SALT LAKE CITY (KTVX) — A DNA test led to a shocking discovery for one Utah family, who learned their son is not related to the father after an IVF mix-up over a decade ago.
Both families are speaking out in hopes that those going through in vitro fertilization don’t have to experience the same thing.
The Johnson family thought it would be fun to do a “23andMe” DNA kit, which have become increasingly popular over the years. However, when they got their results a month later, they were devastated by what they found.
“When I looked on that page and saw mom for him and saw father unknown and I thought, ‘What do you mean father unknown?’ I am his father,” Vanner Johnson said.
Vanner and Donna Johnson started their IVF journey in 2007 after they were unable to have a second child on their own.
“You understand there’s that possibility but it’s so remote,” he said.
However, over a decade after they gave birth to a baby boy, their worst nightmare quickly became a reality.
“When my results showed up, showing two sons immediately and seeing our oldest was a half-sibling to his younger brother, through me, we knew there must’ve been something wrong,” Donna Johnson said.
A simple DNA test revealed that Vanner Johnson is not his son’s biological father and that Donna’s egg was fertilized by someone else’s sperm during the IVF process.
“There were a lot of emotions we had to work through including separating the love of our son, which has not changed … to the issue that we were dealing with. This mistake that happened, how could it happen, why did it happen and what do we do now?” Vanner Johnson said.
The Johnsons waited over a year to break the news to their son, who is now 12 years old.
“I took him on a drive in our car, and we were going to get ice cream, actually. I wanted to make sure his attention was just on our conversation,” Vanner Johnson said.
The dad said his son knew he was the result of an IVF pregnancy.
“I said, ‘Well, as it turns out, when we had that done, something happened and we’re not sure what happened but I’m actually not your biological father., And he stops, and kind of looks forward in the car. It wasn’t a crazy look but kind of just turned to me, looked at me, and said, ‘Really?’ And I said yeah,” Vanner Johnson said.
While he doesn’t remember all of that conversation with his son, he said he does remember what both of them felt, and that his son said he still loved him.
As the family grappled with the shocking news, they decided to take another DNA test through Ancestry to find out who the boy’s biological father really is.
Through research, the Johnsons believed Devin McNeil was the child’s biological father. Vanner Johnson found his phone number and decided to call him. Devin McNeil later said he ignored two calls because he thought they were spam, but on the third phone call, he finally answered.
Vanner Johnson said he asked Devin McNeil if he and his wife Kelly had used in vitro fertilization methods “a number of years ago,” to which he responded that they had.
“I said, ‘Well I have something I need to talk to you about,'” Vanner Johnson said. He asked Devin McNeil to FaceTime, and he agreed.
“We decided to answer it and covered up our camera,” Devin McNeil remembered. “We could see him in the car, he told us the story. Obviously, we weren’t very credulous at first but the more details that came out the more evident it was that there was something that had happened that involved us.”
Eager to get some answers, the two families began piecing together times and locations of when the two of them were both at the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine.
“There was one date that we were in the clinic at the same time,” Kelly McNeil said. “I was doing transfers so that’s when they put the embryos back inside and she was doing retrieval, when they take your eggs and retrieve them, and it was that same day… we think around the same time.”
“There’s really no manual for what we’re trying to do,” Vanner Johnson added. “The process is ongoing. When you ask for advice there’s not really advice that can be given and so what do you do?”
Both families are supporting one another as they figure out what to do next, given that the McNeils live in Colorado and the Johnsons live in Utah.
“However comfortable the McNeils are with what he would like, and our son would like, that’s what we would like to do,” Vanner Johnson said.
In the meantime, the families aren’t letting distance separate them any longer. The two families have FaceTimed, emailed back and forth, and even met up in person at a park in Utah.
While the conversation was difficult for the McNeils to have with their other children, Kelly McNeil said her kids have responded well.
“Just to accept that they have a half-brother out there and just someone else to love, we see them at the park together playing and they just turned this hard situation and something that should’ve never happened into something good,” she said.
While the four of them process this turn of events, they believe no one should have to go through what they are.
“With this being something that affects all our lives, Devin McNeil never signed away his parental rights, and we didn’t consent to this, which is another part of that, and we’re just expected to work it out? Vanner Johnson said.
“We’re decades into this. We shouldn’t be looking back and trying to fix problems, there should be things in place to prevent these problems and issues and it shouldn’t fall on the patient to take charge,” he added.
Until changes are made, the families encourage anyone who has undergone IVF to take a DNA test.
“This isn’t something that I would haven ever guessed would be a part of our story,” said Kelly McNeil.
When the Johnsons were asked if they wish they never got the DNA testing done, their reactions were mixed.
“Yes, sometimes,” Donna Johnson said. “But whether it’s now or it would’ve been in 20 years … it would’ve been known. I don’t think there would’ve been a way that we would’ve avoided not knowing.”
Both families are preparing to file two separate lawsuits against the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine.
“It’s grossly inadequate with that we are dealing with,” Vanner Johnson said. “And as we got going through that process … I thought because of what we are dealing with, it would be treated differently or more gingerly and it’s not at all.
“They make you feel it’s as secure and safe as anything when you go in… and there’s triple verification and you are physically and visually verifying everything that you’re providing. So, they make you feel and think that the checks and balances are in place when they likely are, but we are obviously a case amongst a few others where things happen and there’s some mistakes.”
The University of Utah released the following statement to KTXL:
“Although we cannot comment on patient cases without consent or ongoing litigation, the safety and care of our patients is our primary goal. If patients come to us with questions or concerns about their care, we evaluate our care and procedures and, if necessary, make changes to prevent harm from happening to other patients. Our providers and staff strive to provide excellent care and we constantly work to make improvements.”
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