Meet Chicago's Top Embryologist

February 9, 2012 | Home Page

6 - Meet Chicago's Top Embryologist
FROM FAR LEFT: Colleen’s son, Cade Coughlin (age 12), conceived through IVF along with older twin siblings, Cassidy and Cal, age 14 (NOT PICTURED). Riley Johnstone (age 4), whose parents, Pam and Ryan, came to aParent IVF after miscarrying on their own, and didn’t want to lose any more time since they were facing the reality of advanced maternal age. Riley’s brother Declan (age 2 1/2), was also concieved here. Sophia DiVagno (age 9), whose parents, Diane and Claudio, tried for six years to have a child. COLLEEN IS HOLDING: Vivian Boresi (age 11 weeks), conceived through IVF, and Adina Arnold (age 12 months), whose parents, Jonathan and Stephanie, conceived at aParent IVF after failing twice at another IVF program. Landon Netzky (age 2 1/2), whose mothers, Pam and Ashley, have another son, Brody, age 5, and one on the way through aParent IVF. Siblings James (age 5) and Mia (age 7), both conceived with help from aParent IVF. Twins Acacia and Nicholas Driver (age 9)were conceived through IVF using frozen sperm from their father, who was away on active duty in the military. Mary Grace (age 6) and Madison King (age 21 months). Mary Grace was conceived after several failed attempts; she prayed for a baby sister, and her prayers were answered through another round of IVF at aParent. Oliver (age 3 1/2) and Teddy Webber (age 19 months). Like other high- profile power couples, after consulting with Dr. Kaplan, mothers Jennifer and Christy conceived Oliver and Teddy at aParent IVF

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Colleen Coughlin at the microscope
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A sample being studied for suitability

It’s not uncommon for Colleen Coughlin to be out at a restaurant when a parent will approach her holding a child. “They say, ‘This woman made you,’” as they introduce her, says Colleen, who after 25 years as a top embryologist is still uncomfortable with that kind of praise. But she can’t temper the joy she feels when she gets to hold that child after helping parents—many of whom have had four or five unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy with other programs—finally get pregnant.

"I always get goose bumps when I play with one of the kids or hold one of the babies,” says Coughlin, who posed with 14 of her medical progeny—ranging from an eight-week-old to her own 12-year-old son—for this story. As each parent arrived at the photo studio, they gave her a long squeeze, and the toddlers hugged her legs. “I got so overwhelmed at one point I said, Can I have a break for a minute? I had to tell them how happy it made me— this is so special.”

If there were an open casting call for an embryologist, Coughlin—a Chanel-clad, South Side-bred redhead—would be the last choice to star as a scientist. But don’t be fooled: Coughlin heads a fertility lab where 80 percent of patients will leave with a baby. In fact, Coughlin’s clinic, aParent IVF, is credited with more than 25,000 births since it opened in 1986. Located in Highland Park, aParent IVF is the only independent fertility lab in the country owned and operated by a female embryologist, and Coughlin’s “tell it like it is” approach, not to mention her firsthand experience (she is a patient of her own lab, with three IVF-born children), is renowned for making patients feel at ease with her high-tech baby-making skills.

Coughlin, who won the National Infertility Association’s prestigious Resolve Award for patient advocacy in 1998 (one of the first and only nonphysicians to ever receive this honor), grew up at 79th Street and South Talman Avenue, where she attended the Catholic all-girls school Queen of Peace, a curious beginning for a girl obsessed with scientific reproduction. She was eight when she started breeding her pet gerbils. “I always loved watching anything being born, and the concept that two animals could create more animals was fascinating,” she recalls. “I was mesmerized at how quickly they developed, had hair, and were self-sufficient.” Always the entrepreneur, she sold her gerbil pups (“They looked like cocktail weenies.”) to the pet shop at the Ford City Mall for 50 cents each and loved the idea that they would live in a new home, with a new family. Next she began to sell gerbils in her apartment complex, where she became known as the “pet girl.” If a neighbor’s cat or dog was delivering, Coughlin was called on to help.

She got her first formal job working with animals while she was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Coughlin worked at Lincoln Park Zoo in the mornings and at an animal hospital on the weekends. She transferred in her junior year to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study dairy science, with future plans of attending veterinary school to major in reproductive physiology and breeding.

When Coughlin finished her undergraduate work in 1983, her focus began to shift to in vitro fertilization in humans. “Only a few IVF programs existed back then, and it got me thinking about how being part of a family was always important to me, and that there were people in the world who wanted children and couldn’t have them,” she says. “[Back then, infertility] was limited to diagnosis; there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. I thought, This is what I have to do. I knew I could be part of an area of medicine that was just emerging.”

In 1984, during her graduate studies, all of the advances in gamete physiology were being explored with cow eggs and sperm, and Coughlin became the reproductive herd manager on a farm and began to breed cows. “I knew I wanted to work directly in the laboratory with the eggs and sperm, but the problem was, there were no formal training programs,” she remembers. “I set out to learn everything I could about embryo culture.” She found out about the large teaching hospitals downtown, and with a master’s degree in reproductive physiology, was hired as an embryologist at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center. “Reese was really the teaching institution in the late ’70s and ’80s, where the most senior OB/GYN specialists trained,” she says. In a few months she became the head of the lab, but quickly realized that under the eye of a university or large hospital she wouldn’t have the freedom to research and experiment. “[Institutions] can be stringent and slower moving than independent labs,” she says.

Coughlin became the clinical lab director in 1991 and, in 2001, owner of Highland Park IVF, which she acquired from Highland Park Hospital and which processes more than 160 procedures a month, including cryo (frozen) transfers—nearly double that of traditional labs. The facility itself once served as the satellite office for the program at Michael Reese, where Coughlin had established protocol and built the infrastructure. She changed the name to aParent IVF two years ago to appeal to a more global clientele. While most IVF patients solely credit their doctors when they conceive, the cultivation of embryos actually happens in the lab at the hands of an embryologist. Today, fewer than 400 IVF programs exist in the country. In a traditional model, the hospital or physician owns the lab, and there are only a handful that are privately owned “by rebels like me,” Coughlin laughs.

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The aParent IVF facility

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Jonathan and Stephanie Arnold with baby Adina
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An embryologist working in the lab

Most patients never know the embryologist who works on their case. “What you want is for them to care,” she says. IVF is an area of medicine that a medical doctor can’t perform alone, but in traditional settings, the embryologist usually stays behind the laboratory door. “They aren’t as comfortable meeting the patient, understanding their fears. We have a large program, but I want to know their stories; I’m invested in their families,” says Coughlin. In contrast to other IVF programs, patients are able to consult Coughlin for testing before they decide on a doctor.

The staff motto, “Whatever It Takes,” is evident in the care and personalization of every case. To make sure the embryos can be harvested at their best potential, Coughlin artfully manipulates the air quality and circulation in the lab, has chosen everything from the type of paint on the walls to the music played during procedures, and commands how the labware is handled and what minerals are used. She even makes her own hand-blown glass pipettes over a blowtorch on site, because the size needed isn’t manufactured commercially.

The lab staff of 18 includes seasoned embryologists, scientists, nurses, and office management, and many have spent more than 20 years with Coughlin. The latest addition is Donna Burch, the lab concierge, who was brought on board to make the reproduction process run smoothly. Burch helps patients with everything from a local car service to international travel to translators, and assists with sperm donor and surrogate selection.

Famed reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Brian Kaplan serves his patients at aParent, even though he is one of nine partners at the Fertility Centers of Illinois, which has its own on-site lab in River North. “Colleen personifies passion,” explains Dr. Kaplan. “Her patient relations sync with mine and are integral to our success rates.” Dr. Kaplan is also aligned with Coughlin on the latest advances in their field. “Cryopreservation will change this business,” he says. “Women who want to put their reproduction on hold can freeze their eggs, and cancer and chemotherapy patients can freeze their eggs before treatment.” In that vein, the duo is working toward the formation of an international egg bank (similar to a sperm bank), which is about six months away from opening. Coughlin’s patients also get backdoor entry to meet with Dr. Kaplan, whose practice has a months-long waiting list.

Stephanie Arnold, a 40-year-old reality-show producer, came to the lab straight from two failed rounds of IVF with another doctor, clutching a cryo tank filled with her husband Jonathan’s sperm samples. Like the Arnolds, two-thirds of the patients who come to aParent IVF have failed elsewhere. While many patients make the highly acclaimed lab their first fertility stop, others come from all over the world after other programs have proven unsuccessful. “It was night and day compared to past experience,” Arnold says. “I knew if I was going to have a baby, this was my only choice.” She and her husband welcomed their first daughter with the help of Kaplan and Coughlin one year ago.

Success has also developed in the form of a celebrity following, including New York Yankees manager Joseph Girardi and his wife, Kim; famed landscape artist Christy Webber and her partner, Jennifer Rule; and most recently, Rosie O’Donnell and her partner, Michelle Rounds.

O’Donnell says that she and Rounds were referred to Dr. Kaplan and Coughlin by everyone they spoke to when they arrived in Chicago last year. Rounds, who had tried IVF unsuccessfully in the past, can’t help but compare her treatments. “In New York, I felt like another number, as opposed to a human being,” she says. “My doctor was never compassionate about my situation and health issues as they related to infertility. He was so negative, almost to the point where I think he believed I couldn’t be successful, but yet they kept implanting me regardless of my estrogen levels or finances.” By contrast, at aParent IVF, “there was a totally different energy, bursting with positivity and hope and knowledge, and that felt so good,” says Rounds.

“Colleen is very down-to-earth and very brilliant,” adds O’Donnell. “You usually don’t get both in one. As people, [Coughlin and Dr. Kaplan] believe in the mind, body, and spirit connection, and that’s a soulful thing—it’s how you live and move in the world, and they bring that to the office. When you are trying to get pregnant, it is a necessary and integral belief system in life.”

To wit, Coughlin and Kaplan both believe in an integrative approach and care beyond IVF, including prenatal yoga and acupuncture. They often refer patients to local holistic fertility specialists at Pulling Down the Moon.

The day we visited was “Day Zero” in the lab, when each patient explores the success of her preparatory series of treatments and is ready to undergo egg retrieval. Seventeen of Dr. Kaplan’s patients have prepared to begin an IVF cycle. Each patient— from single women to first-time mothers in their late thirties to women with specific and difficult-to-treat fertility issues—has her own story.

Dr. Kaplan, guided by ultrasound, retrieves any eggs found in the follicles with an aspiration needle. He kisses the yarmulke tucked in his scrubs pocket and says a little prayer before he extracts the samples of follicular fluid that are transferred into multiple test tubes and quickly passed through the procedure room door that backs up to Coughlin’s lab. Coughlin and staff are at the ready to test the retrievals and extract any eggs and move them to incubators to rest. From etchings of names and serial numbers on dishes, each case is witnessed and signed for to ensure stringent quality control, ideals not always practiced in most traditional IVF lab settings. The goal is to keep the process as close to the natural process as possible with the help of science, Coughlin’s forward-thinking techniques, and advanced micro-manipulative procedures.

Because of this, it’s easy to see why patients come from all over the world to visit aParent, where technology meets the mother of invention—at home in her own lab.

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Hair and makeup for Colleen Coughlin by Carly Martin for Artists by Timothy Priano

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