Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Tanya Dula is the mother of a “snowflake baby.”
She and her husband, Randy, who were married in 2016, could not become pregnant naturally or through infertility treatments, so they decided to adopt. However, the adoption route for the Dulas proved to be the road less traveled.
“We began thinking about and exploring traditional adoption,” said Tanya, “but then a friend who had been through infertility for eight years told us about embryo adoption.”
According to a Medical News Today March report, “A person may decide to store an embryo if they hope to become pregnant in the future, to donate to others, for medical research, or for training purposes.” Embryos are stored for an indefinite amount of time through cryopreservation, which involves safely freezing them. Although the exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that more than a half million embryos have been frozen and are stored.
“We started learning about it through sites and books,” said Tanya. “When a couple who has had infertility and done IVF [In vitro fertilization] ends up with too many embryos, they can let them die, donate them to science, or freeze them indefinitely and pay storage for that process. Or, they can allow them to be adopted. I thought, wow! Personally and for my husband, we view embryos as a life. And we learned that NEDC, the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., values the life of embryos and feel they should have the best chance at life.”
Embryos implanted into a woman’s uterus for a chance at birth are unofficially referred to as “snowflake babies” because, as Tanya explained, “they are frozen and each one is unique, just like snowflakes.”
Because Tanya was diagnosed with unexplained fertility and physicians could not determine whether or not her body could carry a child through to birth, she had to undergo a “mock trial” procedure “to see if my body would even accept and carry an embryo.”
She passed the protocol and the next step involved an arrangement with the embryo donor.
“It’s up to parents and the donors as to what kind of contract needs to be drawn up regarding the embryo adoption,” she said. “A mediator goes between the donor and the adoptive family. We chose an open situation. It has been a blessing to know the donors. They’ve been such a support to us. They had boy and girl twins out of these embryos. Technically, those children are our daughter’s brother and sister.”
The first “transfer” of two thawed embryos to Tanya took place in January 2020. However, neither thrived. The couple tried a second time; in April, at six weeks gestation, Tanya and Randy could hear two heart beats. At 10 weeks, however, only one heart beat was heard.
When they learned they would have a girl, the couple chose the name Raylen, “because I found one of the meanings was ‘protecting hands,’ and her middle as Grace because of God’s grace that she was able to live.”
Survival of their daughter became a hyper-focused endeavor when, at 16 weeks, Tanya and Randy learned there was relatively no fluid surrounding and protecting the baby. “Doctors explained basically that PPROM – preterm premature rupture of the membrane – means the water broke too early. And the baby couldn’t be born and live outside the womb that early. They told me I could go into labor at any time, and the risk to me was infection because the membrane was ruptured.”
The Dulas said that their prayer life became more intense and they focused on the fact that Raylen’s “heart beat was strong through the entire pregnancy.”
Although Tanya was forced to remain bedridden through the remainder of the pregnancy, four and a half months, and took all the precautions necessary, the chances of Raylen surviving were slim. Tanya and Randy were given a stuffed bunny equipped with a recorder inside of it to record the baby’s heartbeat emitting from one of the ultrasounds. “If we lost her, we would have that recording of her heartbeat. But as I was bedridden, I would hold that bunny and hear her heartbeat and know she was there and fighting,” said Tanya.
Although some physicians encouraged the couple to terminate the pregnancy, due to possible complications during birth and possible health issues for the baby, “we told them there was no way we were going to terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “As long as her heart was beating , she was fighting and we were going to fight for her. God himself would have to stop her heart.”
Tanya entered the hospital in September for monitored bed rest. There, she developed the shingles virus and suffered migraines. All the while, the couple prayed for the baby to grow to at least 23 weeks so that her lungs would be further developed and she would have a greater chance to live. Tanya also prayed that when the baby was delivered by C-section that she would immediately hear her cry.
On Nov. 24, Raylen was born at 33 weeks. “And when she came out, she immediately cried even before any suction or anything,” said Tanya. “Everyone’s eyes got really big. The doctors and nurses were so surprised.”
Even though Raylen breathed on her own for a few minutes after birth, she began experiencing life-threatening medical issues and had to be put on a ventilator. At one point, Raylen was on 12 different IV pumps, the ventilator, and a special light for jaundice. For the first several hours after birth, the baby was near death, and doctors kept telling the couple they needed to say good-bye to her.
But the couple believes prayer sustained their daughter. She stabilized and began improving. “Doctors were so perplexed that she was still surviving,” said Randy. “One doctor said I’ve not seen a baby as sick as yours in a very long time. I can give no medical explanation for how she’s survived. He pointed to the ceiling and said God is the only reason.”
Raylen was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mission Hospital in Asheville for 72 days and was able to go home to Franklin on Feb. 3.
Although Tanya and Randy said that their embryo adoption journey was personally an “emotional, difficult process,” Randy admitted, “It’s also been the most amazing journey I’ve ever been on. People who were placed in my life, the community in Franklin, social media acquaintances, churches, people I don’t even know, words of encouragement, financial help, prayers, gifts … it’s just all been so incredible.”
“Randy, who works for the Franklin Police Department full time and the Macon County Sheriff’s Office part time, said his colleagues and the Highlands Police Department have been “absolutely wonderful,” gifting the couple a bassinet, car seat, and multiple gift cards to purchase baby items.
Judy Evans, Tanya’s mother, said that although she had never heard of the process of frozen embryo adoption, she hopes that, “sharing this story may introduce other couples to the embryo adoption process and help their dreams come true. This has also made my faith stronger because we and many others have seen miracle after miracle through this tiny baby. I am so thankful and blessed to have little Raylen Grace as a granddaughter.”
The Dulas’ Go Fund Me, to help cover medical expenses, is https://gofund.me/3b1f5684.