Miracle Baby

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

She threw the sperm into a blender and mixed it with a yellow liquid that looks like egg yolk but is really a special buffer to protect the sperm from going into shock and dying in the liquid nitrogen. "It's like saran wrap against the elements," explained Carmona. Next she poured the brew into vials and placed them into a special refrigerator to acclimate the sperm to the cold. The sperm mix can't be stuck into an environment like the cryovault that is hundreds of degrees below zero immediately, or it will crystallize, damaging the sperm. Its temperature must be lowered slowly, in stages.

Finally Wetzel's sperm was ready for the deep freeze.

Slapping labels with Wetzel's name, client number, and the date on the vials, Carmona then stuck them in a steel tray and cracked open the cryovault. Donning the protective gear, she fit the tray inside.

Dr. Michael Graubert of the Palmetto Fertility Center of South Florida injects sperm directly into eggs using a state-of-the-art microscope
Melissa Jones
Dr. Michael Graubert of the Palmetto Fertility Center of South Florida injects sperm directly into eggs using a state-of-the-art microscope
Six-month-old Connor William Wetzel, the miracle baby, at home in Davie
Melissa Jones
Six-month-old Connor William Wetzel, the miracle baby, at home in Davie

Sperm can't be preserved in an ordinary freezer. It has to be kept in liquid nitrogen, a blue liquid that maintains a temperature so glacial it can freeze your finger on contact, and a few drops can leave angry burns on your skin. The sperm has to be that cold to survive for years. Technicians top off the cryovault -- which contains 16,000 vials -- with liquid nitrogen once a week.

Human sperm banks have been around for nearly three decades, borrowed from the world of animal husbandry, where they've flourished for at least five decades. The veterinarians' purpose is more practical than philanthropic: to be able to impregnate cows with the frozen sperm of prize cattle without the bother of actual mating. Incredibly sperm can survive in deep freeze forever, their little tails motionless until thawed. (A woman's eggs, however, are much more fragile and cannot yet be frozen.) The oldest sperm stored at the Repository: ten years old.

Moon only keeps the vials in the cryovault if their owner pays the cost of storage, which starts at $225 a year. Moon said he has been known to cover the cost of storage for some indigent patients but adds, "I do have to pay the rent." He has 470 long-term clients.

Most men masturbate at the sperm bank over several days, waiting a day between cycles (and abstaining from sex at home) to build up the fluid. Because of the urgency of his situation and the need to enter chemotherapy quickly, Wetzel banked only twice, two days in a row, and produced only four vials of sperm, whereas most men produce 15 to 20. This would later pose particular challenges for Wetzel when he tried to father a child.

Two weeks later Wetzel began chemotherapy, the strongest form given to cancer patients.

Chemotherapy has been around since the mid-'70s. Literally a poison, it destroys cancerous cells. For each of the six rounds of chemotherapy, Wetzel checked into the Sylvester Cancer Center for a week at a time. The first two to three days of treatment, Wetzel felt fine. I can handle this, he thought. On the fourth day, he started feeling a little nauseous. On the sixth day, the nausea intensified. Then he woke up one morning and his pillow was covered with hair. That hit Wetzel hard.

Benedetto prescribed medicine for the nausea, but the smell of food still turned Wetzel's stomach. The pounds started to drop off. Between June and January, Wetzel went from 198 pounds to 131 pounds. With his sunken eyes, pasty complexion, and bony body, everyone said he looked like a concentration camp victim. Awash in fatigue, he slept most of the day.

"We were really pushing hard to cure him of his cancer," Benedetto says. "The chemo took an enormous amount out of him. We whittled him down to nothing with the intensity of the treatments."

When the chemotherapy was over, another battle began. In some cases chemotherapy shrinks down tumors, and in others it transforms them into benign white masses called teratomas. Teratomas should be surgically removed, because they can become cancerous. Unfortunately for Wetzel teratomas now dotted his insides like freckles. Six weeks after chemotherapy, when Wetzel began to regain his strength, he underwent the first of five surgeries to cut out the masses. In a single ten-and-a-half-hour surgery, he lost his left kidney, which had been swallowed by a tumor. Later he was told his other kidney would likely have to be removed, put in a cooler, scraped, washed, and reattached. Luckily he escaped that particular adventure. Scars now crisscross his body, a road map of his illness and recovery.

Wetzel finally secured Medicaid, health insurance for the indigent, but for testicular cancer it covered only hospital stays, not doctors' fees, which represented about 20 percent of the total bill. So Benedetto used his clout to talk various surgeons into performing the operations gratis and the hospital into eating other charges. All in all Wetzel estimates he ran up half a million dollars in fees that he didn't have to pay.

Benedetto likes Wetzel, calls him a nice guy, but insists he would help anyone in the same spot. "I'm no Albert Schweitzer, but the money issue is not the most important issue," says Benedetto. "Especially when you are talking about a curable disease."

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