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Fatherhood no longer just a dream for men with severe spinal cord injuries

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Buz Straw’s dreams of fatherhood were shattered – just like his neck and spinal cord – when the front-end loader he was operating tipped over the second storey of Vancouver’s Woodward’s building as it was being demolished.

Although he regained some mobility while spending six “excruciating, frustrating, emotional” months at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Straw had to accept his new life as a quadriplegic. Whether he would ever have children, or even a wife, seemed doubtful to the man who was only 24 at the time of the accident.

Ejaculation dysfunction is not uncommon in men with severe spinal cord injury (SCI), and sperm quality may be too poor to result in biological offspring. Straw is lucky, the father now lives on a hobby farm in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, with his wife, Sian, and their three children, aged one, five and seven.

Twenty years ago, such an outcome would have been unlikely for men like Straw. At that time, men with spinal cord injuries had few options for becoming biological fathers and the crushing reality often hit them early in their life since so many, like Straw, sustained their injuries through work-place accidents or risky recreational activities.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Stacy Elliott faced a lot of “pushback” for her interest in helping men with SCI become biological fathers.

Members of the public and the medical community would question whether she wasn’t going overboard in raising the expectations and hopes of such men.

“Some people felt there were more important issues than sexual health, pleasure and reproduction. They thought people with spinal cord injuries shouldn’t or couldn’t be parents.”

But for people with such injuries, it was always a major priority, said Elliott, who runs the Vancouver General Hospital-based Sperm Retrieval Clinic with her team in sexual medicine. It’s the only clinic of its kind in the country. Since 1985, it has assisted more than 100 men with spinal cord injuries realize their dreams of fathering biological children. Among them is Straw.

Erections are not usually a problem for men with SCI, but ejaculation can be. Straw had gone to see Elliott a few years after his injury to find out whether his ejaculate contained sperm that was sufficient in volume and motility to produce a baby with his wife.

“When you have a spinal cord injury, you are assigned to a team of different specialists. I thought I’d have to artificially inseminate my wife, but we were able to do it on our own. It wasn’t a complete surprise because of the testing I went through with Dr. Elliott,” he said, referring to a rather surreal experience in which he laid on a table at the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre while Elliott used a high intensity vibrator (“not something you’d see in a sex toy shop”) to stimulate an erection and ejaculation.

Elliott studied sperm retrieval techniques in California in the 1980s. In addition to using special vibrators, she also has an instrument that “jump-starts” the ejaculation reflex. And if that doesn’t work, clinic urologist Dr. Mark Nigro can retrieve sperm operatively, through an incision in the testes.

The research is done through an agency called ICORD and supported by the University of B.C. faculty of medicine and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. It has made a big difference in the lives of men like Straw, who ended the relation-ship he was in at the time of his injury because he felt it would be unfair to put his girlfriend through the turmoil that was his new existence.

In 2001, he advertised for a care worker and the woman who applied for the job – Sian – became his wife three years later. Weeks after their wedding, the Straws conceived their first-born, “the old fashioned way.”

“She was the one I was searching for and we immediately started talking about how having children was a dream for both of us,” Straw said of his wife.

“We got married in 2004, on the anniversary of my accident.

“It was a deliberate plan to put a different spin on the day. Instead of a downer, it became a date with a positive spin.”

By Pamela Fayerman, Vancouver Sun; Sun Health Issues Reporter

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