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. 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.