Miracle Baby

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

Bill Wetzel fidgeted in the waiting room of the Repository, a Fort Lauderdale sperm bank, while a technician retrieved his seed from the stainless steel vessel where it had languished in deep freeze for six years.

In a scene straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the technician, garbed in thick protective gloves and a plastic mask to ward against the 321-degrees-below-zero temperature, popped open the cryovault, which looks like a giant Thermos and keeps the sperm preserved in frozen slumber. Clouds of vapor swirled out of the container and a chill seeped into the room. The technician's gloved hand disappeared in the mist as he plucked out four plastic vials from their liquid nitrogen bath. He planted the vials in a cryogenic carrier, also brimming with liquid nitrogen, and handed the precious cargo over to Wetzel.

Wow, he thought, my future, my family, is in my hands.

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
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
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

Firmly grasping the boxlike carrier, Wetzel gingerly walked up to his beat-up Saturn outside. He seatbelted the suitcase into the passenger seat as carefully as if it were his own child and started the long drive to a Miami Lakes fertility center where the sperm would be thawed, washed, mixed with his wife's eggs, and hopefully create new life.

Nervously flipping through radio stations, he crept down Interstate 95 to Interstate 595 to Interstate 75. Thank goodness traffic was light, because Wetzel feared having a car accident and losing all that remained of his immortality. Wetzel is sterile -- has been since he contracted testicular cancer six years ago and underwent massive amounts of chemotherapy -- and the carrier contained his last drops of sperm, his only chance of producing offspring. This thought boggled Wetzel's mind, but it also filled him with wonder and gratitude. As he tooled down the road, Wetzel marveled at the technological wizardry of recent years that had both saved his life and afforded him a chance to give life. Without the chemotherapy and surgery that took the disease out of him and the sperm bank and in vitro fertilization methods that would enable his wife to conceive his child, he would not be traveling this road today.


Wetzel's journey into the outer reaches of modern medical science began in 1992. The 28-year-old was flying from his Gainesville home to Miami to visit his family for the Memorial Day weekend. A strapping, 195-pound, sandy-haired man who bench-pressed 300 pounds, Wetzel loved to jog, shoot hoops, and club-hop with his fraternity brothers from the University of Florida. He maintained a busy schedule: not only did he work full-time as a program director for the Boys & Girls Club, he also attended college part-time.

During the brief flight to Miami, Wetzel couldn't get comfortable: His back ached. Only later would he learn that a tumor had invaded his abdomen and now crushed his kidney; the pressurization in the cabin had somehow irritated the angry growth.

The next day, Wetzel threw up during his morning run, and the family doctor prescribed antibiotics. A few days later, Wetzel found a golf-ball-size lump in his neck. That's when fear set in. Maybe it's Hodgkin's, he thought. Cancer immediately sprang to his mind because of his mother -- she had died of ovarian cancer ten years earlier, just 18 weeks after being diagnosed.

A blood test and exam confirmed the suspicions of Wetzel's doctor, who called Wetzel's father, William Sr. Father and son were sitting on the examining table when the doctor entered the room. "You have testicular cancer," he gently told Wetzel. Then the second punch: "We have to remove your testicle."

Bill felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room, like he had just been handed a death sentence. As the doctor explained the condition, it took a few minutes for the awful news to dawn on his father. Finally it did. "Are you saying he has cancer?" the father asked.

"He very definitely has cancer," replied the doctor.

Father and son drove home in silence. But their mood picked up the next day. Researching the disease at a library, Wetzel learned the cure rate of testicular cancer -- which strikes 7500 young men between the ages of 15 and 34 in America every year -- is 95 percent. Maybe it wasn't a death sentence after all.

The news, however, turned worse. There are two types of testicular cancer -- one is slow-growing and the other is rapid-growing, almost galloping. Wetzel, unfortunately, had the second type. A CAT scan revealed it had metastasized and spread throughout his body. Tumors pillaged his abdomen, his chest, all over. Doctors rate the severity of cancer in four stages. Wetzel had stage-four cancer, the highest level. His tumor markers -- a blood test that detects the presence of tumors in testicular cancer patients -- were at 22,000. Zero to 15 is normal for a healthy person.

Dr. Pasquale Benedetto could not believe his patient did not feel worse: "This went from his testicle to his chest and from his chest to his neck. There was disease everywhere we looked." Benedetto told Wetzel he needed to get chemotherapy immediately. As he does with all his patients, Benedetto recommended Wetzel first bank sperm at the Repository.

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.


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.

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.

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. Thathit 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."

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.

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 Cheersat 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.

While Lori was in the operating room, Bill was picking up his sperm at the Repository and bringing it to the fertility center. "All I had to do was take my sperm over in a little suitcase," Bill later cracks. "She did all the work."

Lab technician Fred Miller slowly thawed Wetzel's sperm in stages, in the same way the sperm bank froze it in stages. At the same time, Graubert handed the eggs to Miller through a window in the operating room. It was time for the Big Moment.

In standard IVF the eggs and sperm mix together on a petri dish, and nature takes its course: The sperm swims to the egg and penetrates the outer core. But in the Wetzels' case, because the sperm count was low, the couple decided to use a five-year-old procedure called ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which cost an extra $2000. In this procedure doctors help nature along a little.

Miller sat in front of a large microscope atop a 1000-pound table to ward against potential vibrations and began his lengthy "video game." Joysticks attached to motorized robotic arms stick out of the sides of the microscope. One robotic arm has a miniature needle attached; both have suction. Miller stuck the petri dish containing the eggs and sperm under the microscope's magnifying glasses. With the left joystick, he suctioned the egg to keep it in place. Then he located the fastest-moving sperm and used the other joystick to suck up those sprinting sperm and push them over to the egg. Pushing a button on the joystick, Miller injected the sperm inside the egg wall. He repeated this process 14 times, for each of Lori's 14 eggs. It took an hour and a half.

Over the five years Miller has been using this apparatus, he has grown quite adept, says Graubert. "He's probably very good at pinball games now," the doctor laughed.

Miller then stuck the petri dish in an incubator, where it was kept at body temperature -- 37 degrees Celsius -- and humid, as in a uterus. He left the dish overnight so the sperm and eggs could get acquainted in peace. Upon arriving at work the next morning, the first thing Miller did was check the petri dish to see if the cells had divided -- the sign that fertilization had occurred.

He's been working in IVF for 18 years, practically since the beginning, but Miller still calls the process "a miracle" and revels in his godlike role as an eyewitness to the most wondrous event in the history of the world: the creation of human life.

"When I see a one-celled thing and then a woman walks in with her baby nine months later, that's the greatest high," he says.

Lori, sore after the egg retrieval and home from work, got a call from Graubert the next day. "The eggs are splitting," he said.

The couple decided to push the technological boundaries even further by using a procedure called blastocyst transfer. The method is brand new; the couple was the first in South Florida to use it. In traditional IVF, when the embryo reaches three days and has eight cells, it is ready to be implanted in the woman. In blastocyst transfer embryologists add a sugary solution to the petri dish and wait until the embryo is five days old and has 50 cells. At that point the embryo's genes have been "turned on" -- it is now a separate entity with DNA and protein, an amalgamation of the egg and sperm. These advanced embryos have a much better chance of lasting the full term. For that reason doctors have to insert only one embryo in the woman, whereas in standard IVF doctors would typically insert many more to ensure that at least one reaches full term. An added benefit of blastocyst transfer: It eliminates the possibility of triplets or quadruplets.

Lori did well; seven of her embryos survived to the fifth day. Graubert implanted two in her uterus, using a five-inch catheter in a simple and painless procedure. Why two? Most patients find twins acceptable, and -- as calculating as it sounds -- they get more bang for their buck: two kids for the price of one. Five embryos were left over, which Graubert froze for future use. The embryos are safe in his liquid nitrogen mini-freezer forever, insists Graubert -- what happened at the University of Miami cannot happen to him. There, something went wrong with a freezer and an undisclosed number of embryos were ruined. A Weston couple filed suit against the university in June, claiming the school stole their last chance to have a biological child. But Graubert has a newfangled alarm system built into the unit that is hooked up to a computer and actually beeps him when the temperature rises.

After the implantation Bill and Lori played a horrible waiting game for 11 days, waiting for a blood test that would confirm that Lori was pregnant. The couple could have bought a home pregnancy test but Lori decided, "I'm going to leave this in the doctor's hands." She told Graubert to call her and her husband together at 5 p.m., when Bill would get home from work. But she couldn't wait, she was about to burst. So she called the doctor back and said, "Call as soon as you know." At 10:30 a.m. Graubert, with his entire staff on speakerphone, called. They all played a part in the pregnancy of their first patient, all knew Wetzel's courageous story, and all wanted to share the good news with Lori.

"Are you sitting down?" Graubert asked Lori. "You're pregnant."

Getting pregnant cost the Wetzels $13,000, but they're lucky: Some couples undergo several attempts before getting pregnant, racking up a bill of $50,000 or more.

Given Bill's limitations, Graubert is amazed that the couple conceived on their first try. Without ICSI there is "no way in hell" the couple could have gotten pregnant. So many technological breakthroughs, so many hours of research and treatment -- the ICSI, the blastocyst transfer, the frozen sperm, even the chemotherapy -- have led the couple to this remarkable moment. Wetzel is one of only two testicular cancer patients at the Sylvester Cancer Center to use frozen sperm to impregnate their wives.

"All our cases are unique, but this really is a miracle baby," says Graubert. "This simply would not have been possible five years ago."


On June 27, 1999 -- the 27th day of the sixth month, at 6:27 a.m., Connor William Wetzel was born. Bill and Lori aren't sure what the significance of these numbers is, but they're certain they mean something, that the numerals are somehow part of the miracle that is their child.

Connor left the womb with one arm raised up in the air, as if he couldn't wait to push himself into the world. The sight filled Bill with such joy that tears spilled over his face. "I never even thought I was going to get married, let alone be a dad," he says. "I thought I was damaged goods."

He was also a bit relieved that Connor "doesn't have three eyes." Although no increase in genetic or developmental abnormalities has been reported in children born from blastocyst transfer, no hard data exist yet. Standard IVF, however, has a long track record of children with no more abnormalities than those conceived the old-fashioned way.

Right after the birth the couple immediately called Wetzel's father, who happened to be vacationing for the first time in 13 years, in Las Vegas. "Connor's here," said William Sr.'s new wife.

"Who the hell is Connor?" he asked. Later he went downstairs to the casino and played 6-2-7 repeatedly. "I lost a lot on 627," he says.

But then again, William's not much of a betting man. If you had asked him six years ago to gamble on whether his son would survive, marry, have a child, and live a prosperous life, he would not have taken that bet.

Six months later the Wetzels are putting Connor to sleep in a bedroom of their Davie townhouse. Connor is a large baby with a sweep of blond hair and ruddy cheeks. The room is decorated in a cowboy and bears theme, reflecting the couple's love of country music. Little teddy bears with cowboy hats wield lassos on pillows and ride on a mobile above the crib and on the border paper that lines the yellow walls. A needlepoint reads: "Babies are a miracle of love -- Connor William, June 27, 1999."

After Connor falls asleep, the couple walks downstairs to the living room and squeezes into a large chair together, stretching their legs across an ottoman. Zeus, the dog, is still around and squeezes in next to them. The room is cozily decorated with oversize blue furniture and a gigantic entertainment unit packed with pictures of the Wetzels' wedding, their European vacation, their families, and Connor. The attractive couple -- both 36 years old -- bubble over with happiness, constantly joking and laughing. They ruminate on their experience, how grateful they are for the scientific breakthroughs of the last decade. They disagree with religious purists who believe the couple has stepped firmly into God's domain. (The Catholic Church opposes IVF.)

"Some people say it's not natural, God's not involved," says Bill. "Well, I believe God worked through these people. It's a fusion of science and religion. Any child you get is a blessing. I wanted to leave something behind."

Wetzel has been free of cancer for years but will be under Benedetto's care for the rest of his life. Since he had Connor, he now sweats his thrice-yearly visits to Benedetto. "I have more to lose now," he explains.

Meanwhile, back at the Palmetto Fertility Center of South Florida, five more chances to conceive await Bill and Lori. Five embryos bide their time in the cryogenic freezer, sharing quarters with 100 other sisters and brothers of the new frontier. You can't even see these embryos with the naked eye, that's how tiny they are, yet their sex has already been determined. So has their eye color. Their hair color.

Lori wanted to surprise her husband and have one embryo implanted this summer, but the plan fell apart when she learned he would have to sign papers before the procedure. So they'll try together this summer.

Lori still holds on to her dream of having that basketball team.

RELATED LINKS

Sylvester Cancer Center

The Repository
Fort Lauderdale sperm and embryo bank

Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address: julie.kay@newtimesbpb.com

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