Men account for the vast majority of people with spinal cord injury-related paralysis. Most are in their prime reproductive years.
Glen Dick didn’t see himself married with kids. Just finding a date is hard when you’re paralyzed from the chest down, no matter how good looking you are.
Then Glen met Monica, a corporate career woman who says she broke up with guys for wearing the wrong shoes.
A year later, they married. The New Britain Township couple knew they wanted to expand their family with a child. And at 35, they weren’t getting any younger.
They beat the odds once when they found each other. But creating a baby together, that seemed impossible.
But it’s not, fertility experts say. People with spinal cord injury-related paralysis can – and do – conceive children. But it can be a long, emotionally difficult and expensive process with no guarantees. Men, more so than women, also can find it harder to achieve biological parenthood.
Approximately 12,000 spinal cord injuries occur in the U.S. each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As of last year, about 262,000 U.S. residents were living with spinal cord injuries.
Men account for the vast majority – about 81 percent – of people with spinal cord injury-related paralysis. Most are in their prime reproductive years, ages 16 to 40, and were unmarried when they were injured, according to the center.
That’s what happened with Glen Dick.
On Fourth of July weekend in 1995, Glen, a 25-year-old new college graduate, met some friends in Dewey Beach, Del., for dinner at a bayside restaurant. During the evening, a few of the guys went to a nearby dock and started horsing around in shallow water.
One stuck out his hand to Glen, as though he wanted to be pulled out. Instead, Glen was yanked in. His head hit the bottom; his neck broke. He has been in a wheelchair ever since.
Glen spent the next decade slowly seeking normalcy in his new limited life, where home health aides performed the most personal tasks for him.
Meanwhile, he focused on the little things he could still do himself and celebrated accomplishments like moving his arms enough to feed himself, brush his teeth and use a computer.
Within the first year after the accident, he learned to drive again, returned to work as a landscape architect and volunteered at a local elementary school. Eventually, the school district offered him a full-time job working as a special education assistant.
But one goal still eluded him: finding love.
“That was one that was just out of reach,” he said.
He dated only one woman after the accident, but didn’t give up when that didn’t work out. He turned to the Internet.
Fascinating to me
Meanwhile, Monica had been Internet dating for two years. She had many dates, first and only ones. She was picky. She was also a mid-30-something, stressed out, miserable workaholic director of marketing for Tastykake.
One night, she took a break while working late at the office and scrolled through some dating profiles. If a guy’s picture caught her eye, she’d then read what they wrote about themselves.
The photo of Glen Dick, a blue-eyed, all-American type, got her attention. A real cutie. She sent him an introduction.
Four months later, Monica was working late again when she checked the dating website to see if anyone caught her eye. Someone did – Glen again. Only this time, Monica was annoyed. He ignored her first message. So she fired off a “snotty” one.
Glen had seen the first message. But when he read Monica’s profile, he thought she was definitely out of his league – a career woman who loves traveling.
“She’s going to look at me as an anchor,” he thought.
The second message, he responded to. He apologized for not replying earlier, but said he’d been laying low. His Internet dating experience had been rather disastrous. He then revealed the one thing he left off his dating profile: He used a wheelchair.
Now Monica had a big decision. Did she delete him? Or did she respond? She had never talked to anyone in a wheelchair before.
From his profile, he seemed like someone she’d like to get to know better. Physical appearances didn’t matter to him. He appreciated the small details and had an amazingly positive attitude. Maybe they’d become friends.
They exchanged e-mails, then phone calls. Within three weeks, they decided to meet.
Monica impressed Glen by researching everything she could find online about spinal cord injuries and quadriplegia.
“It was fascinating to me,” she said. “Not a turnoff at all.”
Two weeks after that first date, Glen and Monica say they knew they’d get married. They announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day 2005. They married seven months later.
Monica never had a great yearning for motherhood, until she found Glen. She wanted to have his kids.
“I wanted to give him that gift.”
But could Glen father a child? In 2007, the couple decided to find out.
“Naively, we thought that being we are two healthy and fertile individuals, it would come easily,” Glen said. “Just a matter of connecting X with Y.”
But the couple faced a double-fertility dilemma: Monica’s age, then 38; and Glen’s injury.
Women’s fertility naturally declines after age 30, and fertility problems are common in men following a spinal cord-related injury, according to medical studies.
Most men with spinal cord injuries experience erectile and ejaculatory dysfunction and poor semen quality. They usually can produce a normal number of sperm, but most are not active.
For decades, in vitro fertilization was the only option – other than natural conception, which is rare – for men such as Glen to achieve biological fatherhood. Medically assisted ejaculation was used to obtain a semen sample, which was then used to inseminate a woman.
But insemination requires a few hundred thousand to 1 million active sperm to fertilize an egg, and success rates are significantly reduced with low sperm counts or less active sperm, said Dr. Stephen Somkuti, medical director of Abington Reproductive Medicine’s IVF Program, where the Dicks sought fertility treatment.
A relatively new IVF treatment has “leveled the playing field” for men with semen problems, Somkuti said. With the procedure, doctors extract sperm from the testicles and, using microscopic technology, insert a single sperm directly into an egg to fertilize it.
But after two years that included seven failed insemination and two failed in vitro fertilization attempts, Glen and Monica Dick agreed that their 10th attempt, again using IVF and direct egg fertilization, would be their last.
“We knew that we had a strong enough relationship that if we were not blessed with children, we would still have a wonderful life together,” Glen said.
In March 2009, they learned their wonderful life together would include a child.
Daughter Elaina was born Dec. 4, 2009. Glen took natural childbirth classes with Monica and he coached her through labor and delivery.
“Sometimes, I shake my head and can’t believe how fortunate I am,” Glen said. “I’ve got everything I’ve dreamt of – how many people can say that? People may see me out in public and say, that poor man. It’s actually quite the opposite. For everything I’ve lost, I’ve gained so much more.”
One at a time
Not that fatherhood from a wheelchair is easy. But it has been an adventure.
Elaina took naps in a papoose he wore on his chest. Now, she can sit on his lap in the wheelchair and he’ll wrap one arm around her, as long as Monica is nearby. At bedtime, Monica holds a book so Glen can read to Elaina as she sits on his lap.
“She already knows how to drive my chair,” he added.
Yes, his physical interaction with his daughter is limited. He can’t pick her up and comfort her when she’s crying. He can’t dress her, bathe her or put her in the crib. He can’t change diapers, though he jokes it’s the one chore he isn’t all that upset he can’t do.
“I watch a lot, so I can feel part of the process. It can be tough at times, but I simply can’t allow myself to be sad at what I can’t do,” he said. “I knew if I ever had children, there would be those heart-wrenching moments of wanting to do something I can’t. I just have to take them one at a time.”
Glen is confident that as Elaina gets older, they’ll do more activities together. For now, what he can give her is his time and attention.
“Children need time more than anything,” he said, “more than being a coach or throwing a ball with them or taking them to an amusement park.”
Today the family marks its first Father’s Day together. Monica, who never saw herself as a mother, is now an at-home mom who can’t imagine life without their daughter.
“The fact that she is here because we fell in love doesn’t escape me,” she said. “I love to watch her dad and her interact.”
So much so that the couple is ready to try for baby No. 2.
“Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to have one naturally this time,” Glen said.
By: JO CIAVAGLIA
Bucks County Courier Times