Alexander and Daphna Cardinale were already the proud parents of a young girl. But when she kept asking for a sibling, they decided to do in-vitro fertilization at a clinic their friend recommended.
On their second try, Daphna Cardinale got pregnant and carried a baby girl to term.
But when Alexander Cardinale saw the healthy child on the day of her birth in September 2019 — with darker skin and dark hair — he says he knew something was off.
“The room shrank, and I got really dizzy … and everything just went numb,” he said in a video released through his lawyer. “I stayed in that place for a long time.”
For months, he commented on the baby’s appearance. And then, in an attempt to assuage her husband’s fears, Daphna ordered a DNA test.
When they got the results – when the baby was two months old — they were shocked. Neither parent was related to the child.
“The fertility clinic transferred to Daphna an embryo that belonged to … strangers,” their lawyer, Alex Wolf, told TODAY. Daphna Cardinale “was, in other words, sort of an unwilling and unknowing surrogate for another couple’s baby.”
Immediately, the couple started to wonder what had happened to their embryo. As it turned out, Wolf said, another couple had carried their biological child to term.
“They had effectively done a child swap,” Wolf said of the clinic.
The other family sent the Cardinales a photo of the baby they’d given birth to — who has light skin and blond hair.
“I looked at her, and I was so aware that I just don’t know her I didn’t know her at all,” Daphna Cardinale said, tearfully. “So I remember thinking I was like, ‘I don’t know you,’ which is a heartbreaking thing to think of your own daughter.”
At first, Wolf said, the Cardinales met up with the other family who lived nearby almost every day. Eventually though, it was too difficult on everyone and they decided the children should be with their biological parents.
“She was four months old, we missed everything,” Daphna Cardinale said. “We missed, like the whole newborn phase we missed with her. We missed the whole pregnancy.”
She added that while it was exciting to finally bring her biological daughter home, she was equally devastated to lose the baby she’d raised from day one.
“I was losing a baby at the same time that I was getting a baby, “ she said. “So there’s grief, and so then your heart starts breaking for their family at the same time. Because at the same time, everyone’s gaining a child but everyone’s losing a child.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing for the Cardinales has been explaining the situation to their older daughter, Olivia, who was 5 when the babies were born. Olivia had bonded with the Cardinales’ non-biological child and was devastated by the swap.
“That’s still the biggest trauma for me,” Alexander Cardinale said. “Tough to explain to a 5-year-old that the child, that that sister that they imprinted on and love —it’s their sister — is not their sister.”
In the months since, the two families have had to work out “complicated family dynamics,” Wolf said, and typically see each other twice a month.
On Monday, the Cardinales filed a lawsuit against the clinic they had done IVF through, the California Center for Reproductive Health, and the doctor they accuse of being responsible, Eliran Mor. Mor and the California Center for Reproductive Health did not respond to TODAY’s request for comment.
Through law firm Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, the Cardinales are suing the clinic and Mor for breach of contract, medical malpractice and negligence, among other things.
Wolf says the Cardinales hope their lawsuit both holds the clinic and Mor responsible and will “shine a spotlight on this issue.”
“So that there’s a public discussion and understanding that these types of traumatizing events happen,” he said. “And that we need (an) understanding that we need to get regulation or regulations to govern fertility clinics. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”