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.
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.