Fatherhood in reach for men with high-level SCI injuries
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News
By the time he turned 33, Brent Watson had been through more heartache than most people could bear. He lost his 15-year-old brother Michael in the same car accident that left him a quadriplegic at age 17. And a few years later, his fiancé passed away at age 22 of Hodgkin’s disease.
So it was with great emotion that Watson and wife Julie witnessed the births of their twin son and daughter on May 24, 2004. “When I got with my mom I was crying like a little baby,” Watson said. “It was life after all the death I had seen and gone through.”
It was also affirmation that parenthood is well within reach for men with high-level spinal cord injuries, thanks in part to the many medical advances that now help infertile couples conceive. “They have all kinds of ways of doing things now,” said Watson, 34, owner of Comfort Keepers, a home-health company in Alabaster, Alabama.
Dr. Jack Aldridge, a retired neuro-urologist for Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, said the causes of infertility in men with spinal cord injuries range from problems with sperm production (i.e. low or non-existent sperm counts) to issues with sperm delivery (i.e. the inability to maintain an erection or ejaculate).
In Watson’s case, the culprit was a condition called retrograde ejaculation. Aldridge said it occurs when there’s damage to the muscles or nerves that control the opening and closing of the bladder. “The bladder is supposed to close when ejaculation occurs,” he said. When it doesn’t, semen is allowed to flow backward into the bladder.
To help couples conceive in such cases, doctors typically retrieve sperm from the man’s bladder and inject it into a woman’s reproductive tract. But because Julie had some infertility issues as well, the Watsons opted for in vitro fertilization—a process in which her eggs were fertilized with his sperm in the laboratory.
Doctors implanted two of the fertilized eggs in Julie’s uterus, and one week later the Watsons learned she was pregnant. “We were like: Whoa,” Watson said. “We hugged and we cried. We definitely were excited and we still are.”
Make that excited and exhausted. Since the birth of Avery Elizabeth and Ashton Michael, daily life has been a whirlwind for the Watsons. “They had chronic colic and we didn’t get a lot of sleep at first,” Watson said. “I think if we slept three hours we were happy.” Watson said he was initially nervous about how much help he would be with childcare. “I didn’t know what I could do and couldn’t do,” he said. “I worried about holding them. And I still remember the first time I fed them. Julie said she didn’t think I would be able to do lots of things I can do now.”
“He has definitely done more than I expected,” Julie said. Even duties that turned out easier for her to do, he at least attempted.“He tried to change diapers, but it would have taken him a very long time,” she said.
Now that the babies are toddlers, Watson said he’s working hard to get them to understand the importance of minding daddy. “When they get to be 3 or 4, I’m not going to be able to crawl under a table to chase them. So when I say come here, I want them to come here.”
So far, his strategy seems to be working. “If they wake up in the middle of night, he can yell from our room and say lay down and they will,” marvels Julie. “If I go in there, they start laughing and
jumping in bed. It’s like they know.”
Watson said he got some comforting advice—and a friendly warning—from a paralyzed friend who is also a dad. “He said: They’ll always know that you’re their dad. And they’ll use the fact you can’t get to them to their advantage.” Watson wrote the book “Come Take a Walk with Me” to describe his experiences following his 1988 car accident. And he’s now working on a chronicle about his life as the father of twins. ‘I’m calling it “Raising Kids from the Seat of My Pants,’ ” he said.
He hopes it will be an encouragement to those who might believe parenthood is impossible for someone in a wheelchair. “I would tell them: It can be done. If someone tells you no, go to the next person. Don’t cut yourself short. I think if you put your mind to it, you can achieve your goals, whether it’s having kids or anything else. It’s a matter of sticking to it.”
Therapies that May Help Men with Spinal Cord Injuries Become Fathers
- Medicines that increase sperm production.
- Techniques to induce ejaculation, such as penile vibratory stimulation or rectal probe electro ejaculation
- Surgical procedures to retrieve sperm from the bladder or epididymis, a coiled segment of the spermatic ducts that serves to store, mature and transport sperm between the testis and the vas deferens.
Brent Watson with physical therapist Allison Fracchia at Methodist Rehabilitation Center.