True Crime

A woman from behind in a hospital gown 'The Retrievals' appears above her, with logos for New York T...
New York Times | Serial

New True Crime Podcast About Fertility Clinic Exposes How Women's Pain Is Minimized

The Retrievals, a new podcast from Serial and The New York Times, explores a case of drug theft in a fertility clinic that left women physically and emotionally harmed.

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A new podcast from The New York Times and Serial delves into a harrowing case that takes an unflinching look at IVF, addiction, and how the medical establishment perceives, interprets, and dismisses women’s pain. The Retrievals tells the story of a dozen women and the nurse who, unknown to them at the time, victimized them at their most vulnerable. Here’s everything you need to know.

The Retrievals is about a crime committed at the Yale Fertility Center from 2020 to 2021.

From 2020 to 2021 (though these dates have been called into question), many women who went to Yale Fertility Center for egg retrievals — a procedure in which a needle is inserted into and through the vaginal wall in order to access a patient’s ovary and eggs — expected to be given a drug combination that would sedate and anesthetize them. The latter drug was fentanyl, one of the most powerful painkillers in the world. But despite this, many women reported being wide-awake and feeling “everything” during a procedure when they should have felt practically nothing. Others who were relatively out of it during the procedure awoke in the recovery room in excruciating pain that doctors couldn’t explain to them. Some of these women had been given the highest dose safely and legally possible but were still in agony during their retrieval(s).

Within months, the reason became clear: a nurse at the clinic had been stealing fentanyl for personal use and filling the empty vials with saline.

The podcast interviews multiple victims.

“How could this happen at Yale?” one former patient asks in the first episode of the podcast, which explains the case and introduced listeners to some of the estimated hundreds of victims. Most of the women had a positive view of the institution when embarking upon their fertility journeys: associating “Yale” with prestige and expertise. Some of the women actually worked for the more than 300-year-old university. One woman actually studies addiction and says she had a “daydream” even as the procedure was getting done of her IV of fentanyl going straight into the nurse’s pocket (she was generally right, but it was not her specific nurse). Another woman studies how women and their pain were dismissed in medical settings. And despite their background knowledge, they and many others came up with their own personal narratives about what happened to them during their procedures — they assumed they weren’t sensitive to fentanyl, or that the pain was an awful but unavoidable step to motherhood.

The Retrievals explores the motivations of the nurse, Donna Monticone.

While Monticone was not interviewed for the podcast, the public aspects of her story, found in court documents, are explored. Monticone left what she describes as an abusive marriage and was embroiled in custody battles with her ex-husband. She began using fentanyl as a way to numb her stress and anxiety. Many patients interviewed had complicated feelings about what outcome they wanted, legally. Some questioned whether they were truly, as they’d previously believed, prison abolitionists. Others viewed her with compassion: people don’t commit these sort of crimes “for fun,” one woman points out before reading a letter she had submitted at trial urging leniency for Monticone.

But even those who begged often had unsettled feelings about the leniency of the Yale nurse’s sentence: four weekends in prison (alternating, so as not to interrupt her custody arrangement), followed by three months of home confinement and three years of supervised release. Her nursing license was suspended, but not revoked. One woman pointed out that Monticone was more remorseful about what this case had done to her children than the patients she harmed, and observed that Monticone leaned on her motherhood — something the Yale patients were striving for — as a key aspect of her defense, and that felt painful, as did the revelation that Monticone herself was a former IVF patient.

The Retrievals also examines systemic problems at Yale that allowed this to happen.

After Monticone’s trial, seven patients filed a lawsuit against Yale, though this would eventually balloon to 68 plaintiffs. The institution failed to put safeguards in place against drug diversion, which that made it easy for Monticone to do what she did, they said. More than that, Yale had ample clues to understand drug diversion might be a source of their patients’ pain. The Retrievals spoke to some staffers at Yale, under the condition of anonymity, who painted a picture of a haphazard, poorly controlled system of drug storage and record keeping ripe for abuse. The Drug Enforcement Agency found that under Monticone’s watch, 35% of the clinic’s fentanyl went missing, a number that doesn’t even include vials she tampered with that were administered to patients containing saline. Once the crime was discovered, one staffer says the response was primarily about protecting Yale rather than expressing concern for the patients.

Ultimately, The Retrievals explores the topic of women’s pain and why it’s overlooked.

Patient trauma remains, but even now their pain is overlooked. Several of the subjects discussed having their experiences and pain dismissed by other healthcare workers. “‘Well, what’s the big deal? You ended up pregnant,’” one former patient recalls her OB telling her after the birth of her children. “As if the only thing that matters is that single and not the entire process.”

The Retrievals does not have a satisfying or reassuring answer to the question of how medical systems can better address, and believe, women’s pain, but it’s launched a new and important discussion that will no doubt continue for years to come.

The Retrievals from Serial and The New York Times is available wherever you get your podcasts.

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