“’You’re still my dad.’ He said it first and that’s exactly how I feel.”
Donna and Vanner Johnson got a true surprise on their 16th wedding anniversary, in 2019 — Vanner was not the father of their son Tim, then 12.
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“It talks about crazy quirky genetic things — like if you can match musical pitch or do you smell asparagus in your urine,” Donna told The Post of what they expected to learn about each other.
But she was definitely not expecting to be listed as the only parent for Tim, along with “father unknown.”
Her husband’s reaction: “What do mean, ‘father unknown?’ I’m his father!”
It took a year-long investigation to find out that another man’s sperm had been used to fertilize Donna’s eggs at a fertility clinic.
This led to big questions about who Tim’s biological father really was — but also, was there a switch and Vanner had an unknown biological son out in the world?
It turned out he didn’t have any other children. The clinic, it seemed, had mistakenly used sperm from Devin McNell, a client with his wife Kelly.
“In March of 2021 I got a call. Vanner proceeded to tell me that we had something in common and it was related to IVF,” Devin recalled. “I didn’t know what to think. I thought it wasn’t a real call, I thought it was a scam. I told Kelly this guy is going to call back, he wants to FaceTime, but said we could cover our camera.”
Once the truth came out, Devin said, “There was a lot of disbelief. We couldn’t believe something like that would happen. The more you learn you realize it’s not that uncommon. But I recognized my grandma and nieces’ [names] when I saw [Tim’s] Ancestry.com family tree.”
But the McNells wanted to meet the Johnsons — and introduce Tim to his biological half-brother, who had been born a few months before him.
The Johnsons did not tell Tim right away, however. At first, they weren’t even sure they were ever going to tell him, but finally came to the conclusion that it was best if he found out from them and not randomly, like they did.
“I told him my feelings don’t change,” Vanner recalled, and Tim said, “’You’re still my dad.’ He said it first and that’s exactly how I feel.”
“It’s a hard situation for kids. It’s part of their daily lives,” said McNell, who has three kids with Kelly. “It didn’t change our family only than the knowledge, ‘Hey guys this is how babies are made, sometimes it’s in a lab — whoa, and you guys have a half brother.’”
There have now been several stories of IVF mix-ups, some of which have led to babies being return to their genetic families. Tim’s story, however has a twist — the two families have become friends.
“We met in a park and they were all kicking a ball, playing Frisbee, and Tim enjoyed that,” said Donna of their first meeting.
The Johnsons visited the McNells, who have moved to Colorado, at their home this past summer, going hiking, playing games and just hanging out.
“They think it’s cool that they have a half-brother out there,” Devin said of his and Kelly’s kids. Tim, he said, has questions about what Devin was like when he was a kid.
The families — who both settled with the clinic for undisclosed amounts and signed an NDA — have kept in touch by text and sharing videos of Tim with the McNells, who are letting Tim set the pace of their relationship.
“They’ve been very helpful and welcoming us into their home,” Vanner said of the McNells, noting that they’re all trying to find the balance with Tim. “We want to make sure he’s sharing the things he wants to share with them but not harping on it either. That’s a hard balance.”
“It did change their family tree. It’s just an extension for us,” said Kelly. “But we left it up to Tim how he wants involvement.”
Still, Devin admitted: “I go through different emotions. I feel frustrated that things don’t get better: Why are we still having donor issues five decades into this medical procedure? Sometimes I just feel bad, I feel bad that their families are affected by this, that their families aren’t who they thought they were.”