Miracle Baby

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

Ironically Benedetto says he has a better chance of treating patients like Wetzel who have no insurance than those covered by most HMOs. That's because only a couple HMOs approve treatment at the Sylvester Cancer Center.

As the months passed, Wetzel slowly grew stronger. One day he ventured out to get a collar for his beloved dog, Zeus, his constant companion during his illness. Stepping into a Hialeah pet-grooming store, he bumped into sales clerk Lori Wludyka, his high-school sweetheart, whom he hadn't seen in 12 years. Wludyka just started that day and Wetzel was her first customer. "It was definitely fate," she says.

Lab assistant Mary Carmona adds a special buffer to a sperm sample to protect it in the sub-zero cryovault
Melissa Jones
Lab assistant Mary Carmona adds a special buffer to a sperm sample to protect it in the sub-zero cryovault

They chatted a bit, and Wetzel paid for a collar. "Can I have your phone number?" he asked.

"I already wrote it on the back of the receipt," she replied.

He called the next day. The following night, they watched the final episode of Cheers at her place and talked until 1 a.m. They quickly fell in love, moved in together, and married on September 9, 1995.

Before the wedding Wetzel took a step to protect his future wife: He filed for bankruptcy to wipe out the $128,000 in outpatient treatments and chemotherapy Medicaid did not cover. "The bill collectors were calling all the time," says Wetzel. "I didn't want to ruin Lori's credit, too."

By then Wetzel's cancer was in remission, and he was back up to 200 pounds. From the start the new couple wanted a child. Lori had always dreamed of having four sons and -- counting her hubby -- her own basketball team. But Wetzel learned he suffered nerve damage during chemotherapy and as a result, is sterile. He can have sex, but the sperm backs up into his bladder. Lori feared adoption; she had seen horror stories on the news about biological fathers coming forward later.

So the couple started saving for in vitro fertilization (IVF), an expensive procedure in which sperm is mixed with an egg in a petri dish and the resulting embryo is implanted in the woman's uterus. IVF has been around for 20 years, since Louise Brown became the first "test-tube baby." Back then the pregnancy rate from IVF teetered around 10 percent. Now researchers have discovered new methods of IVF and have boosted the pregnancy rate as high as 50 percent.

Health insurance covers IVF in only five states, and Florida is not one. Some desperate couples who don't have the minimum cost of about $13,000 actually move to one of those five states. Others mortgage their houses with the hope of bearing a child.

By 1998 Wetzel was working as assistant parks director for the City of Wilton Manors, and his wife owned the pet-grooming shop where she had bumped into Wetzel. Wetzel saved his money and drove his 1991 Saturn until it practically fell apart. Their families chipped in a couple thousand dollars. The couple used leftover wedding-gift cash. And they started shopping for a fertility doctor.

The Wetzels immediately took to Michael Graubert, a young fertility doctor who was just setting up his practice in Miami Lakes. His Palmetto Fertility Center of South Florida was also close to her shop -- important because Lori would soon be popping in for checkups almost daily.

Wetzel was not the ideal IVF patient. Not surprisingly, since he banked after one testicle had been removed, his samples had a low sperm count -- 200,000 moving sperm. (Most men have between 10 and 30 million sperm in one sample.) In addition the sperm was frozen, and only four vials of the stuff existed. Therefore the couple elected to choose the most aggressive form of IVF to ensure the greatest chance of success.

The first step was for Lori to take hormone shots to increase her egg supply. The shots increase the number of eggs a woman produces from one a month to anywhere from two to twenty. Until recently the shots were made out of the urine of menopausal nuns in France. Menopausal women produce large amounts of a female hormone secreted in the brain, and it signals the ovary to produce eggs. The nuns would sell their urine to make money. The hormones would be isolated in the urine and injected into women having trouble getting pregnant. In the last four years, the hormones have been manufactured in labs.

The shots -- administered by her husband twice a day for 12 days -- gave Lori wicked headaches, but they did the job: She soon had 14 plump eggs in her ovaries. Graubert was pleased; that's far more than most women produce.

Graubert monitored Lori closely; she stopped by the center nearly every morning before work for blood tests and ultrasound, which track the development of the eggs. Finally she was at her peak. It was time for the eggs to be harvested.

Graubert cautioned Lori not to wear any makeup, hair spray, lotion, or perfume because the eggs are sensitive buggers. After anesthetizing her, Graubert inserted a phallic-shape ultrasound probe into her vagina. The probe is attached to a TV monitor and leads the doctor to the eggs. He then sucked out the eggs using a needlelike device attached to a machine. Fourteen microscopic eggs, immersed in a blood-tinged pale yellow liquid, were plopped into a petri dish.

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