When doctors told Chris Wohl that, after months of trying to conceive, he was the reason why his wife was not getting pregnant, he launched into what he considered his own version of the old TV show Fear Factor. And that included doing one of the grossest things he could imagine: downing whole packages of smoked raw oysters.
"Because oysters are supposed to have a thing that's really good,” says the Virginia-based Wohl, who remembers reading that after his diagnosis. “I'd try to eat it as fast as I could. It was very purposeful."
Problems with the male reproductive system happen more often than guys realize. And while talking about sex and body parts is never easy, it becomes even more difficult when there are issues that prevent what society says should be a normal activity. Suddenly, not being able to have a baby brings feelings of shame, say men who have experienced infertility.
Of all American couples, 15% have problems making babies, according to urologist Dr. Marc Goldstein. "And if you break down how often it's male, how often it’s female and how much it's a combination, it's literally a third, a third and a third," he says.
As such, the professor at the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Microsurgery at Weill Cornell Medicine says the numbers show that men are contributing to at least one half of all cases of infertility. For some men, a low sperm count is to blame, while sperm shape and motility (how they move through the reproductive tract to reach and fertilize an egg) are other factors; oftentimes it's a combination of all three. While a sperm analysis can determine what's happening, other issues may be the root cause of male infertility.
"The most common thing that causes infertility in men is a condition that's called varicose veins in the scrotum," Goldstein says.
That was the issue for Joshua Kaiser of Texas. After getting married in 2010, he and his wife decided they wanted lots of kids. The assumption was that it would be easy. But after months of trying with no success, he went to an urologist who unloaded the bad news.
"I was in denial," Kaiser says of his varicose vein diagnosis. He remembers thinking, "It can't be me. It must not be God's timing yet."
His doctor suggested varicocele surgery to enlarge the veins in the scrotum. When that didn't work, Kaiser says he struggled with depression.
"I bottled everything up. And then I had angry outbursts. I felt like I wasn't good enough," he shares.
In Wohl’s case, instead of getting angry, he went on a mission. The crates of zinc-packed smoked oysters were accompanied by handfuls of supplements, hot tea and even a special brand of underwear in hopes of boosting his sperm count. But nothing worked.
"You get a sense of being 'less than,'" Wohl says.
Not all men find it easy to open up about their sexual health. Many only speak about it with their partners, if at all. Julian D. agreed to discuss his experience with male infertility on the condition that his last name not be used. He serves in the military, and feared colleagues knowing.
"It's something that when you find out, you certainly think ... it could never happen to me because I'm healthy and I work out. And I'm not overweight. So why would it happen to me?" Julian says.
When he was first handed his urologist's report showing his sperm count, he didn't understand the numbers. Even finding charts online was hard, he says. Eventually, however, it became clear through his research that his numbers were not good.
"I thought, like, oh crap, it’s me. How did i do this? Is it because I’m not eating the right things?" he remembers. "It's ridiculous."
He was given the same speech that many men get during their annual physical. The prescription was to work out, cut back on caffeine and alcohol and get more sleep. It was the coffee part that was the hardest.
All three men who spoke to Yahoo Life ended up taking different paths after learning their male infertility diagnosis. After multiple unsuccessful rounds of IVF, Wohl and his wife, who had undergone a partial hysterectomy, were ultimately able to conceive thanks to a gestational surrogate carrying their fertilized embryo. Kaiser and his wife adopted. Julian D. and his wife have gone through IVF five times. Only one embryo made it past 20 weeks, but his wife’s water broke early and they lost the pregnancy.
"It's really crushing. It's something that haunts me," he admits.
Each man spoke out so that other men can know that they are not alone. Support groups are something they've all tried, and they say that's helped. Just speaking about a problem, they say, makes them feel more normal. They also all recommend seeing a doctor early on if a pregnancy is not happening, noting that having insight into what's going on can be calming.
But, most of all, all three men want those struggling with male infertility to not give up.
"Don't give up. If you want to be a parent, don't give up on your dreams. You're not alone," Kaiser says. "You're not less of a man."
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