Certain rules and concepts tend to govern the world as we know it. For example, most Western societies accept time as linear. Parents come first, and then children follow in the next generation. But what if that was reversed?
Philip and Rachel Ridgeway never expected that their children would actually technically be 30 years older than them. Their embryos were frozen the whole time until the parents decided to adopt them. It may seem unconventional, but this is how they did it.
It Was The Year 1992
April 1992 was itself an eventful month between Vanessa Williams' "Save the Best for Last" reaching the Billboard 100, and “Who’s the Boss?” airing its final episode. it happens that this was also the month that the babies that would one day to Rachel and Philip Ridgeway were frozen as embryos.
Preserved At -323F For 30 Years
The embryos were originally donated by an anonymous couple on 22 April 1992. The embryos were stored at -196C (-323F) in liquid nitrogen where they remained at fertility lab on the west coast until 2007, when the couple moved the donated embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee. The couple hoped that another family might be able to use the embryos. Thus, five embryos sat in storage for almost three decades.
That was until Dr. John Gordon, the Ridgeways' doctor, came along and suggested their adoption to the couple. If they were to accept and have it be successful, this would set the record for the longest-frozen embryos ever to result in a successful live birth.
The Miracle Birth
Rachel and her husband always knew they wanted a big family and to have as many children as they were destined to: "we've never had in our minds a set number of children we’d like to have," Philip said. “We’ve always thought we’ll have as many as God wants to give us, and … when we heard about embryo adoption, we thought that’s something we would like to do.”
Rachel was already a mother of four, but when she heard of the embryo procedure, she thought it would be the perfect opportunity to expand the family: "there is something mind-boggling about it," Philip said.
The decision was made, and the next step was to see if the procedure would be successful. Their doctor seemed optimistic as he explained that embryos could be frozen pretty much indefinitely. "If you're frozen at nearly 200 degrees below zero, I mean, the biological processes essentially slow down to almost nothing. And so perhaps the difference between being frozen for a week, a month, a year, a decade, two decades, it doesn't really matter," Dr. Gordon explained.
New Record Holder
Just like that, Lydia Ann and Timothy Ronald Ridgeway gave birth to a healthy set of two babies, setting a new record according to the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC). The previous record-holder, Molly Gibson, was born in 2020 from an embryo frozen for almost 27 years.
The private, faith-based NEDC organization says that it has helped with the births of more than 1,200 infants from donated embryos. The Ridgeways hope that their decisions inspire other families to consider taking this path: "The decision... to adopt these embryos should reassure patients who wonder if anyone would be willing to adopt the embryos that they created 5, 10, 20 years ago," confirms Dr. Gordon, who performed the embryo transfer.
The Impact On Adoption
The medical name for the process Ridgeways went through is embryo donation. Dr. Jim Toner, a fertility specialist, explains the process of freezing potential human life in time as "waking up":
Toner explained: "It doesn't seem like a sperm or an egg or embryo stored in liquid nitrogen ever experiences time. It's like that Rip Van Winkle thing. It just wakes up 30 years later, and it never knew it was asleep."
The good news is that the age of the embryo has no impact on the baby's health. Rather what matters is the age of the woman who donated the egg that went into the embryo. With the twins, it was a 34-year-old woman.
Embryo adoption is not as popular as other processes despite the availability of embryos. When people undergo IVF, they sometimes produce more embryos than they need, so they donate the extra ones to be cryopreserved (frozen) for future use.
The Thaw And Transfer Process
Having another couple use those extra ones is referred to as "adoption," but the National Embryo Donation Center explains: "Embryo adoption is not a legal 'adoption' at all, at least in the sense of a traditional adoption which occurs after birth." They added that the term "allows all parties to conceptualize the process and eventual reality of raising a non-genetically related child."
When it came to Philip and his wife, they saw it as a calling to give life to ones that had kind of already started: "We just wanted the ones that had been waiting for the longest."
They believed that this was a part of their life plan; “Going into this, we knew that we could trust God to do whatever he had sovereignly planned and that their age had no factor. It was just a matter of whether or not that was in God’s plans,” Rachel said.
Youngest But Oldest At The Same Time
While the Ridgeways already had four other children between the ages of one and eight, all conceived naturally, in a way, the twins are still the oldest: "In a sense, they're our oldest children, even though they're our smallest children."
The family wanted to make sure that the kids were involved all along the process, so they explained to them the steps throughout. "They were excited and happy with us every step along the way. They love their siblings, and they play together and were looking forward to finding out whether God had given them two boys, two girls or a brother and a sister," Phillip added.
The Father Would Have Been Five
The parents were ecstatic when the twin, a boy, and a girl, were born. Lydia was born at 5 pounds, 11 ounces, and Timothy was 6 pounds, 7 ounces."They were good-size babies," Rachel Ridgeway said. "It really is God's grace because he has just sustained us each step of the way."
It's fascinating to think, however, that the parents would have been children themselves when the life of her now children was first formed: "I was five years old when God gave life to Lydia and Timothy, and he's been preserving that life ever since," Philip said.
Normalizing The Embryo Process
The parents hope that the popularity of their story would "encourage others to experience the blessings of embryo adoption for themselves"
If you're curious about the process, the couple chose their embryos through a database. While it didn't tell them how long the embryos were frozen, it listed the donors' characteristics like their ethnicity, age, height, weight, education, etc. It even included information about their favorite movies and music, which are the traits that make up our personalities! Some databases also have photos of the parents and any children they had.
Time Is But A Construct
We tend to think of time as linear, and divided between the past, present, and future. This way of thinking is a human-made concept. In reality, time is more fluid existing simultaneously across both the past and future.
Thinking of time without or beginning or end makes anything possible at any point. Stories like this show how time is intertwined and how past actions can become future ones. Whatever the order of events, it ultimately comes down to the ripple effects of our choices and decisions.
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