leaves one clinic and heads to the other,” Kelly said.
“It does create quite a lot of anxiety .. .that there’s a chance these precious frozen assets could go missing.”
Tenysha and Allan had explored both accompanied and non-accompanied options to transport their taonga.
Although it gave peace of mind, they had decided against accompanied shipping – the qualified courier was in lockdown in Melbourne, with no way of providing an ETA on when she could travel.
The unaccompanied or “dry shipping” option had cost them $3000.
Dr Kelly said the cost of shipping “frozen assets” accompanied by a person was roughly the equivalent of a one-way business class air fare from country to country.
Meanwhile, the storage of Tenysha and Allan’s embryo in Brisbane was costing them $600 a year.
But after more than a decade on the fertility journey, 33-year-old Tenysha said the asset was priceless.
“You go through so much to get that embryo – it’s so precious,” Tenysha said.
“I’ve been on this journey for a lot longer than I’ve been with Allan – I was first diagnosed with endometriosis when I was 15, and I’ve had four stomach surgeries and a lot of miscarriages.”
The couple also happened to fall pregnant naturally during last year’s lockdown, much to their surprise, but the pregnancy sadly ended in tragedy.
“We had a very rare ectopic – it wasn’t in the tube, it was actually attached to the top of the uterus,” Tenysha said.
“I was quite lucky actually to come out of that surgery and still have a womb, and I’m lucky to be alive.”
After coming out of life-saving surgery, Tenysha and Allan were moved on to the list for publicly funded IVF in New Zealand.
“We’ve been approved for those first two free goes, and I don’t think we’re far from the top of the list, which is pretty cool.”
While they were adamant their embryo be brought home, they were unsure whether they would use it straightaway or continue with IVF in New Zealand.
“The longer things go on and the older you get, the more open-minded you become and the more realistic,” Tenysha said.
“But I couldn’t really imagine our future without having a family of our own. We’re open to a lot of different alternatives.”
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