‘Something happened, somehow something got mixed up’: the at-home DNA test that changed two families for ever | Family

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In the summer time of 2019, Donna Johnson noticed a particular provide: 23andMe kits had been half value. She and her husband, Vanner, had been pondering of getting their DNA examined to find out about their heritage and any well being points that could be associated to their genes. Given the deal, Vanner thought they need to purchase 4 kits and take a look at their sons in addition to themselves. “A enjoyable household exercise. That’s how we coined it to our boys,” Vanner says.

Vanner Jr and Tim – then 14 and almost 11 – had been joyful to indulge their dad and mom. That they had an concept what DNA was, Vanner says, however didn’t ask many questions. The logistics proved unexpectedly difficult: you’re not presupposed to eat something for half an hour earlier than you produce your saliva pattern, and discovering a time when neither boy had eaten or drunk wasn’t simple. However inside every week of receiving the kits the 4 of them had been standing across the kitchen desk collectively at their dwelling north of Salt Lake Metropolis, Utah, spitting into little plastic tubes. They registered their kits on-line, despatched off their samples, then they acquired on with their summer time.

It’s not outstanding handy over your DNA to a multimillion-dollar company and belief them to make use of it to decode who you actually are. The Johnsons are one household amongst tens of hundreds of thousands worldwide who’ve used a direct-to-consumer genetic testing firm corresponding to AncestryDNA, MyHeritage or 23andMe. Their checks promise to unlock the reality of our heredity and the way we’re linked to the world – even a medical future foretold in our genes, if we tick the suitable field. DNA kits have develop into well-liked presents, the go-to Christmas current for the one who has all the things. At the least one in 20 British individuals have been intrigued sufficient to take a take a look at. As AncestryDNA has stated, “There’s no restrict to what you would possibly uncover.”

The outcomes arrived on Donna and Vanner’s sixteenth marriage ceremony anniversary. Vanner acquired his e mail notification first. He noticed connections with some acquainted names, however Tim wasn’t there. “I believed, huh, that’s attention-grabbing.” He texted Donna, who was on the native college the place she teaches second grade. He tried to rationalise it – maybe, as a result of Tim was a minor, the connection wasn’t instantly displayed on-line? Nevertheless it niggled at him all day.

Donna’s outcomes got here in once they had been collectively that night. They confirmed she had two sons: Vanner Jr and Tim. She checked out Vanner Jr’s outcomes. “It confirmed he had a half-brother by way of me,” she says. “Then we checked out Tim’s outcomes; it confirmed me as his mom and his father ‘unknown’.” There was no connection between Tim and Vanner. They weren’t genetically associated.

“I felt like I needed to scream,” Vanner says. “How might his father be unknown? I’m his father. I’ve been his father since he was born.”

“That’s after we realised one thing went unsuitable. Both with the take a look at,” Donna says, “or the IVF we’d had.”

Tright here is, after all, a 3rd clarification, however there was by no means any query that Donna had been untrue to Vanner. They met in highschool and have been inseparable ever since, spending no matter time they will collectively as a household: Donna teaches on the identical college their sons attended, and summer time holidays are spent tenting, fishing and climbing, or on street journeys within the massive minivan they purchased once they imagined they might be a household of seven.

Donna and Vanner come from large households and at all times assumed they’d have one in all their very own. “We had in thoughts 5 youngsters and a canine,” Vanner says in our video name, as he wrestles with their excitable pet, Daisy. “We thought, it’s simply going to occur.”

And it did occur, at first: that they had Vanner Jr with no issues. However when it got here to their second baby, they tried to conceive for 18 months with no luck. Their docs assumed the issue should be with Donna and gave her medication to stimulate ovulation, nevertheless it turned out the problem was Vanner’s: he’d had hernia surgical procedures, which had led to scarring that blocked his sperm duct. They couldn’t conceive naturally, however they might with assist.

Out of the 2 fertility clinics they knew about, they selected the College of Utah Heart for Reproductive Medication as a result of one in all its specialisms was male infertility. “We felt comfy,” Donna nods. “Very good employees, very good docs, very caring,” Vanner provides.

The method was bodily and emotionally gruelling. Vanner needed to have a testicular biopsy so his sperm may very well be retrieved and injected into Donna’s eggs. Their first cycle failed. On their second cycle, Donna had ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome – a harmful side-effect of the medication she’d been taking – which induced her ovaries to swell to “the scale of grapefruits”. Seeing how distended her stomach was when she went in for the embryo switch, her docs determined it might be safer to freeze the embryos, delaying the method by three months to provide Donna’s physique an opportunity to get better. Nonetheless, it was value it, ultimately. Their second cycle was profitable and Tim was born in 2008.

“He was the cutest child,” Donna says, a smile blooming throughout her face. “A lot darkish hair, extensive eyes; only a stunning baby.” However he had reflux, and may very well be cranky. “Numerous instances he appeared discontented. Typically it felt like he was nearly inconsolable.” They found that, at the same time as somewhat child, Tim may very well be simply distracted with a ball. Vanner couldn’t perceive it. “I used to be like, ‘The place does this child come from?’ As a result of neither of us are actually sportspeople.”

“His older brother was very content material to take a seat on our laps and browse for hours on finish – which I cherished, as a instructor,” Donna says. “I’d pull Tim up on my lap, pull out a e-book to learn to him and he’d swat it out of my hand, run away and seize a ball and begin taking pictures baskets.” They put it right down to regular sibling distinction. “Being from massive households, we knew all our siblings had totally different pursuits.”

Every so often, they talked about utilizing the rest of the frozen embryos that had been being held in storage. They tried once more, in 2011 and 2012, however each transfers failed, they usually left their desires of getting 5 youngsters behind, Donna says. “It felt prefer it was higher to place our time and vitality into the kids we had.”

For greater than a yr, Vanner and Donna stored the 23andMe outcomes to themselves. The connections between them displayed within the outcomes had been too constant for there to be an issue with the DNA take a look at: the issue needed to be with the IVF. Fortunately, their sons appeared to have forgotten about taking the checks. They went fully unmentioned. “We didn’t need our household to vary in any respect, and we felt like this might change our household. So we had been very quiet. But it bothered us,” Donna says. “There have been instances I felt just like the anxiousness would eat me.”

Then the pandemic hit, and the Johnsons had been locked down collectively. They started to really feel they needed to inform Tim sooner fairly than later. “We couldn’t inform him when he’s graduating, when he goes to school, when he’s getting married,” Vanner says. “The longer we held off, if he came upon – which is feasible in in the present day’s world – he would assume we’d hidden it, and we didn’t need that. We needed to have management of telling him.”

Family group of parents Donna and Vanner Johnson with sons Tim (on left) and Vanner Jr  
Donna and Vanner Johnson with Tim (on left) and Vanner Jr. {Photograph}: Kim Raff/The Guardian

So in October 2020, Vanner took 12-year-old Tim out for ice-cream. He didn’t need something to sound scripted, however he’d fastidiously ready what to say, and deliberate to say it within the automobile. As Tim fiddled together with his cellphone within the passenger seat, Vanner introduced up how he’d been conceived by way of IVF in a fertility clinic – a truth they’d by no means stored from him.

“I stated, ‘Effectively, we came upon that someway, after we had been there, one thing occurred.’ In my thoughts, I can’t use the phrase ‘mistake’, so I stated, ‘One thing occurred, someway one thing acquired combined up, and it seems I’m not your organic dad.’” Vanner’s eyes nonetheless brim on the reminiscence as he tells me this, almost three years on.

Vanner says Tim regarded up from his cellphone for a second, into Vanner’s eyes, then again down. “He stated, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re nonetheless my dad.’ I stated, ‘I’m so grateful to listen to you say that, buddy, as a result of that’s how I really feel, too.’ I didn’t know what it regarded like from his perspective – that’ll be his story to inform – nevertheless it was a candy second. I believed, wow, he’s clever past his years.” A household who had taken a take a look at to disclose the truths held of their genes had determined that, in a single respect a minimum of, genetics didn’t matter in any respect.

As they headed dwelling, Tim remarked that if he’d occurred to have had a special racial background from Vanner, all of them would have came upon a lot earlier. Whereas errors in IVF remedies are uncommon – 99% of all fertility remedies and storage cycles within the UK happen with out an incident of any form, based on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority – errors do occur: in 2019, two California households swapped infants 4 months after they had been born, having realised that the unsuitable embryos had been implanted in every mom. Instances during which the unsuitable sperm, eggs or embryos are used have a tendency to return to the eye of oldsters solely when there’s something visibly very totally different a few child. We don’t routinely give infants DNA checks to make sure they’ve been created from the proper genetic materials; we assume all the things has gone based on plan. However as at-home DNA testing turns into extra commonplace, extra circumstances like this are more likely to come to mild.

The Johnsons didn’t contact their fertility clinic at this level. “We didn’t know what to do,” Vanner says. They had been not sure of his authorized standing relating to Tim, and if Tim’s organic father would possibly have the ability to declare paternity rights. A lawyer reassured them. “It was comforting to get the affirmation that he’s ours underneath the regulation, however we perceive anyone can sue anyone for something, particularly in the US.”

“There was loads of concern about who Tim’s organic father was,” Donna says, quietly. “We began listening to about donor-conceived youngsters having a number of siblings. It was scary.”

That they had already tried to search out Tim’s kin by way of the 23andMe outcomes earlier than they broke the information to him, however the closest connection he had was to a 3rd cousin. After Tim expressed an curiosity find out who his organic father was, they determined to do one other take a look at, this time with AncestryDNA, as a result of the corporate relies in Utah they usually figured there was a greater probability of discovering somebody who had used the identical fertility clinic on Ancestry’s database. As soon as once more, Tim was spitting right into a vial and sending his DNA off to be decoded. However this was not a “enjoyable household exercise”.

The outcomes got here in early 2021 they usually revealed a match with a girl who shared sufficient DNA with Tim for Ancestry to label her a “shut relative”. “Her entire identify was there,” Donna says, extensive eyed. “We began looking out by way of Fb and different means to see the age of the particular person. Was it a half-sibling? A grandparent? We landed on, it should be his aunt.”

They grew to become adept at on-line sleuthing. Vanner labored out the right way to search obituaries utilizing the time period “survived by”. “I put this girl’s identify in and an obituary popped up that ended up being her dad.” The girl’s father – Tim’s organic grandfather – had died a yr earlier and the names of all his youngsters had been listed. They started to Google all of the names and scour social media for them.

That’s how they found Devin McNeil and the long-forgotten weblog he used to maintain together with his spouse, Kelly. They’d written about how they had been from Utah, how they had been attempting to undertake, how they’d struggled with fertility points and had been in a position to have one baby by way of IVF: a son, Talon, who was the identical age as Tim.

Donna takes a deep breath. “We went, ‘Wow.’”

Vanner was decided to maintain his feelings in examine. “I didn’t need to dig an excessive amount of into whether or not I used to be upset, as a result of perhaps I might discover that I used to be,” he says, merely. “As his dad, I needed what could be greatest for him. If Tim needed to search out his organic father, there’s a connection there that may clarify issues I might by no means clarify, regardless of how onerous I attempt.” Part of him was fascinated to study what Tim had inherited from this different man. “What does he appear like? He’s going to be extra handsome than me – taller, as a result of I’m not that tall. These kinds of ideas had been going by way of my thoughts, completely.”

The Johnsons discovered pictures of Devin by way of Kelly’s Fb profile and scrutinised his face for indicators of Tim. “It was onerous to see the connection,” Vanner says. Tim has a particular dimple in his chin; this man had a bushy beard. “However I believe we additionally didn’t need to see a connection,” Donna provides. “I don’t need to see one other man in my baby.” After so many months trying to find Tim’s organic father, they had been repelled by the concept that they may have discovered him.

After which Vanner discovered Devin’s cellphone quantity. The morning they determined he was going to ring it, Donna went out for a run. “A few miles out, I acquired bodily ailing. The anxiousness took over and made me sick.”

Ready for Devin to choose up was “like for ever minutes,” Vanner says. “It was like time stood nonetheless.”

But Devin didn’t choose up, as a result of he didn’t recognise the quantity. “I believed it was a spam name.” He shrugs. “I simply ignored it.” Whoever was calling from this unfamiliar quantity was persistent. They stored attempting, over a variety of days. “Lastly, I believed, OK, I’ll simply reply it and inform them I’m not .”

The unknown caller struggled to get his phrases out. “You don’t know who I’m, however my identify’s Vanner Johnson. I believe you and I’ve a connection,” he finally stated. “Did you and your spouse do in vitro, by any probability?”

Devin stated that that they had.

“Was it on the – the College of Utah clinic?”

It was.

“Effectively,” Vanner stated, “I believe you and I want to speak.”

“I instantly thought,” Devin says, “the one individuals who know which might be these which might be near us” –they hadn’t up to date their weblog for greater than a decade and had forgotten it was nonetheless up. “However I used to be nonetheless sceptical that this was a rip-off name.” Devin pretended he was going into a gathering and couldn’t discuss, however Vanner provided to name again in an hour, on FaceTime, and stated he ought to get Kelly to hitch them. It was high quality in the event that they needed to maintain their digital camera off, Vanner stated, however he needed them to have the ability to see his face. “My plan was to get off the cellphone and never reply it when he referred to as again,” Devin says.

He went upstairs and advised Kelly concerning the bizarre name. “I additionally thought it was a rip-off,” Kelly says. “What does he need? Is he attempting to inform us that perhaps our child is just not our child from 14 years in the past?” However she thought they need to reply the FaceTime name, albeit with their digital camera off: “He is aware of an excessive amount of about us already.”

Devin and Kelly are talking to me from their dwelling in Fort Rock, Colorado, a 10-hour drive from the Johnsons. They moved right here from Utah a number of years after Talon was born. There’s a scan of a child’s face, framed, on the shelf behind them, in Devin’s dwelling workplace.

Like Donna and Vanner, they arrive from massive households – Kelly is one in all 5, Devin one in all six – and needed one in all their very own. After a few years attempting to conceive naturally, their first spherical of IVF led to Talon’s beginning, however they weren’t in a position to retailer any embryos from that cycle. They went by way of two extra rounds, with out success. “Combating infertility was as emotionally difficult as something we’ve gone by way of,” Devin says. “We needed to pay out of pocket for all three of our IVF cycles,” Kelly provides. “It was a hardship, financially. It was emotionally onerous, and it was bodily onerous. I ended up within the hospital after one of many cycles, from a lot ache, and passing out. It was quite a bit.”

Three cycles had been sufficient for the McNeils. They regarded to adoption. They had been far into the method – present process assessments, taking lessons to higher perceive the method, organising a public weblog detailing their fertility struggles in order that beginning moms might discover them – when Kelly found she was pregnant with their second son, Paxton, now 10, with none medical intervention in any respect. Two years later, their daughter, Londyn, was born. “We felt full,” Kelly says. “We had been lastly in a position to put all of our infertility behind us. After which, 14 years later, this comes again up.”

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Parents Kelly and Devin McNeil with children (from left) Talon, Londyn and Paxton, standing in a garden
Kelly and Devin McNeil with (from left) Talon, Londyn and Paxton. Photograph: Benjamin Rasmussen/The Guardian

On FaceTime, an hour after that first conversation, Vanner explained what he had discovered through the DNA tests and how they’d worked out that there must have been some kind of mistake at the clinic. “You are, most likely, the biological father of my son,” he said.

At first, Kelly misunderstood: she thought Vanner was claiming Talon wasn’t their biological child. “Our son has the same chin dimple that Devin has, which is pretty unique,” she told him.

“So does my son,” Vanner replied. “And I’ve always wondered where he got it from.” It left Kelly speechless.

Vanner asked if Devin was sporty, like Tim, and Devin said he was – he played everything, growing up. He asked if Devin was tall, because Tim was already catching up in height to his older brother, and Devin said yes – he’s 6ft 3in. Then Vanner sent over screenshots of Tim’s AncestryDNA family tree. “I saw my cousins, an aunt, a sister, a grandma,” Devin says. Vanner stressed that he wasn’t calling because he wanted anything from them: not money, not even a relationship. He just wanted to discover the truth.

For a good 24 hours after the call, Kelly and Devin looked for reasons not to believe Vanner. They’d worked out that Tim and Talon were born three months apart, which didn’t make sense. But then Vanner explained how their embryo transfer had to be delayed by three months. “Everything had an answer,” Devin says.

Donna and Kelly started a text message chain, comparing notes about their treatment at the Center for Reproductive Medicine. Donna shared the dates and times she was at the clinic; Kelly looked at her journal and found a timestamped picture of her embryos that placed her there for her transfer within an hour of Donna. The clinic issued every couple with a number, and they realised their client numbers were consecutive. “So something happened. No denying it.”

When they finally FaceTimed with everyone’s cameras on, Donna stared at Devin’s face. “I think I analysed it a hundred times within that phone call, looking to see if my son could really be his son,” she tells me. “I could not see it. Once we hung up the phone I said, ‘Is it possible I really had a baby with that man?’”

Devin took a DNA test, as did Kelly and Talon. The results showed Devin was father to both Talon and Tim.

All four parents were violated by the mistakes at the clinic, in different ways. Vanner had the paternity of his son taken from him; Devin’s sperm was used without his knowledge or consent; Donna had conceived and gestated a child with someone she had never met or agreed to have a baby with; and Kelly had to come to terms with the fact that another woman was mother to her husband’s child.

Despite all his online detective work, Vanner was shocked to see Tim’s official family tree after Devin’s DNA test. “Even though I knew it was going to happen, it was still hard to see Devin and Donna side by side on this chart with Tim as the son,” Vanner says. “It affected me more than I thought it would.”

“Somehow a clinic created this relationship with someone I didn’t consent with,” Donna says, with quiet indignation. “I definitely felt there was a violation.”

“This happened in a medical field you put so much trust in. You’re so vulnerable,” Kelly says. “What if there are more children out there? We did IVF three times.”

Devin says he felt anger and disappointment with the clinic, but the overriding feeling was compassion for the Johnsons. “I don’t think our lives changed nearly as much as theirs did. It didn’t change the biology of our children,” he says. “I started to think about Tim. If I’m a 12-year-old kid and I just learned this, how am I going to handle this going into my teenage years? It’s already hard enough. I had to turn the focus back to: how do we make this relationship not toxic? We could have ruined each other’s lives, had we chosen to. Tim doesn’t need that. They don’t need that.”

In the most fraught circumstances, the Johnsons and the McNeils forged a friendship. “The McNeils are an amazing family,” Vanner nods. “They’ve been handling this with as much grace as somebody could expect, and then some.”

When the McNeils broke the news to their three children, then 13, eight and six, they had to have what Devin calls a “multilayered discussion”: first, they had to tell them how babies are usually made, then explain how IVF works, and finally they told them how they now had an accidental half-brother. The kids took it in their stride. Paxton had a particularly profound take on it all: “Life doesn’t always give you the gifts you want, but the real gift is life itself,” he told his parents. The Johnsons had those words put on a plaque, which they gave the McNeils the following Christmas.

The two families met for the first time in a park in Utah, on a blistering hot day in June 2021. “We decided on very neutral ground,” Donna tells me. “From the outside it would just look like two families having a picnic together.”

When they saw each other, they hugged. “It wasn’t awkward,” Vanner remembers. “It was like you’d embrace a good friend.”

They played football and threw a ball around. Tim pushed his half-sister, Londyn, on a swing. They had lunch. Then Tim and Devin sat down together for a one-to-one chat. Tim had a list of questions specially prepared for his biological father.

“They were very much 12-year-old boy questions,” Devin smiles. “‘How tall were you at my age, and when you graduated? What sports do you like? Who’s your favourite athlete? Are you a Lionel Messi fan or a Cristiano Ronaldo fan?’ We don’t agree on that.” At first, Devin says, he was focusing on how the two families were interacting, how Donna and Kelly were getting on, how Vanner and Vanner Jr were responding to this strange situation. But as the afternoon went on, he began to look closely at Tim. “He’s 50% me. Does he act like me? Does he have the same sense of humour?”

Vanner and Donna were looking at Devin in the same way. They saw he and Tim shared the same mannerisms.

“The way they walked,” Donna says.

“The same gait,” Vanner nods.

“Maybe the way they hold their hands.”

Vanner insists he wasn’t unsettled when he noticed this. “It was intriguing, almost,” he says.

After two or three hours together, Vanner asked Tim if he would like a picture with Devin. Tim replied that he would like a picture with “both dads”.

Once they arrived home, Donna asked Tim how he felt. “I have three new siblings,” he said.

“They’re your half-siblings,” she corrected him.

“Well, technically my brother Vanner is my half-sibling,” Tim replied.

“Well then, yeah, they are your siblings,” Donna conceded. “But it was a very hard thing to realise that he felt that much connection,” she tells me now. “It could have just been kids playing in the park, but he definitely felt something.”

Over the past two years, the McNeils and Johnsons have become aware of just how many scandals involving clinics and doctors are only coming to light now because a critical mass of people have taken home DNA tests and been able to connect with each other online. “It happens not only way more than it should, but way more than we know,” Devin says. “Patients are discovering it. There’s so much trust when you go into a clinic. We’re signing these documents, saying this is what we consent to. Then to find out it was neglected … They took something that really couldn’t be more personal.”

The Johnsons and McNeils settled out of court with the Center for Reproductive Medicine last year. When the story became public, the clinic released a statement: “The safety and care of our patients is our primary goal. Our providers and staff strive to provide excellent care and we constantly work to make improvements.” No explanation has been made public as to how Devin’s sperm was used to create the Johnsons’ child. Given their consecutive patient numbers and back-to-back appointments, simple human error seems most likely.

Donna and Vanner often think about how far the repercussions of the mistake might have gone. They wonder if other children conceived at the clinic will one day discover they have Devin’s DNA, or Vanner’s: could his sperm have been used to fertilise another woman’s egg? And they think about the other embryos they had stored in the freezer that they so desperately wanted to use to create a large family, but ultimately decided not to use. They have no idea if those embryos were created with Devin’s sperm, or Vanner’s.

The sum of the settlement the families received from the clinic is undisclosed, but the McNeils say it was less than they could have claimed if one of them had had a botched shoulder surgery. Both families are planning to meet legislators in the US to campaign for better regulation and quality controls in the fertility industry, and to make penalties stronger when sperm, eggs and embryos are misused, intentionally or accidentally.

“You’re very vulnerable going into those clinics. We want others to know that this can happen,” Donna says. “We’re hoping for some regulation to protect the couples that go in, because it feels right now, as we’ve discovered and researched, it’s a wild west situation.”

If the 23andMe test hadn’t been on special offer, the Johnsons would have no idea about the mistake at the clinic. But Vanner says they’re happy they do. As DNA testing becomes more commonplace, he says, it seems unlikely Tim could go through life without discovering the truth. “At the end of the day, he’s going to find out. There’s no way to hide this. As much as somebody might want to, you can’t.” Despite his and Donna’s best efforts, their family has been changed. There are certain ways that we are closer, and other ways that have become harder. It’s still a work in progress.”

“DNA does not change how you love someone,” Donna adds. “As far as who you are, and what that looks like, it does change. Tim looks in the mirror and maybe sees a new person.”

“Your DNA is not what makes up your family,” Kelly says. “It’s who you spend your life with.”

Devin plans to be in Tim’s life for as long as he wants him to be. “I am happy that he is taking it well. He’s got a lot to navigate. We only have to navigate this from 600 miles away, but for the rest of his life he’s going to have a brother who’s his half-brother, and a dad who’s not his biological dad.”

When people ask Devin how many children he has, what does he say? He smiles. “My immediate answer is three. Sometimes I say three and a half.” He pauses. “Hopefully not any more than that. Hopefully I don’t get any more of those phone calls.”

The Gift, Jenny Kleeman’s six-part series on the unexpected truths revealed by at-home DNA testing, launches on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Monday 11 September.

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