The Retrievals podcast explores ‘living nightmare’ at Yale fertility clinic

A new podcast has explored the harrowing experiences of 12 women who underwent an invasive fertility procedure without pain medication.

Produced by Serial Productions and The New York Times, The Retrievals is a five-part series reported by Susan Burton, detailing a nurse at the Yale Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (REI) clinic, who secretly swapped patients’ pain medication, fentanyl, for saline.

According to a federal investigation, as many as 200 women may have been treated at the centre in Orange, Connecticut, without proper medication over five months in 2020 due to the actions of Donna Monticone.

Egg retrieval is the first surgical step in some fertility treatments.

The 15-minute procedure typically involves an ultrasound probe into the vagina to visualise the small sacs inside the ovaries that house individual eggs. A needle is then repeatedly inserted through the vaginal wall and into the ovary to remove the eggs, one at a time.

Laura Czar, one of the plaintiff’s, previously told Elle she was assured by both her sister-in-law and the clinic staff ahead of her egg retrieval that she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“I [was told that] I would receive an IV ‘cocktail’ of meds to put me in a ‘twilight state’, which is supposed to make you feel relaxed – practically on the verge of sleeping. Only, I was very much awake. ‘I can feel everything you’re doing,’ I said,” Ms Czar recalled.

“The pain – a horrible, gut-wrenching pain – was so intense. Picture a large needle being inserted into your vagina through your vaginal wall and into the ovaries. That’s done to pull out every egg. If you’ve got multiple, that goes in multiple times.

“Not to men that you are surrounded by people with your legs wide open. You are at your most vulnerable. After the procedure was over, I thought to myself: Well, I guess that’s just the way it is?

According to a Department of Justice release, Monticone “began stealing fentanyl for her own use” in June 2020.

“She accessed secure storage areas and took vials of fentanyl, used a syringe to withdraw the narcotics from the vials, and reinjected saline into vials so that it would appear as if none of the narcotics were missed,” the release read.

“The investigation revealed that approximately 75 per cent of the fentanyl given to patients at the Yale REI clinic from June to October was adulterated with saline. Some of the vials contained diluted fentanyl, while others contained no drug at all and contained just saline.

“Monticone knew that the adulterated vials of fentanyl she replaced at the Yale REI clinic would be used in surgical procedures, and that the absence of an anaesthetic during an outpatient procedure may cause serious bodily injury to the patient.”

Monticone, who allegedly tampered with 175 vials of fentanyl, pleaded guilty in March 2021 to one count of tampering with a consumer product.

She surrendered her nursing license and faced a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, but was ultimately sentenced in May 2021 to four weekends in prison, three months of home confinement, and three years of supervised release.

At her sentencing hearing, she said she started using the opioid during a contentious divorce and custody battle over her three children.

“My regret and shame runs deep,” Monticone said.

“Every day, I wish I could turn back time … Every day [in the future], I will do whatever I can to make amends.”

In The Retrievals, REI patients describe the searing pain they endured, recalling that they asked for more medication but were told they’d already been administered the maximum dosage. Others describe being gaslighted, told to “calm down” or that they were “hysterical” despite the situation being like a “living nightmare”.

One patient who shared her story recalled a response she received that seemed to dismiss what she’d endured: “What’s the big deal? You got pregnant.”

Those interactions, Burton told The Times, were felt “as much as, if not more than, the actual pain they felt during the retrieval”.

The purpose of the series is not just to explore what happened at the clinic, she says during the first episode, but what it reveals “about women’s pain” across broader society.

“How it’s tolerated, interpreted, accounted for or minimised.”

Originally published as New podcast The Retrievals explores ‘living nightmare’ at Yale fertility clinic

Cristeen Gonzama

Cristeen Gonzales writes about health and medicine. She tends toward stories that reveal the on-the-ground impact of health policy, with a particular focus on the opioid epidemic, Covid-19 and abortion.

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