Meet Chicago's Top Embryologist
BY BARRI LEINER GRANT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY TAHLIER
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
|Colleen Coughlin at the microscope|
|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.
Hair and makeup for Colleen Coughlin by Carly Martin for Artists by Timothy Priano