The impact of impotence Performance problems might be solved if men were willing to discuss them TO YOUR HEALTH

July 06, 1993|By Scott Walton | Scott Walton,Knight-Ridder News Service

After recapping a day's murder, mayhem and mischief, late-night newscasters like to send their viewers off to bed with something to chuckle into their pillows about and discuss over coffee the next morning.

Before signing off one night recently, Detroit anchorman Bill Bonds gave viewers a tongue-in-cheek peek into the private life of an unassuming Akron, Ohio, man named Eugene Donald Terrell. Mr. Terrell, 60, was considered newsworthy for losing a $350,000 malpractice lawsuit.

His suit accused Dr. Jack Summers of negligently implanting a defective device that was supposed to have helped Mr. Terrell achieve an erection. But jurors decided in favor of the doctor, who had successfully performed hundreds of such operations and said the penile implant Mr. Terrell received had probably sprung a leak.

Good night, everyone, and thanks for looking in.

Undoubtedly, many viewers drifted off to sleep that night still musing over "that poor impotent man in Ohio." And it's just as likely that many men who saw that telecast empathized with Mr. Terrell and slept fitfully.

Impotence is no laughing matter to the millions of men suffering from it, or the sexual partners who suffer right along with them -- and whose reactions may determine how successfully impotent men cope and recover.

Impotence strikes men of all ages and all colors. In response to their plight, researchers attending the American Urological Association's annual convention in May in San Antonio, Texas, discussed the sudden proliferation of drugs and treatment methods under development. Currently, no drugs are federally approved for treating impotence. But scientists predict one within two years because pharmaceutical companies recognize the immense profits to be made.

Emotional turmoil

Men who have repeatedly endured the humiliation of failing in bed, reluctantly consulted doctors to diagnose their problems and undergone all sorts of invasive procedures to restore their potency say that being impotent is enough to make a grown man cry. Among the most painful things, they say, is keeping all the emotional turmoil it causes bottled up inside.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone among my friends or family that I can talk to about this," says Vernon, a 70-year-old Oak Park, Mich., man who had a successful surgical implant six years ago.

Echoing the sentiments of many impotent men, Vernon says, "If I told anyone about my problem, I'd open myself up to ridicule."

We ridicule what we do not understand.

Because of men's reluctance to admit to being impotent, quantifying just how many suffer from this condition has never been easy. Five years ago, it was estimated that 10 million to 20 million American men suffered chronic or situational impotence. But last year's Massachusetts Male Aging Study -- the first comprehensive examination of sexual dysfunction and impotence -- puts that number as high as 30 million.

Answers that explain a physical inability to achieve an erection are readily available. But the vast majority of impotent men suffer in silence rather than seek help.

"At most, 5 percent of the men who have this problem seek treatment," says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, professor of urology at Boston University and a pre-eminent scholar on impotence's causes and treatments. "For better or for worse, the majority decide that this is simply a part of aging and live with it."

Physicians now know the primary causes of impotence, as well as the appropriate remedies for nearly every case. But psychotherapists are still learning to gauge the emotional damage that losing so basic a human function does to male self-esteem.

By definition, impotence is the inability to achieve or maintain enough of an erection to engage in mutually satisfying sexual intercourse. For some men, impotence is a situational condition that can be attributed to excessive stress or heavy drinking. But in most cases, impotence is a continuing or chronic problem caused by anything from cardiovascular disease to prescription drugs.

"Impotence is always a symptom of a more serious medical condition and, at times, a psychological problem," says Edward Shilling III, executive director of a Washington information clearinghouse called the Impotence Institute of America.

For men who suspect they're impotent -- or those who know they're impotent but aren't sure which treatment option is best FTC for them -- it may be helpful to go to support-group meetings.

"The first one you attend is always the worst," says Vernon, who attended sessions for a full year before deciding to have a penile prosthesis surgically implanted.

"But once you realize every man there is in the same boat you are, it becomes easier to speak freely."

And speak freely they do.

At a recent gathering in Southfield, Mich., a nurse was describing to three elderly men the varying degrees of firmness achievable by injecting muscle relaxants into the penis. On a scale of 1 to 10, a 3 registered semisoft and a 7 registered semihard.

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