My wife and I were initially referred to a fertility clinic because my wife was having an allergic reaction to my semen, and the GP didn’t know where else to direct us. To this day, that problem remains unresolved, but our fertility journey was life-changing.

The fertility clinic first conducted routine tests, after which we were informed that we would not be able to conceive naturally because – even though my wife’s fertility was fine – my ejaculate sample was found to have only three sperm.

“You have three sperm, not three million, which would also be low, I’m sorry but you will not be able to conceive naturally and I advise you start IVF with ICSI as soon as possible.”

We were both shellshocked when we left the clinic; we had no idea that we were going to receive this kind of news. The next few weeks were a rollercoaster of emotions and I really wasn’t very well equipped to cope.

information was virtually impossible to find

The next few weeks involved fitful internet searches to find out more about male factor infertility, Azoospermia, Cryptozoospermia, IVF, ICSI, etc, etc. However, clear information about male factor infertility was virtually impossible to find. What information there was, was either extremely basic (eat well, don’t smoke etc), or written in the inaccessible ‘doctor-speak’ of academic papers, neither of which was particularly useful. Nowhere seemed to have a story/case that corresponded to our experience.

Starting treatment

Within a few months of our initial referral, we were starting our treatment. Luckily, we were afforded one full ‘fresh’ cycle through the NHS, with opportunity for two further ‘frozen’ cycles if we had sufficient embryos. I spent the next few months eating healthily and regularly banking sperm samples at the clinic, to ensure that on the day they could choose the best options from what was available.

We started the treatment. My wife responded well – too well in fact – to the various drugs and in the end nineteen eggs were extracted. We were hopeful.

Sadly, the first cycle didn’t work. My wife, having responded too well to the drugs, was unable to have a fresh transfer. Worse yet, of the nineteen eggs, only fifteen were mature and only one was fertilised, leaving us with only one low-quality embryo for freezing. A frozen transfer a few months later was unsuccessful. Our NHS journey was over.

Consulting a private andrologist

Before trying another round of IVF with a private clinic, we decided to consult a private andrologist, who in turn recommended a dietician. The andrologist, did some more thorough tests, reviewed ultrasound scans of my testes, treated a suspected infection, and put me on testosterone boosting hormones (which had some serious negative effects on my mood). The dietician recommended a special diet. I ate well, skipped the pub, and focused on getting in the best shape I could, seeking to maximise our chances for the next cycle.

Meanwhile, we searched for a clinic to manage our second round of treatment. Lots of places sold hope, few sold a comprehensive plan to tackle male-factor issues – one clinic even suggested that I simply take a vitamin supplement! Eventually, we chose a clinic and, based on recommendations from the andrologist, decided our best option was to have a ICSI cycle timed with a surgical sperm extraction procedure.

Despite a much more promising fertilisation rate, from which we were able to transfer two embryos; this round too ended in failure. We had no additional frozen embryos to try a further frozen transfer. This failure was devastating. Still physically recovering from surgery (it was three weeks before I could walk properly again), we struggled to contemplate how everything we had undertaken – a year’s worth of investigations, lifestyle changes and a surgical procedure – had left us with nothing but a hefty bill.

A lack of research into male infertility

After this round I continued to see the andrologist, who suggested the next course of action was to consider using donor semen. We were at a crossroads; did we really want to take this step? To add insult to injury, the original reason we went to the GP remained unresolved. The only thing that was becoming clear was that medical science does not yet know much about male fertility and wasn’t going to be able to offer us much help.

Facing a childless future, making the decision to stop trying was brutal. To this day, we are contemplating one final round, but we know this means thousands of bills for what is almost certain to be an unhappy outcome. It often feels hard to get an honest assessment of the probability of success from private clinics, especially as the cause of the low sperm count remains unexplained.

this painful journey has taught me to be more compassionate

I don’t think I will ever not feel sadness at the family that won’t be, depriving my wife the opportunity to become a mother, watching your peers drift away as they become focused on the next generation. We live with this grief every day. This painful journey has taught me to be more compassionate and become sensitive to the struggles that others may be facing. It has led me to a healthier lifestyle and has strengthened our bond as a couple.

Tom’s advice

If I could offer one piece of advice for anyone on a fertility journey, it would be to talk to someone. Sharing about our situation with friends and family, whilst difficult, helped me to process how I was feeling and enabled me to find others who were living through similar challenges.

Four years have now passed from the initial meeting at the fertility clinic, and in time we have become open to new thinking about our future and projects that we can do as a couple that do not involve parenting. Now my wife and I look ahead to our next challenge, learning how to sail and preparing to take to the seas for an adventure that, had things worked out differently, we would never have been able to even contemplate.


Useful links

Male fertility factsheets

HIMfertility online support group

More support services

More to Life community: support for those involuntarily childless