Everything you always wanted to know about IVF…if you're a man
I have accepted that I am never going to be any good at football, that I cannot drink more than a couple of pints of beer without falling asleep and that a Formula 1 team is unlikely to enquire whether I would care to take a quick spin in something they have been working on.
I have come to terms with these things during my 37 years and I do not feel they make me less of a man.
So you would think that after dealing with these shortcomings, I would have been well equipped to cope when I was told by a doctor that my sperm were, as he put it, ‘rubbish’.
Michael Saunders with daughter Ruby, and twins Matilda and George. He was told by his doctor that his sperm count was 'rubbish'
My wife Hayley and I had originally thought we would need in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to help have a baby because two previous pregnancies – one before me, and one because of me – had been ectopic (when a fertilised egg implants itself in the Fallopian tubes rather than the womb, putting the mother’s health at risk).
Surgery to remove the embryos had left Hayley without functioning Fallopian tubes so if we wanted children, IVF was our only option.
Four years ago we went to the private Chelsfield Park Hospital in Kent to have preliminary health tests, including a semen analysis, to get the IVF process started.
However, when my results came back, I was dumbfounded.
The analysis showed that my sperm were mobile and there were a lot of them but, crucially, they could not navigate properly.
Even if they were put in a Petri dish next to an egg, they wouldn’t know how to find it.
Deep inside, I felt a profound sense of failure. Because, in my eyes, the only real point to life and everything that goes with it is to have children.
Yet it seemed I could not do that naturally.
The doctor had little to say about how I could rectify the problem.
I was just told that at an extra cost of 1,000, on top of the 3,500 we were already paying, we could have intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a form of artificial insemination, which involves isolating a healthy sperm and injecting it directly into the egg in the laboratory.
I have since found out that half of all cases of infertility are down to the male and about two per cent of British men, roughly 600,000, are infertile.
With IVF, in theory, all the man has to do is provide the sperm (pictured: Woody Allen as a sperm in his film Everything You Want To Know About Sex)
Male infertility is caused either by poor-quality sperm or low numbers of sperm being produced in the testicles.
Certain drugs, hormonal disorders and blocked tubes in the testicles can all contribute to the problem.
However, lifestyle factors – high stress levels, smoking and poor diet – remain a key cause.
I left the clinic feeling utterly useless. But I didn’t tell anyone – who could I tell My wife needed support.
After all, she was the one who was going to be probed, prodded and injected with all manner of drugs during the IVF process, so how could I pour out my anxieties to her And my mates were the last people I would want to talk to about my problem.
I felt embarrassed and resolved to find out as much as I could. But from what I initially discovered, IVF was simple and I didn’t have much of a role to play.
In theory, all the man has to do is provide the sperm.
Indeed, when we received paperwork from the clinic outlining how the IVF treatment works, there were more than 20 pages detailing what a woman and her body will be going through during a cycle, which involves injection and various operations.
For the man, there is a small and very blunt paragraph at the bottom of one page detailing the ‘male input’.
So with the first round of IVF, I just supported my wife and did my best to suppress my feelings by throwing myself into the new mail-order plant-bulb company I had set up. And nine months later our beautiful daughter Ruby, now three, was born.
My anxieties about whether I was a successful testosterone-charged baby-maker quickly dissipated.
However, we quickly realised we wanted more children but could not afford more fertility treatment.
So we went to the Lister Fertility Clinic in Chelsea, West London, where they operate an egg share scheme.
If a woman donates eggs, she is entitled to reduced-cost treatment.
In the end it cost about 400, but ICSI would have cost 2,000 at that clinic, which we couldn’t afford.
Hayley, 29, suggested we set up a Facebook group to help get in touch with other people who were experiencing fertility problems.
Immediately messages started to be posted, but the thing that shocked me was the sheer number of men who were getting in touch, asking questions about their part in the problem of conception.
Suddenly I realised I was not alone.
With new-found confidence, I swapped tips with other desperate dads. I made dietary and lifestyle adjustments. I stopped drinking, cut down smoking, upped my intake of vitamins and minerals (particularly zinc), and gave my diet an overhaul.
Within a matter of months my sperm were not only greater in number but, according to tests, knew exactly where they were going.
I was pleased but angry, too. Why hadn’t a doctor suggested these things
Since then – due to the IVF – we have had twins named Matilda and George, who are 18 months old. Life is great, if not a little hectic.
My only regret is having waited so long to speak to other men going through the feelings of isolation that I had and not making the lifestyle changes I could have done earlier.
When I finally confessed my feelings to friends in the pub, they didn’t laugh or pity me one bit.
In fact, the few jokes they did make helped me feel less upset by the situation.
And if you do feel isolated or overlooked, reach out for help. Ask a doctor for advice, or any of the other cavemen with wounded egos out there on the internet.
Test Tubes And Testosterone: A Man’s Journey Into Infertility And IVF, by Michael Saunders, is published by Nell James, 7.99.