All Woman

Embryologist Denise Everett-Keene - Helping couples achieve their dreams

By NADINE WILSON All Woman writer

Tuesday, January 21, 2014    

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IT'S a huge responsibility to try and help fulfil someone's earnest desire to have a child, but embryologist Denise Everett-Keene has spent the last 22 years of her life helping infertile couples accomplish this dream.

To say that she loves her job is an understatement; and along with the team at the Hugh Wynter Fertility Management Unit where she works, the UK-born embryologist has been helping to give hope to hundreds of Jamaican couples as she breaks the stigma associated with infertility in the island.

As a senior embryologist at the unit, Everett-Keene is responsible for collecting eggs and sperm and mixing them together to achieve in vitro fertilisation. She was the first full-time embryologist at the unit and in just 10 years of being in Jamaica, has achieved some major feats. These include participating in the birth of the first set of test tube triplets, and training another embryologist for the facility to increase the complement to three.

But even prior to coming to Jamaica, Everett-Keene was making huge strides in her field. She was among the first 100 embryologists in the UK when she initially started her career in 1992, and was listed as the first senior black embryologist in England. However, she was not aware of this fact until she was interviewed by photographer Donald MacLellan for his 24 close-up portraits of the leading black achievers in Britain. The images were then shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

"It's a job I fell into," said Everett-Keene, who had worked in chemical pathology at the London Chest Hospital prior to becoming an embryologist.

"I had actually started off in biochemistry and then because of the NHS (National Health Service) changes, I said I needed a new job because I might not have a job, and there was a small advert for a junior embryologist and I didn't even know what that was, but I went for the job and got it, working for a private hospital in London. By two and a half years later, I was a senior embryologist," she said.

After three years at the London Bridge Fertility Clinic where she first got her training, she then went to the Lister Hospital where there was an even bigger demand for her time and expertise as a senior embryologist.

"Then I decided that I didn't want to be stuck in that post, because it's too big. When I first started with Lister, we were doing less than 50 cases a month, and by the time I left Lister, we were averaging like 150 cases a month, so it got really large and really busy and so I was in charge of at least half a dozen embryologists at any one time and the daily running of the laboratory, so it was a lot more stressful there," she said.

Although she was stretched for time, Everett-Keene did not give up her vacations to Jamaica. Both her parents were born here and her grandmother would always take her back for visits.

"First I started coming with my grandmother and then I was coming every two years and then every year and then twice a year and then I was here four times in one year, and I thought, 'this is getting ridiculous'," she said.

"I have always been in love with Jamaica because of my grandmother so I thought, 'why not try and do something for Jamaica? I have done it everywhere else in the world, so why not come to Jamaica and help Jamaica?'"

As an embryologist, Everett-Keene has travelled to places such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Turkey and the US to offer her services. So after speaking to the director of the Hugh Wynter unit, and learning of the possibilities at the unit, she packed her bags and headed for Jamaica.

The unit has recently undergone massive expansions to meet the demands of persons both locally and internationally who are in need of fertility treatment, but Everett-Keene said they tackle each case as a team.

"Because of the expansion, we are trying to do many more cases. Whereas we used to do under 100 a year, we are aiming for 180 to 200 cases a year, so we are actually doubling the capacity of what we are doing here," she explained.

But while her job is very fruitful for the most part, it does have its challenges.

"When you see a patient who does not get pregnant, that can be upsetting. I know how the patient feels sometimes," she said.

"There are lots of patients out there who I have seen sacrifice houses and cars and things like that to come through for a treatment cycle and still don't get pregnant, and they would make wonderful parents," she pointed out.

Another thing she has to grapple with is the level of insensitivity some Jamaicans show towards those who do not have children. This continues to be one of her biggest pet peeves.

"They don't know why you are not pregnant and they think that everybody, by the time they reach 25, should have had two or three children. The pressure is on some of our patients because they don't have children. It's not fair, it's not right, they are not living in that person's shoes," she lamented.

There are those who accuse her of playing God, but Everett-Keene said the day she is able to make people get pregnant is the day she will opt for a career change, since that is not something a human being can guarantee.

"I know that when I was leaving one of my jobs in the UK to get into embryology, one of the women didn't speak to me for that month that I was still working there, because she thought I was interfering with God's thing. So I said, 'God gave me the talent to go and do it'," she said.

"I have said it before that if I get to the stage where I know and guarantee that I am going to transfer one embryo and guarantee a pregnancy, then I would need another job. I do assisted conception, not immaculate," she told All Woman. "The man upstairs is in charge, I am not in charge. Even though I put the embryos back, I cannot guarantee that you are going to get pregnant and even sometimes we think those embryos didn't look too nice, and you still get pregnant."

Everett-Keene met her husband and got married while living in Jamaica. Together they have two children, and fortunately for the embryologist, her husband is very committed to his family and assists her a lot with household chores and taking care of the children.

"I have a modern husband who is into cooking and stuff like that, so it makes it easier," she said.

Despite her hectic schedule, the embryologist still takes time out to explore the country she fell in love with as a little girl, and to enjoy its culture.

"When I get downtime I try to see the rest of the island that I haven't seen. I have a big family in Portland and so I just go and relax and eat some food," she said.

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