'Kristel went through so much, had hundreds of injections... and the problem was with me'
Our reporter meets a couple who have travelled a bumpy road to parenthood
Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30
Rewind 12 months, to October 2015, and Paul Bradley was hearing the news that left him reeling. The results of a special test had come through from the fertility clinic he and his wife were attending, and there was little doubt about it: the reason Paul and his 30-year-old wife Kristel could not conceive was down to him, not her, as both had originally assumed.
The couple, who live in Arklow, Co Wicklow, were patients at Dublin's Sims Clinic, and after trying to isolate what was causing their difficulties, their doctor, John Kennedy, advised 31-year-old Paul to take a sperm DNA fragmentation test.
"I'd never heard about it before then," Paul recalls. "We had to Google it to find out exactly what it was."
In layman's terms, the test seeks to show if the sperm DNA is damaged and may make conception difficult or impossible.
Two weeks after taking the test, the results were back and instead of a healthy reading of 15, Paul's was 49. He was devastated.
"I suppose, at the back of my mind, I thought I might have been the reason we couldn't conceive - but when people talk about infertility they talk about the female."
It was hard for Paul to accept that the issue lay with him, especially as Kristel had been through so much. "She'd had hundreds of injections - literally. I'm talking about several every day for months at a time. And when I'm hearing this news I'm thinking she went through all that for no good reason."
There was a further blow when he learnt that his lifestyle may have been the cause for the abnormal reading. Dr Kennedy advised him to cut caffeine and alcohol, to cut down on the 15 cigarettes he smoked a day and to try to abstain from processed food. Sperm renews itself every three months, so it would take 90 days for a lifestyle overhaul to potentially bear fruit.
When he first heard the news, Paul, a manager in the financial services industry, thought he might never become a father.
"When I met Kristel and we talked about having children, I just assumed it would happen. I don't think many people think about infertility until it happens to them."
Kristel says Paul's diet and lifestyle up to that point had been comparatively normal.
"It was like most Irish men," she says. "There was nothing excessive - he wasn't overweight, or anything like it."
But with Dr Kennedy's words ringing in his ears, Paul set about transforming what he put into his body.
Meals were religiously made from scratch; even the humble cup of tea was eschewed. He cut down the cigarettes to one or two a day.
Three months later, in January, and a new DNA fragmentation test shocked them all - but in a good way.
Paul's reading had gone down to 19, which is considered to be in the normal range.
"It just goes to show the part that diet and alcohol can play," he says.
"It was great news because we'd had a pretty low-key Christmas," Kristel says. "It was on our minds all the time."
They had already gone through a round of IVF and decided they wanted to try another. But first they went on a sun holiday. It's a trip to Lanzarote they will never forget because conception happened there naturally.
"We found out just before we were due to begin the IVF," Paul says. "We couldn't believe it, at first. We'd been through five years of trying to conceive, so it didn't seem real."
But it was. The IVF didn't need to go ahead after all.
Kristel is currently 38 weeks pregnant and feels she's ready to give birth any day now. "I wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me this would happen 12 months ago," she says. "We're over the moon."
Paul's lifestyle change has been copper-fastened, especially as the couple would like more children.
"Infertility just isn't talked about enough in Ireland," Paul says. "And male infertility is almost never openly discussed, so if there's any men out there reading this who feel that they're alone, they're not. It's extremely common and, if diagnosed, it can be possible to turn things around."
Paul estimates that the couple spent €20,000 on infertility treatments and related therapies and, in hindsight, is relieved that they had the money.
"We met when we were young and bought a house together while still in our early 20s, and we didn't lose our jobs in the recession so we were okay, but what about those who aren't as fortunate."
Now he is about to embark on an exciting new chapter in his life, he can afford to look back and laugh at somewhat clinical nature of fertility treatment and intimacy.
"Everything is timed, so there would be mornings where the clock was set for 6.30 and we'd have to wake to do the business, so to speak. It's fair to say it wasn't the most romantic thing in the world."