Career Results: The Families in the Room

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Carolin Ringwall's eyes darted around the room, taking in the infants, toddlers and a teenager whom she had helped bring into the world -- a testament to her 18 years as one of the Washington area's most prominent fertility nurses.

"Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!" Ringwall, 65, exclaimed as she entered a former patient's home in Northwest Washington yesterday. "Some of these babies I haven't even seen!"

The crowd of about 30 parents and children threw Ringwall a surprise party to commemorate her recent retirement and to show their gratitude for the families she had helped create. Although Ringwall said she "has never done the math," she estimates she was involved in four pregnancies a month. That adds up to roughly 864 children over her career. One partygoer called them "Carolin's babies."

Ringwall's former employer, Columbia Fertility Associates, is one of the region's best-known fertility practices. Its six physicians perform most of the medical treatments, such as surgeries and in vitro fertilizations. But many former patients say it was Ringwall who became most critical in helping them through one of the most emotional experiences of their lives.

While doctor visits came every few weeks or months, they said, they often saw Ringwall several times a week, over months and sometimes years. She drew their blood to test their hormone levels, showed them how to inject fertility drugs, conducted ultrasounds and, if asked, even helped select a potent sperm donor. She called with the happy news when their pregnancy tests were positive, they said, and hugged them or held their hands when the results brought only more disappointment.

Although many doctors' offices make them feel like a number, former patients said, Ringwall knew them by name and remembered details about their families and jobs. She was upbeat and funny when they needed a boost, they said, and frank but compassionate when becoming pregnant proved far more difficult than they'd imagined.

"I think for most of us, Carolin will always be there in our memory when we see our children or even our grandchildren," said Tamar Abrams, 51, who conceived her 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, as a single mother using a sperm donor in 1992. "She's central to the story."

Cathy Harris, 36, said Ringwall kept tabs on her long after she and her partner used a sperm donor to get pregnant with their daughter, who is almost 2.

"She really seemed to care about us and our lives and our children," Harris said.

Fertility specialists are in high demand, particularly as women age, doctors say. Across the country, couples are continuing to marry at an older age, government figures show, and the median age of women delivering their first child has climbed over the past four decades from 21.8 to 25 years old. In highly professional areas such as the District, doctors say, those ages can be much higher, particularly among women who have held off starting a family because of promising or demanding careers.

Ringwall did much of her work with patients who needed donor sperm. Because new technologies have made it easier for heterosexual couples to conceive, Ringwall said, most of her patients were lesbian couples and women who wanted to become single mothers.

Colleagues say her open attitude toward nontraditional families, especially when she started almost two decades ago, made her stand out early. Some fertility doctors still refuse to treat lesbian couples, Ringwall's former patients said, and those who do are sometimes criticized as contributing to fatherless families.

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