I experienced menopause at just 16 years-old
While other teens are planning for prom, Stephanie Gallagher is fighting a disease that threatens her future ability to have children.
Thrown into premature menopause, Gallagher, 16, suffered an auto-immune disease in which antibodies attacked her ovaries. Doctors say she has lost more than half her egg follicles over the past few months.
In a bid to salvage the precious cells, a top Manhattan fertility specialist performed an urgent surgery Thursday in a children's wing of Westchester Medical Center.
Dr. Kutluk Oktay removed two-thirds of the outer layer of Gallagher's right ovary, where microscopic eggs are stored. The tissue will be cut into pieces and frozen until she's an adult and ready to become a mom - and then transplanted back.
"I've always loved kids. I definitely want to have kids when I'm older," said Gallagher, who lives in Pompton Plains, NJ. A high-school junior, she plans to become a nurse or child psychologist.
While ovarian tissue is frozen for women with cancer before they undergo chemotherapy, Gallagher's surgery is a first for anyone in the midst of autoimmune ovarian failure, Oktay said.
Normally, young women are diagnosed with the disease after all their eggs have been destroyed.
"You never catch it when it's happening because it happens really fast - in a matter of months," said Oktay, who is also a New York Medical College professor and pioneered ovary-freezing and transplantation.
"We were lucky to catch Stephanie at this stage," he said.
The teen told The Post after surgery, "I feel a lot better about my future," adding she hopes her story will warn others who suffer premenopausal symptoms to get checked before it's too late.
Gallagher first went to a doctor for severe headaches, hot flashes and pain in her groin. Her menstrual period had stopped for 10 months. A pediatric endrocrinologist referred her to Oktay.
After performing the first ovarian transplant in 1999, Oktay has frozen tissue for more than 100 female patients worldwide. Besides cancer patients, they include a one-year-old and other children with sickle-cell anemia and Turner syndrome, a chromosomal disorder.
Oktay, who freezes tissue as a consultant at New Hope Fertility Center in Manhattan, says the transplants "can be done for children at any age in the face of treatment or conditions that cause early menopause."
Of four patients who had ovarian tissue replaced and wanted to get pregnant, three had babies, and two are trying, he said.
In Gallagher's case, Oktay estimates the surgery might have saved about 100,000 follicles. Whether a future transplant will help her bear children is uncertain.
"I cannot guarantee that this will succeed, but given the circumstances, there was no other option," he said.
Gallagher's dad, James, a hospital clerk, and mom Robin, a cashier, were willing to dip into Stephanie's college fund to pay for the $15,000 surgery, but Oktay persuaded their insurer to cover some or all of it, he said.
The family still has to pay about $1,000 a year to store the frozen tissue.