Genes that fit: Tulane freshmen discover shared sperm-donor dad

Mikayla Stern-Ellis was looking for a roommate with a compatible personality, not shared genetics.

But last spring, when she logged onto a Tulane University website to help incoming freshmen select suitable roommates, one profile caught her eye. Emily Nappi, of San Francisco, had a similar build and long, wavy brown hair, just like she did. Both also had lesbian parents and were passionate about theater.

So Mikayla, a San Diego native, messaged Emily right away, suggesting they room together. It was too late; Emily already had a roommate. But the girls friended each other on Facebook anyway.

Then on Father’s Day, Mikayla posted a glib Facebook status. “Thank you Colombian sperm donor, for one of my X chromosomes.”

“That’s odd,” thought Emily, whose parents also had selected a donor of Colombian heritage.

She responded by writing, “Not to be creepy. But kinda think we could have same donor.”

The idea was so far-fetched that neither gave it much thought, they said. But when the girls arrived at Tulane in the fall, they met and jokingly referred to each other as “sister.”

They were placed in the same dormitory, one floor apart, and both landed parts in the same theater production, “The Vagina Monologues.” Throughout the first semester, they said hello in the stairwell but were more acquaintances than friends.

Then, over Thanksgiving break, both freshmen were part of a larger group of Tulane students that didn’t go home. They ended up at the Gonzales outlet mall, as part of a Black Friday shopping trip. Each spent the day shopping with their own friends, then discovered on the bus ride home that they’d bought the same sweater in different colors.

The similarities continued to pile up.

They both sleeptalk and sleepwalk — so much so that their parents used to put an extra lock on the door at night, for fear they’d walk outside. And back in the early 1990s, their parents had gone to the same place, California Cryobank, and selected a Colombian sperm donor with an interest in theater out of hundreds of potential candidates for insemination.

During winter break, both talked with their moms about it and showed them pictures that friends had taken of the two together, with strikingly similar smiles.

Emily said her mother, a scientist, chose the 19-year-old Colombian sperm donor because he was handsome, tall, smart, athletic — he played tennis — and because he was interested in ecology, saying he wanted to save the world from global warming. Mikayla said her birth mother chose the donor for most of the same reasons, though his Colombian heritage was especially appealing to her because she has very light skin and thought it would be nice if her child didn’t have to slather on an entire bottle of sunscreen every time she headed outside.

Lightning struck one afternoon, while Mikayla sat in her dermatologist’s waiting room. She received two text messages, one after another. Both contained four-digit sperm-donor numbers. One was from her mom and the other from Emily.

The numbers matched.

Wanting a child

In the early 1990s, Debra and Heidi Stern-Ellis had been together for six years and were ready to have a child. But “two-mommy” families were still a relative rarity, they said, recalling how friends had had a baby with a known donor and ended up on the Phil Donahue talk show. They had both been active advocates of gay and lesbian rights. They’d sat on panels and marched in parades, they said.

But this decision was different and seemed unconnected to politics.

“We really just wanted to be moms,” Stern-Ellis said.

It was the beginning of the lesbian-gay baby boom, but the law was still unclear about whether a known donor had possible custody rights, so the San Diego couple chose to go with an anonymous donor through California Cryobank, one of the nation’s oldest sperm banks and now the world’s largest.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Italia Nappi and her ex-partner, Roxane Gruenheid, were also ready to have a baby and wanted to use an anonymous donor.

“We had “x’d out the idea of a known donor because of the fear that the donor might come back and take our child away,” Nappi said.

They also chose to use California Cryobank, headquartered in Los Angeles, which was known for its stringent selection process and its highly educated, young donors, she said. In addition to intelligence and a good medical history, the couple wanted the donor to possess some of Grunheid’s German heritage, so they chose the Colombian young man, whose family was also part German, Nappi said.

Once the babies were born, both sets of parents delighted in their little girls’ curly hair, which obviously hadn’t come from their own straight-haired DNA.

“I would say, ‘Thanks, Mr. Donor Man, for the cool hair,’ ” said Nappi, who also thinks that her daughter may have gotten her temperament from the donor. In his 25-page profile, he had mentioned that the women in his family were fiery, she said.

Of course, the parents also see plenty in their girls that was inherited from their mothers. “But Emily has a special artistic window on the world that I don’t really possess,” Nappi said.

The two families plan to meet in March, when Mikayla’s younger brother Ethan has a soccer match in San Francisco. Ethan pronounces the whole matter “pretty cool” while his moms say, “It’s incredible.”

Nappi, who has watched Emily beam since she got the news, said simply: “I’m so happy for her happiness.”

Since it began in 1977, California Cryobank’s donor sperm, frozen in liquid nitrogen that is cooled to minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit, has helped to create an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 babies, said Scott Brown, director of client experience. Still, until the 1990s, 98 to 99 percent of their customers were infertile heterosexual couples, Brown said. Today, about 40 percent of their customers are lesbian couples.

Although all clients look for good health and intelligence in donors, Brown said, in his experience, lesbian couples seem to be more likely to choose donors of another race or ethnicity, to create a “more worldly-looking baby,” he said.

Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 percent of all U.S. births each year now use assisted reproductive technology such as sperm donation. In 2011, parents of 61,610 babies relied upon the treatments.

But it was only a generation ago that sperm- and egg-donation banks began to spread across the country. Today, the infants conceived through implantations have reached adulthood and some have undertaken searches for their genetic parents and siblings. The reality show, “Generation Cryo,” stars half-siblings who seek out each other and meet their shared father for the first time.

Emily and Mikayla, who met coincidentally and then figured out they were sisters, may have the most spectacular story yet. “It’s mind-blowing,” Mikayla said. “We live one floor apart on the same college campus, in the same city.”

“I’ve never heard of this happening,” said Brown, noting that one mathematician calculated the chances of donor siblings meeting in New York City were close to one in a million.

‘We are sisters’

These days, Emily and Mikayla act like tremendously happy, newly minted sisters. And the word is spreading.

Tulane’s student newspaper, The Hullabaloo, published a story on the girls’ strange discovery last week, and since then, the interview requests have come pouring in.

They talked about it Sunday as they sat together on the same side of a booth in the campus coffee shop. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life,” Emily said. “Me too,” Mikayla said.

They’ve determined that their sperm donor is responsible for their noses, smile lines and wavy hair. And for sure the cleft chins. No one else in their families has cleft chins.

Giggling, the two recalled that crucial moment, two weeks ago, when Mikayla determined the donor numbers matched.

“Holy shit, we are sisters,” she texted Emily.

“I so much wanted it to be true,” Emily said, because she is the only girl in her family. But she feared Mikayla was joking.

“OMG, what? You’re kidding me,” Emily texted back. “Tell me you’re serious.”

Mikayla texted again in all caps, the text equivalent of yelling: “YOU ARE MY SISTER.”

The two then called their closest friends on the telephone, Emily screaming with joy from her mom’s house and Mikayla “quietly freaking out” in loud whispers from the waiting room.

Neither dialed the other’s number. “If we’d known each other better, I would have called her,” Mikayla said. Instead, they tapped back-and-forth, texting on their phones for hours.

They didn’t talk until after the break, when they saw each other in the Tulane cafeteria and hugged. “We have a lot of catching up to do,” Emily said.

For now, the two sisters are getting to know each other. They text a lot. They talk even more. They borrow each other’s clothes.

And they spend time together. Said Emily, with an enormous grin: “I say it like 20 times a day: ‘I’m going to meet my sister.’ ”