Paralyzed man's dream of fatherhood comes true

January 21, 1992|By Sue Miller

Stephen and Brenda MacDonald had been married five years, but they wanted to wait until they had their own home before starting a family.

On May 21, 1981, three months after they moved into a house in Laurel, the 24-year-old machinist crashed his motorcycle into a guardrail.

He was riding "too fast" on a one-lane bridge, he remembers. When he hit the rail, his motorcycle stopped. But his body kept going, zooming into space before plummeting onto the railroad tracks 25 feet below.

Almost 11 years later, Mr. MacDonald blames "partly alcohol and partly speed" for the accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He and his wife were sure they would never have a child of their own.

But they were wrong.

On Jan. 2, the MacDonalds became the parents of Sarah Elizabeth, the first baby conceived and born in Maryland with the help of electroejaculation, a new technique also known as electrically-assisted recovery of sperm.

Today, Stephen and Brenda MacDonald are celebrating at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson where their 19-day old baby was conceived after her father's sperm was artificially inseminated into her mother's uterus.

Electroejaculation is increasingly being used across the country to enable men with spinal-cord injuries to become fathers. Victims of severe spinal injuries usually suffer secondary infertility. About 10,000 men in this country suffer such injuries each year.

The procedure involves using electrodes to stimulate specific nerves in the male reproductive tract to induce ejaculation. It requires inserting a probe in the rectum. In most cases, local anesthesia is not required because patients have no sensation where the stimulation would be felt, experts say.

The procedure has shown a 75 percent to 85 percent success rate in obtaining sperm needed for reproduction, said Dr. Brad Lerner. He and his partner, Dr. Joseph Murphy, are the only specialists in Maryland offering the therapy. The Towson urologists work in conjunction with the GBMC male and female infertility program, which is headed by Dr. Jairo Garcia.

Brenda MacDonald, 33, learned she was pregnant last April after her second try with artificial insemination. Sarah was born at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

"Those were ecstatic moments for both of us," said Mrs. MacDonald, assistant manager of a Laurel finance company, referring to the pregnancy and the birth of 7-pound, 7-ounce Sarah. "Every minute of this experience was worth it -- the strain, the money, everything."

"Our wildest dream has come true," said Mr. MacDonald, 35. "We now have what we've always wanted -- a child of our own -- not just Brenda's or someone else's.

"Sarah has a full head of black hair, my mouth, her mom's nose, and she's very cute," said the beaming father.

Dr. Lerner shares the MacDonalds' joy. "I have two children of my own and I know what that means. I believe the ultimate gift I can give to somebody is to help them have a child of their own."

The therapy is now available in a dozen medical institutions in Washington, D.C., Virginia, California, Illinois, Connecticut, Texas and Michigan. The early work was done at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and the University of Michigan.

In four years there have been 87 reported births worldwide using this technique -- most of them in the United States, according to Dr. Stephen W.J. Seagar, of the National Rehabilitation Center in Washington.

A veterinarian, Dr. Seagar developed the electroejaculation equipment that urologists now use for human patients. He was instrumental in getting electroejaculation studies under way at Baylor and Michigan.

Without the electroejaculation procedure, men with spinal-cord injuries have no chance of fathering a child, Dr. Lerner stressed. "These men are producing sperm and the other fluid that makes up the semen but, because of their injury, there is no stimulation for those fluids to be released into the penis as an ejaculate," he explained.

"With the electrical stimulation, we are actually stimulating all those structures to contract and release their fluids. We collect and process the fluids and then use them in the insemination."

While uncommon in the general population, ejaculatory failure is a harsh reality for the majority of patients who have spinal cord injuries.

Only 7 percent of these patients are able to ejaculate, according to the scientific literature. Almost one-third of these patients, aged 25 and under, are married or subsequently marry and want to become natural parents.

Research published recently in the Journal of Urology has stressed that sexuality in patients who have spinal-cord injuries is an important concept.

"While the nature of sexual response may be altered, sexual activity persists and is enjoyed by a large segment of the spinal cord injury population," said the report from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University.

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