Destiny’s Child: India’s first test-tube baby is 32, a mom and a ray of hope

Updated on Jul 22, 2018 10:53 AM IST

Dr Indira Hinduja made medical history when Harsha Chawda was born through IVF in 1986. Decades later, she helped deliver Chawda’s kids and made history again.

India’s first test-tube baby, Harsha Shah, with her husband Divyapal, two children and Dr Indira Hinduja (seated), who pioneered the technique in India.(Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
India’s first test-tube baby, Harsha Shah, with her husband Divyapal, two children and Dr Indira Hinduja (seated), who pioneered the technique in India.(Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | ByKrutika Behrawala

Dr Indira Hinduja had attempted IVF with 17 couples before she met the Chawdas. Mani Chawda, then 24, was a part-time teacher; her husband, Shyam, a BMC worker. They had been trying to have a baby for four years.

They didn’t understand the details of in vitro fertilisation, but they were willing to try anything. “I just wanted a baby,” says Mani.

The clinical trial was free, which was good because the couple wasn’t earning much; they had to borrow money to pay for the hormone injections.

And then, suddenly, they had made medical history. The Chawdas found success on the first attempt, had a regulation pregnancy, and arrived at the massive, colonial King Edward Memorial Hospital in central Mumbai, in labour, on August 6, 1986.

“I still remember it was 3.30 pm,” Dr Hinduja says. “To be safe, we chose to do a C-section.”

Dr Hinduja had roped in a trusted peer, the late Dr Kusum Zaveri, who was practising at JJ Hospital back then, to assist “in case my hands started to shake”.

Baby Harsha, India’s first IVF success, was born a few hours later. Thirty years on, the little group made history again. Harsha had a baby, conceived the traditional way, and delivered by Dr Hinduja, and doctors across the country celebrated.

“It was proof that IVF babies lead a normal life,” Hinduja says. “To watch Harsha grow up, marry… she now has two children, a boy and a girl. The whole experience has been incredible and I’m grateful to God that I was part of it.”

The experiments

‘There were all sorts of comments. Some said the baby would be born with four hands; others wondered if it was even my husband’s. But Dr Hinduja had assured us that the baby was ours.”

Hinduja says she was 9 when she first realised she wanted to be a doctor. She had broken a bone, been admitted to hospital, and was mesmerised by these adults in lab coats who seemed to have all the answers.

By age 32, she was an MD, pursuing a PhD in IVF research via the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health in Mumbai.

“Since the world’s first IVF baby was born in 1978, it had been a hot topic,” Hinduja says. “I had friends who were junior scientists at the institute and were doing IVF experiments on animals. It was all very exciting.”

The couples barely had any questions then. “I used to draw a chart and explain the entire process. They’d tell me to do anything but give them a baby,” Dr Hinduja says.

When the Chawdas’ embryo was born in its petri dish, Dr Hinduja couldn’t believe it had finally worked. If they were really careful, and really lucky, they were going to go down in the record books.

It was a confusing time for the Chawdas. “I remember I missed one injection and Dr Hinduja scolded me so much,” says Mani, now 57, laughing. “I also took part in a running race held on Sports Day at my school. She told me I shouldn’t have done that.”

Mani had a little trouble at her baby shower too. The Chawdas hadn’t told her extended family she had conceived through IVF; they discovered when the media turned up at the shower.

“Once they knew, there were all sorts of comments,” she says. “Some said the baby would be born with four hands; other wondered if it was even my husband’s. But Dr Hinduja had assured us that the baby was ours. We also found support in Harkisan Mehta [then editor of the Gujarati weekly Chitralekha], who travelled to the US and returned with photographs of IVF babies. He showed them to us and told us how a test-tube baby was normal was abroad.”

Then Harsha was born, and Mani began to receive letters from all over the country. “They were congratulating me. One woman came all the way from Worli to our house in Jogeshwari to discuss IVF because she wanted to do it too.”

‘I was like Shaktimaan’

If dealing with an IVF pregnancy was tough, telling Harsha that she was an IVF baby was tougher, Harsha says. “I figured it out,” says Harsha, 32, a former corporate secretary and now stay-at-home-mom. “Every year the media would come to take photographs of me on my birthday. I’d hear them refer to me as a test-tube baby.”

It didn’t bother her, she says, until she began using test tubes in the science lab at school in her early teens. “I associated test tubes with experiments and wondered if I was one too. I was very upset,” she recalls.

Her parents, uncertain of how to explain it to her, called up Hinduja. says Harsha, laughing.

They kept in touch over the years. When it came time for Harsha to have her own babies delivered, it was Dr Hinduja she turned to. “She’s like my godmother,” she says.

Advances in IVF

Hinduja has helped over 15,000 couples with IVF treatment so far. She is also a pioneer in GIFT (Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer) treatments in India, where the egg is fertilised within the fallopian tube.

“I’m proud to have done my work with limited resources and training,” Dr Hinduja says. “Today, couples are more aware and knowledgeable. They decide at what stage in their life they’d like a child. The success rate in IVF has increased too, from about 13% of couples to about 55%, in my experience.”

The cost remains a major challenge, she adds. “And we have done no work to figure out how this technique can be used in cancer research.”

What hasn’t changed is the expression on every couple’s face when they find out it’s worked. “They look at you as if you’re a god,” she says, smiling.

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