Man with zero sperm count becomes a father and encourages other men to speak about fertility issues
- Credit: Si Barber
A Norfolk man who thought he would never be able to have children is speaking out ahead of Father's Day to encourage other men in the same situation to seek help.
Adrian Stiff, 50, from Scole, was told as a child he had a condition which would impact his fertility, and this was confirmed in his 20s after a doctor told him that he had a very low sperm count.
And before he even started dating his partner Michelle Barrett, 41, he warned her he'd never be able to give her a baby.
Mr Stiff, a lorry driver, said: 'I had been through some very dark times coming to terms with the fact I would probably never be a dad.'
And while at first Miss Barrett was not concerned, her priorities later changed.
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She said: 'My sister had children and I used to spend a lot of time with them and it made me reflect on my own future. I was working long hours and my enthusiasm for my job had started to wane. I started to think about what else mattered in life.'
When Miss Barrett turned 30 she stopped taking the contraceptive pill. 'In my mind I was thinking 'miraculously I might fall pregnant,'' she said.
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But that did not happen and an agonising seven years later, Miss Barrett decided she needed to confront her partner.
She said: 'It took a really long time for me to bring up the subject and say 'we really need to do something before it is too late. I didn't want to push him because obviously he had resigned himself to the fact that he wouldn't be able to have children.
'In the end I said to him 'we don't really know why you can't have children and science might have moved on since you last sought advice and there might be something which can be done.''
The couple went to see their GP and were referred for tests, which confirmed male factor infertility. They were told they would be eligible for NHS-funded fertility treatment and they chose to go to Bourn Hall Clinic, which has clinics across East Anglia.
'I really had to push Adrian to take a leap of faith,' said Miss Barrett.
'There was that fear of being given hope and then possibly losing it. In the end I had to say, 'I really want to try something, can we see if we can do it together?''
The couple went along to Bourn Hall Clinic and were given the stark news that Mr Stiff had no sperm at all in the ejaculate.
However, consultant Oliver Wiseman said even a zero sperm count doesn't have to mean that it is impossible for a man to father a child.
Mr Stiff admitted he was emotionally thrown.
He said: 'To sit at Bourn Hall and be told that even with a zero sperm count I might be able to father a child using my own sperm came as a complete shock.
'When I first met Michelle I had even suggested to her that she shouldn't stay with me if she really wanted a baby but she wouldn't hear of it and we had discussed other options such as using donor sperm or adopting.'
Mr Wiseman, a male fertility specialist, said: 'I see many men who have been told that they will never be biological fathers as there is no sperm in the ejaculate, and this was the case for Adrian. However, with the latest MicroTESE treatment we are able to find sperm in up to 50pc of men. This gives them the chance through IVF and ICSI of becoming biological fathers.'
MicroTESE (micro-surgical testicular sperm extraction) involves using a surgical microscope to identify tiny tubules most likely to contain sperm – and then removing them for analysis in the lab. If sperm are found they could injected directly into an egg during IVF treatment.
Mr Wiseman said: 'It is important that men with no sperm in the ejaculate or with very low numbers ask to see an andrologist who can undertake this surgery if it is indicated, as this will give them the best chance of being able to proceed with treatment using their own sperm.
'Most men with a low testosterone count are given Clomid to try and boost their body's own testosterone production, as normal levels of this are important for sperm manufacture and may increase the chances of finding sperm with MicroTESE.'
Mr Stiff was prescribed Clomid for three months and then went back to Bourn Hall Clinic for MicroTESE. The couple were told that Mr Stiff had responded to the medication and sufficient sperm were then found at surgery for the couple to have IVF treatment.
Mr Stiff said: 'Our specialist at Bourn Hall was very honest with us and told us that he had found some sperm, but not very much. He was very honest with us about the risk of failure and the chances of success.'
The couple were delighted after Miss Barrett fell pregnant at the first attempt but devastation quickly followed when she miscarried at ten weeks.
'It was really traumatic,' she said.
Second time around and Michelle didn't get pregnant. And the third attempt would mean the last sample of sperm.
'It is such an upheaval in your life,' said Miss Barrett.
'You feel like you are constantly in limbo. I stopped work, I didn't want to put myself under any addition stress and we focused purely on achieving our goal.'
Fortunately, the treatment worked and Miss Barrett's pregnancy went to full term.
And on October 6, 2016 she gave birth to son Michael, who is now a bubbly toddler and 'a real little character'.
Miss Barrett said: 'He is now walking and climbing. I am so glad that I did insist we sought help because I didn't want to be an old lady asking myself if I could have had a child. My one regret is that I didn't push for us to get help a little sooner. But that is with the benefit of hindsight and you don't think about that at the time.'
Mr Stiff, a doting father, said: 'Being a dad has totally changed my life. To have been told from an early age that there was very little possibility that I would father a child and then to be 50 years of age and have a young son is just incredible.
'The procedure used to retrieve my sperm is relatively new and so didn't exist as an option for me when I was younger. I am just so grateful that we put our faith in medical science. There are no words to describe what has happened to us, it is a miracle.'