More than 650,000 Floridians have been given orders to evacuate Miami-Dade County to avoid Hurricane Irma.
But Dr. Armando Hernandez-Rey ― a reproductive endocrinologist with a thriving practice in Coral Gables ― won’t be one of them.
Instead, the 46-year-old spent the hours after Miami’s mayor expanded the evacuation orders on Thursday ensuring that the stored eggs, sperm and embryos in his clinic will safely ride out Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded.
“We haven’t had a big hurricane here in South Florida for over 12 years. We’ve had skirmishes, if you will, but nothing like this,” Hernandez-Rey told HuffPost on Thursday evening. “In my practice, we’ve got a lot of things that can potentially go wrong.”
That practice ― Conceptions Florida ― is a busy one, doing upwards of 400 in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles a year for women and couples who are struggling to conceive. And those cycles are expensive. The average price of a single round of IVF nationally is $12,400; many infertile patients must undergo several rounds.
On Thursday, more than a dozen patients called the clinic to check on what would happen to their eggs, sperm and embryos during the storm. Many of them are in the middle of IVF cycles.
“A patient, who is also a physician and a friend of mine, called me a half an hour ago and said, ’Listen, we’re heading out. We’re leaving, but I’m really wigging out about my one embryo,” Hernandez-Rey said. That patient is in her early 40s, has a history of pregnancy loss from chromosomal abnormalities, and has just one genetically normal embryo stored with the clinic.
“I told her, we’ve got a $150,000 generator in the building, our building is built like Fort Knox, we’ve topped off all the tanks with liquid nitrogen. So even if we lose the generator, we’ve got enough liquid nitrogen [to keep frozen specimen viable] for two weeks,” he said. “But anything can happen. I just didn’t feel comfortable leaving with the possibility that something could go wrong.” The building has hurricane-impact windows, and Hernandez-Rey said they loaded up on sandbags.
He feels particularly protective of the clinic as the fast-moving storm meant the clinic was unable to move many of their samples to third party holding centers, which were overwhelmed by demand.
“We’ve got so many [samples] stored,” he said. “We’re affiliated with the cancer center, so we have probably about three or four samples from men who are about to start chemotherapy. They stored with us to preserve their fertility. If we lose that, they’ve got none left.”
When he spoke to HuffPost, Hernandez-Rey, his wife and their two children were busy preparing to leave their home to move to the only hotel room they could find ― about 15 minutes from the clinic.
Hernandez-Rey, who grew up in Florida and lived through Hurricane Andrew, remembers the efforts of reproductive endocrinologists who rushed to rescue embryos when the power went out at NYU’s fertility center during Hurricane Sandy. He is “cautiously optimistic” that he has made the right call.
“Every hotel since Hurricane Andrew has to have hurricane-impact windows. The structures are different now. So it’s not bravado,” he said. “I think we’re going to be OK. I think the city’s going to be in shambles. But I’ve got to protect what’s in the tanks.”