SAN DIEGO — As Traci Portugal looks through old family photos, she knows she can never turn the page on a family secret.
“I kept thinking like this is a joke, right? This is a joke,” Traci said. “This is April Fools. You're about to say 'you're kidding.'”
Traci's dad died when she was 16. Now, in her 40's, she's having some medical issues. Her doctor suggested DNA testing to get a better picture of her medical history. Traci took a 23andMe test in Sept. 2019. A month later she got the results.
“I had all these cousins popping up I had never heard of," said Traci.
Traci planned to start contacting these relatives. That's when her mom said they needed to talk. She told Traci that her fertility doctor combined donor sperm from an anonymous medical student with her dad's to help her get pregnant.
“She said 'I still believe your dad is you dad. Those tests are wrong. You look just like him',” she said.
Researching her DNA test results, Traci learned her biological dad was a man named Dr. Gary Vandenberg and he was no anonymous medical student. His name appears on her birth certificate. Dr. Gary Vandenberg was the attending physician when she was born at Scripps Memorial in La Jolla and he was also her mom's fertility doctor.
“If a doctor came in and told his patients, 'I'm going to go into the next room. I'm going to go do my business in a cup and I'm going to come in and basically, you know, put myself, my sperm inside of you' - I don't know any patient would say - 'oh yes - please go do that.' That's exactly what we came here for," said Traci.
Traci sent Dr. Vandenberg a letter asking for medical history. When he didn't respond, she called his office to confirm they got it. Much to her surprise, they put him on the phone.
“I had not prepared at all and I just remember shaking a lot and just asking, you know, 'did that sound familiar?' what I had found, and he said, ‘Oh ya - that sounds right. I donated a lot back then.," she said.
Traci said she got a few brief answers about her medical history but said his lack of compassion in that call, and a follow-up conversation, sent her to a very dark place. She contemplated suicide.
“For a man who does this for a living, who helps people get pregnant, who should realize the devastation this kind of discovery causes - he seemed very indifferent and just insensitive," said Traci.
Traci wanted to take legal action to get more medical information - but quickly learned here in California, donor-conceived children have no rights to sue their biological donor. Her parents would have to sue, but her dad is deceased and her mom wanted no part of a lawsuit.
Jody Madeira is a law professor passionate about the fight for donor-conceived children to have more rights. She believes Dr. Vandenberg committed battery and a violation of informed consent. She also said an argument can be made for rape by deception.
“It's hard to imagine a time when patients are more vulnerable than when they're lying on their back with their legs in stirrups and they have no idea that this sperm is illicit,” Madeira said.
According to Dr. Vandenberg's website, he just retired and closed his La Jolla office in February. Hoping to speak with him, News 8 tried calling several numbers for his office and home, but they were all disconnected. The attempts to reach him at his house in Rancho Santa Fe have gone unanswered.
“When you look at the motives doctors have voiced, some have said I needed the money,” Madeira said. “Others have said, I did it for the good of the patients."
Professor Madeira would like to see California's law changed to give donor-conceived children more rights when they become an adult. At the very least, she says they should have access to important medical information.
“Where I come from. What's my ethnic history. What's my racial history. What medical conditions does my family have," said Madeira.
She would also like them to have the right to sue fertility doctors for fraud because, as she's finding, this happens a lot; doctors injecting themselves into family trees without permission.
“When I look in the mirror, I thought I saw my dad,” Traci said. “When I look at my son, I thought I saw my dad, and now that was just all called into question.”
Traci is now working hard to change laws and she started a website donordeceived.org, to help others in her situation get the help they need to move forward with their lives.
She's come a long way, but admits the pain still runs deep. Especially when she looks at pictures of her with her dad, his dark features and her blond hair, she can't help but wonder if he always secretly questioned her DNA.
“I’d give anything to have him here today and say, 'You're my dad. I love you. It doesn't matter',” said Traci.