Fertility: My sperm count is zero - but I'm determined to become a daddy
Thomas McCluskey is turning to TV in a bid to boost his virility, writes Deirdre Reynolds
When young Clondalkin couple Karen and Thomas McCluskey tied the knot five years ago this August, they couldn't wait to become parents.
With nine siblings and eight nieces and nephews between them, the football-mad 25-year-olds, who met at a local match, agreed that they weren't just saying 'I Do' to a life of coupledom -- but to a noisy house of their own too.
And hoping to make their dream come true, excited Karen stopped taking birth control ahead of their big day.
When it failed to make any difference, like thousands of other women across the land, she underwent a battery of physical exams, blood tests, ultrasounds, ovulation tests and body temperature charting, overhauled her diet and even contemplated IVF in a bid to get pregnant.
But after years of hospital visits and heartbreak, last week tests finally confirmed that it's security officer Thomas -- not his wife Karen -- who can't conceive.
And discovering he has "zero sperm" has not only crushed his hopes of fatherhood, but his entire sense of manhood, admits the 30-year-old.
"It was soul-destroying," says Thomas of the prognosis that he may never be able to impregnate his wife. "I was very upset about it -- I'm still upset about it.
"When someone tells you you've got no sperm, it makes you feel like you're not a man.
"We're both from big families, so Karen and I always took it for granted that we'd have kids of our own," he adds.
"Of course, I feel guilty that Karen may never have the experience of having a baby -- but I'm never going to stop trying."
After six unsuccessful years of trying to fill the spare room, the couple turned to lifestyle series How Healthy Are You? for help -- and their story airs tonight on TV3.
"There is a stigma [surrounding male infertility] and I'm expecting to get a lot of flack for it tomorrow," says Thomas. "It's not one of those things you can go down to the pub and tell the lads -- it's just not talked about.
"But if it helps one other bloke or couple in the same situation, I don't care. Since doing the show, we've met so many people in the same boat."
Around one in six Irish couples are struggling to conceive just like the McCluskeys.
But while the ticking female biogical clock is typically 'blamed', it's almost just as likely that it's the male partner who's reproductively challenged, according to experts.
"Normally when a couple are experiencing problems conceiving, their first port of call is a gynaecologist or obstetrician," says Declan Keane, senior clinical embryologist at ReproMed -- a fertility clinic in Sandyford.
"Immediately, the finger is being pointed at the woman.
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"Men can see any questioning of their fertility as an attack on their manliness.
"They usually spend the first part of their life trying not to get someone pregnant, so when they have trouble actually getting someone pregnant they just assume: 'It's obviously her problem'.
"But there's any number of reasons why a man may not produce sperm properly -- lifestyle, genetics, hormones, damage to the testicles or a blockage," he explains. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about and can often be rectified easily. Fortunately, fewer and fewer Irish men are willing to simply accept that it's 'God's will'."
Probed and prodded with the optimism of becoming a mum, Karen agrees that she felt very much responsible when the good news never came.
"Thomas and I discussed starting a family even before we got married," recalls Karen (29), who works in a social services centre. "I came off the Pill, but for the first year we were so preoccupied with the wedding plans that we didn't really notice I hadn't got pregnant.
"We were so young that we didn't think we'd have any issues.
"But when I still wasn't pregnant a year later, we thought: 'There's something not right here'.
"I went to my GP who referred me to the Rotunda," she adds. "Even though all my tests were coming back OK, the emphasis was very much on me. Thomas wasn't really involved with it -- he was kind of kept on the sidelines."
When he did eventually go for a semen analysis test two years into their fertility battle, Thomas was assured that his low sperm count was "nothing to worry about".
"The doctor told me that it was a little bit low, but to change my diet and it would be all right," he says. "But the most recent test showed that now there's nothing there at all. If I had known, I could have had my sperm frozen."
While such a discovery could rip a marriage apart with recrimination, the couple insist it's had the opposite effect on their relationship.
"I know at least three couples going through this at the moment and some of them can't even stand to be in the same room as each other," says Thomas. "But Karen and I have been very lucky.
"Sure, we've had a few arguments -- but if anything, it's made us even stronger."
"We communicate well with one another," adds Karen. "It wasn't like me sitting in a corner crying and him downstairs having a few beers getting annoyed at the fact."
Since signing up to How Healthy Are You? in May, determined Thomas and Karen have cut out junk food, scaled back on booze and caffeine, given up cigarettes and tried hypnotherapy and acupuncture to boost their chances of having a baby.
And Thomas urged other twenty-something men who want to be fathers some day to take the health of their sperm more seriously.
"You go through your twenties drinking and partying -- you don't realise what you're doing to your body," says Thomas, who's lost two stone in eight weeks.
"The worst thing is that I don't know if it was something I did wrong -- you question everything.
"Younger men should find out if there's any issues with fertility -- that way they can address it sooner."
Now awaiting the results of further tests to determine the cause of the problem, the couple are hopeful of a future involving sleepless nights and nappy changes.
"I'd give anything for a sleepless night right now," jokes Thomas. "If you come back to us in a couple of years, that might change!
"If we can't conceive, we'll adopt -- and I'm happy with that. But we'll never give up trying.
"Miracles happen every day," he smiles. "And you know what they say -- practise makes perfect!"
How Healthy are You? is on TV3 tonight at 7.30pm