SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah Health Care is taking responsibility for an incident that has left at least one family confused at how a former laboratory employee ended up being their daughter's biological father.
The U. is now reaching out to others — possibly up to 1,000 patients — who might have been affected by the actions of Thomas Lippert, who is believed to have swapped his sperm for others' at the Millcreek fertility clinic in the late '80s to early '90s.
Lippert died in 1999 but was employed by Reproductive Medical Technologies and the U.'s Community Laboratory from 1988 to 1993.
"The issue here is that the records are incomplete in a way that we don't know how many people might have visited that lab and just had a simple, diagnostic test — such as whether their sperm was viable or not, as part of their evaluation for infertility — and how many were actually using that facility for sperm washing in an attempt to have artificial insemination," Dr. Sean Mulvihill, CEO of the U.'s medical group and associate vice president for clinical affairs at the university, said Wednesday.
He estimates that up to 1,000 people might be affected by the matter but the U. cannot reach out to those patients because data from Reproductive Medical Technologies were destroyed upon the principal owner's death.
Several old file boxes from the U. that were found in storage are being reviewed, but Mulvihill said he hopes anyone who wants more information will contact the U.
Pam Branum, of Texas, contacted the U. in April when her daughter's DNA test results didn't match that of her father's. She had received help from the clinic in question, and from Lippert, in 1991. Her daughter, Annie Branum, was born in 1992.
Branum has said she won't sue the clinic unless a class action lawsuit is formed, but she has asked the U. to contact everyone who was treated by Lippert, which Mulvihill said is "not feasible" due to the lack of available records.
He said the U. began its investigation at first word of it in April and originally thought the two labs to be independently operated. But not only were they co-located, the laboratories shared administrative oversight and staff.
"This overlap has made it difficult to piece together who had oversight of various activities and who was ultimately accountable," Mulvihill said, adding that policies and practices have changed considerably at the university in the more than 20 years since Lippert was an employee.
Records of Lippert's employment, though also not complete, reveal a period of time "when his performance was exceptional. He was lauded and deserved a raise in compensation," Mulvihill said. "But something happened within a couple years thereafter."
"By 1993 or so, the records suggested there were concerns about either his behavior or the performance in the laboratory," he said. Lippert is said to have left his job a couple of years after that. There is no record of the separation.
Lippert also had a criminal record, including serving jail time for kidnapping a female college student in 1974. Screening and comprehensive background checks weren't common practice at the time of his employment, but Mulvihill said all U. employees are now carefully screened.
"This is a shocking story to all of us," he said. "We want to make sure that people are reassured that the policy and practices today make it inconceivable that this same sort of thing could happen today."
In the laboratories and clinics where patient specimens are handled, the U. "maintains strict protocols regarding identification and tissue handling," Mulvihill said. Facilities are routinely audited and meet rigorous national accreditation standards.
The U. no longer maintains its own donor sperm bank and relies instead on national banks, where Mulvihill said processes can be better protected and there is a wider array of donors.
The U. will continue to host a hotline number and email — 801-587-5852 and firstname.lastname@example.org — for patients who have questions about their care. Paternity testing is available for patients who received care during the relevant time period, or when Lippert was employed at the clinic.
So far, the university has fielded about 15 calls, and all but two have been ruled out as possible issues related to the Lippert case. Those two are considering paternity tests.
"This is a very private situation between a couple and their physician in terms of trying to achieve a child under difficult circumstances," Mulvihill said. "Some patients have a loving, well-functioning family and they don't want to know too much more about the biological nature of the family, and others want to know."
A website, www.communitylabfacts.org, has also been set up to more easily disperse information to the public about the U.'s ongoing investigation and a panel of physicians has been established to review pertinent information and old documentation to determine what went wrong and how. The U. has also hired an independent third-party medical ethicist, R. Alta Charo from the University of Wisconsin, to review the methodology used by the committee and its findings and recommendations.
According to Mulvihill, the panel review should take about 90 days. "We don't know how long it will take to get to the truth of this matter," he said.
"We are deeply sorry for any anxiety this has caused to our patients."