A journey from futility into fertility
“Hey, I just wanted to see if it worked.”
This was the don’t-blame-me response I would say to my wife each time our young son would do something she found maddeningly irritating. The “it” I’m referring to is what I had once believed to be my neutered nether regions.
You see, one of the many shibboleths contained in the book of “Thou Shalt Never Again . . .”, the perennial Gospel distributed to new cripples, is that men with spinal cord injuries shoot blanks; that is, if they can shoot anything at all. Alas, we’re infertile. Except, it turns out, when we aren’t.
I’d never thought to question the medical certainty that I would be unable to father a child without medical intervention. The considerable costs of in vitro fertilization notwithstanding, the technique of sperm retrieval back then involved a procedure known as electroejaculation, an adapted animal husbandry technique this husband had no interest in.
But the veil of my presumed infertility was lifted after reading an article written by Mitchell Tepper Ph.D., a sexologist expert in the field of sexuality and disability. Dr. Tepper, also spinal cord injured, was sharing about his life as a new parent with a disability. He also detailed in unabashed user-manual language the at-home tools he and his wife took to conceive their son: a vibrator to apply to the head of the penis (causing reflex ejaculation), latex-free syringes to collect the critters (latex is a sperm killer), and one ripe ovulating ovary. So, for the first in my 15 year post-SCI existence I discovered that my junk can still be dangerous (ah, just like old times).
My wife and I had been together four years when we discovered Dr. Tepper’s Dead Sea Scroll manuscript. When we married we had no expectation of tending to anyone other than each other and our cat. Eager to reproduce Dr. Tepper’s success, we immediately descended into the laboratory, fired up the Bunsen burners, donned a pair of goggles, cued up some John Tesh, and followed Mitch’s instructions to the letter. A few days later the home pregnancy test was . . . negative. We tried the next month. Strike two.
We regrouped. I sought out a specialist in male fertility who performed a semen analysis. The results were encouraging, I had viable sperm (wearing Speedos, no less). However, the doctor cautioned that the probability of success using Dr. Tepper’s at-home approach was very low and could take years of trying. He prescribed a battery of costly tests and procedures for both me and my wife to undergo. While waiting for these scheduled appointments to take place, my wife purchased a home ovulation test kit. This made all the difference. The third time was the charm. Fertility appointments all canceled: we transmuted futility into fertility.
As recently as this week, 14 years after my wife delivered our son, ABC News published this story: Paraplegic Man Conceives Twin Girls After Sperm Extraction. After being told by his doctor that he could never father a child, Raul Rodriguez, a T5 paraplegic, did just that. “That doctor,” said Rodriguez, “was wrong.”
You might think that by now there would be an updated edition of “Thou Shalt Never Again. . .” Apparently not.
I was recently an invited panelist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for a symposium on sexuality and fertility following spinal cord injury. I got to share my story. Many of those gathered, particularly those who are newly injured, are rediscovering their sexual identity and the possibilities for parenthood. I’m hoping they’ll be the next generation to say, “Hey I just wanted to see if it worked. And it did.”