One year after Hurricane Harvey: New parents recall braving flood waters for IVF treatment
August 27, 2018
By Taylor Seely
Of all the possible times for someone in Houston to schedule a time-sensitive medical procedure, August 2017 was just about the worst.
But it’s not like anyone had “Hurricane Harvey” penciled in the agenda. The Category 4 hurricane flooded the city, displaced 30,000 people and cost billions of dollars in damage.
It’s a disaster that residents are still dealing with a year later.
But for one couple, the anniversary of Harvey marks a happy day, albeit a difficult one.
It gave Rocio and Alfred Zuniga one heck of a conception story, like something out of a movie. Heck, maybe it will be one day.
It started at 6 a.m. Aug. 26, 2017
Rocio and Alfred woke early. Their neighborhood was spared, but the hurricane, by then downgraded to a tropical storm, had already proven catastrophic in nearby areas, including where the CCRM Houston Fertility Clinic was located.
On a normal day, the office was only about a 20-minute drive away. This was not a normal day. They left 3½ hours before their 9:30 a.m. appointment.
Timing, after all, is crucial to a successful in vitro fertilization procedure.
Egg retrieval must be done almost exactly 36 hours after a woman’s final trigger shot of hCG or Lupron, as it completes the egg maturation process and initiates ovulation, according to Dr. William Schoolcraft, founder and medical director of CCRM.
Rocio and Alfred had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a year. As a medical technologist and construction worker, they weren’t financially prepared to attempt IVF more than once. The way they saw it, this was their only shot.
Nothing was going to stand in their way. Not even a hurricane.
But as they exited their neighborhood to head to the clinic, they didn’t know just how daunting their journey would be.
Water as far as they could see
Not far into their drive, the couple found themselves surrounded by water. Every possible way to get to the clinic by car was blocked off or flooded. Desperate to get there, they parked their vehicle on an island of dry land and began walking.
Slowly, they inched their way into the water. Rocio said the water extended as far as they could see and it was impossible to tell how deep it got. It started at ankle level.
They clung to fencing and whatever they could to stay above water. It slowly rose higher, from the hips eventually all the way to their necks.
At the worst point, Rocio, who stands at 5 feet, 2 inches, said she piggybacked on her 5-foot-10-inch husband.
“The way we saw it, those were our babies,” Rocio said. “We had sacrificed so much to actually save up and do this procedure. We were not going to let anything stop us. I was an emotional wreck.”
There was no sure way of telling how long they’d been traveling, but looking back, Rocio said she guesses they were in the water for about two hours.
They called CCRM to warn they were on their way and that they’d probably be late. But then they lost their phones. And even though Alfred was a marathon runner with strong endurance, he and Rocio both started feeling tired.
The water weighed them down, feeling heavier as time passed.
They took turns sharing words of encouragement to each other, but it only went so far. They were shivering and exhausted, Rocio remembers. They felt dejected.
Tears flowing, Rocio broke down. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, she said.
On the verge of giving up, they got a sign of hope
Just as Rocio was about to suggest they turn around and give up, a boat appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
It was just the sign from God she needed, Rocio said.
A couple whose home was on a higher, dry part of land nearby was out searching in their boat to rescue people in need. They called out to Rocio and Alfred, who responded with relief and hopped on board.
“I was in survivor mode,” Rocio said. “I was crying. I was cold. I was scared. Everything. We both were. My husband wasn’t showing it, but he was, too.”
Rocio told the man and woman, whose names she can’t recall, why she and her husband were out during a hurricane. To Rocio’s surprise, the couple’s neighbor friend had also conceived children through IVF.
They took her and Alfred by boat to that neighbor’s house, which was also spared the worst of the storm. From there, the Zunigas had a clear path to the clinic, and the neighbor who’d gone through IVF was happy to drive them, Rocio said.
Shivering and wet, they arrived at the fertility clinic
Sometime around lunch, Rocio and Alfred arrived. They’d missed their ideal time frame for the procedure, but they had to try.
Shivering and soaking wet, the couple was met by CCRM staff who immediately helped dry them off and prep them for the procedure.
“I was anxiously awaiting their arrival only to be shocked to see Rocio and Alfred completely drenched in a puddle of water as they exited the elevator on our 23rd floor,” said Dr. Timothy Hickman, medical director at CCRM Houston.
“Her words left us all in complete awe – such grit and courage,” he added.
The doctor and embryologist tried joking with Rocio to help ease her stress, she said.
If she ended up getting pregnant, they joked she should name the baby Harvey.
After Rocio’s anesthesia wore off and she was ready to go home, she and Alfred happened to run into another couple in the lobby with whom they’d become friends during previous visits.
That couple had a Texas-style monster truck, Rocio said, and they drove her and Alfred home.
March 25, 2018: A happy ending
When Rocio and Alfred later returned to the CCRM Houston clinic, they were met with good news: The procedure took. They were pregnant.
Twins Elijah and Abigail were born at 31 weeks on March 25, 2018. They spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit, Rocio said. They are now home and healthy.
When asked if she’d brave a hurricane again, Rocio’s unwaveringing answer is, “Yes.”
“It was so emotional because it wasn’t just one, it was two,” she said. “For us, that was a huge blessing. It was so worth it.”