Miracle Baby

Seven years ago Bill Wetzel got testicular cancer and became sterile. Luckily he had already made a deposit at the sperm bank.

The powerful chemotherapy kills cells by halting certain bodily functions that are necessary for cells to divide. This causes side effects, such as hair loss, mouth sores, diarrhea -- and sometimes sterility. The body's daily manufacture of sperm is one of those functions stopped by chemotherapy. For an unknown reason, about a quarter of men remain sterile for life after undergoing the particular chemotherapy that tackles testicular cancer.

Wetzel had a girlfriend but no marriage plans and certainly no immediate plans to have a child. But he heeded Benedetto's encouragement to visit the sperm bank anyway -- and later thanked God he did.

Carmona and Robert Moon, owner of the Repository, drop a sperm vial into a cryogenic carrier, which can be shipped anywhere in the world
Melissa Jones
Carmona and Robert Moon, owner of the Repository, drop a sperm vial into a cryogenic carrier, which can be shipped anywhere in the world
The testicular cancer expert at the Sylvester Cancer Center, Dr. Pasquale Benedetto urges all patients to bank sperm before chemotherapy
Melissa Jones
The testicular cancer expert at the Sylvester Cancer Center, Dr. Pasquale Benedetto urges all patients to bank sperm before chemotherapy

Located inside a building of doctors' offices behind Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, the Repository is the only sperm and embryo bank in South Florida. (There's also one in Orlando.) The modest office is slightly scruffy and outdated: The lobby features dime store artwork on the walls, a plastic bowl of Milk Duds, and a television set that looks like it was bought in the '70s.

The place opened ten years ago as a full-service, blood-testing lab that also offered long-term sperm and embryo storage. Robert Moon, then the lab director, took over ownership in 1996 and discontinued most lab tests, instead choosing to concentrate on sperm and embryo storage. It's no wonder: Not even counting new patients, he brings in $106,000 a year just from annual storage fees.

Moon, a balding, bespectacled man wearing a white lab coat and a garish tie, now runs the operation along with his assistant, Mary Carmona. "Owning a sperm bank is sure a conversation starter at parties," cracks Moon.

One might think that sperm bank customers are single heterosexual women with raging biological clocks, married women whose husbands can't produce sperm, or lesbians. In reality they comprise only about 4 percent of Moon's business. Men with testicular cancer like Wetzel make up the vast majority of his clients. In the last two decades or so, doctors have been urging such patients to bank sperm before beginning chemotherapy, and men rendered sterile can now father children years later.

When Wetzel arrived at the Repository, a technician handed him a plastic-sealed specimen cup, and he was ushered into the "masturbatorium." A sign on the door of the room reads "Fidelity Sperm Bank -- Penalty for Early Withdrawal."

Despite its nickname the room is used by both men banking or donating sperm and women undergoing artificial insemination. Moon gets 70 to 100 calls a month from men wanting to be sperm donors. "They think they can become millionaires this way," laughs Moon. He carefully screens the donors and excludes 65 percent of them, for age (they have to be 18 to 35 years old), low sperm count, or if both sets of grandparents died of disease. Most applicants are medical or law-school students looking to make a quick buck; Moon pays $50 a shot. After they fill out an initial application and pass the first cut, the donors are invited in for extensive testing to rule out genetic diseases. If they pass that cut, they can donate sperm -- as often as once a month.

Lesbians, single women, and couples unable to conceive purchase the sperm. They can choose the father of their child from a catalog that lists the donor's ethnic origin, hair color, eye color, skin color, height and weight, years of college, occupation, and blood type. One vial of sperm costs $150, and most women require at least two. Moon charges an extra $200 to ship the vials in special Federal Express carriers containing liquid nitrogen. Women can insert the sperm, with syringes provided by Moon, in the masturbatorium or at their doctor's offices. "We've had 12 to 15 pregnancies in the last year," boasts Moon.

Moon has taken pains to make the masturbatorium homey. A blue easy chair sits at attention in front of the television set, within reach of the requisite X-rated movies (for example, Legends of the Kama Sutra) and Playboy magazines. A beige couch strewn with pillows takes up one wall, next to an end table laden with such magazines as Redbook and Health For Women as well as a radio for some relaxing mood music. A portrait of a nude woman stretching like a cat adorns one wall. A cushioned mat stands ready in the corner for those who want to get more comfortable, and a jumbo-size container of Handi Wipes and a can of Lysol spray are on hand to clean up any, um, messes.

It might seem that a man who just got a possible death sentence due to a cancer diagnosis might not be in the mood to masturbate. But Moon says 99 percent of patients have no problem filling their specimen cups. Men usually spend 10 to 20 minutes in the masturbatorium, but that varies. One man stayed for two hours, and another was done, "wham bam, thank you ma'am, before I could get back to my desk," says Moon. He allows clients to bring spouses into the masturbatorium to lend a hand. "You try to put them at ease," says Moon. One client even used phone sex to complete the task successfully.

Having gotten over his initial feeling of awkwardness, Wetzel also had no trouble, although he somehow felt "dirty" during the act. Am I going to be on the Internet next? he wondered. After he finished Wetzel handed the specimen cup to Carmona.

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