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A Letter to the Guys Who Love Us
We are one, after all, you and I, together we suffer, together exist and forever will recreate each other.
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
It is traditional in the fertility profession to focus on our female patients. This is understandable as, historically, most fertility treatments have been directed toward women and, of course, gestation is the purview of the female. Women are the ones who fertility practices see for care, save for a semen analysis.
But what about the guys?
Remember them? The ones who sit quietly in exam rooms, the ones who hold their beloveds’ hands, the ones who embrace the women they love if they get bad news or good news. They are the ones who with a sideways glance, awkwardly hand off the labeled cups with their semen specimens then, I imagine, sprint to the safety of their cars where they race off to some place — any place — except the fertility doctor’s office. They are generally the ones who don’t say much and the ones that we professionals are often guilty of ignoring as we talk to our female patients.
I noticed on FertilityAuthority’s site last week that the new at-home sperm tests for men were discussed. These days we are seeing more identifiable male factor issues that contribute to infertility. Although I have not seen studies that support my hunch, I believe that laptops and all the other portable devices with on-off switches might contribute to abnormal morphology and other parameters that we use to assess sperm. Certainly the toxic soup in which we live, breathe, drink and eat cannot be helping sperm to develop ideally. Too, I live in ostensibly the most “fit” state in the nation where many elite and incredibly athletic people live. Sometimes too much or the wrong kind of exercise can affect optimal sperm production. The great news is that there are now diagnostic modalities and treatments for male factor. The not-so-great news is that, as a discipline, we have a lot to learn about what the male partner endures emotionally, socially, mentally and sexually during fertility treatment.
Last week I got a glimpse of what men may go through while their loved ones undergo fertility treatment. This experience had nothing to do with fertility but everything to do with gritty honesty about loving and living with someone who has medical problems.
My friends, Rita and Brad, had a son named Brandon who was diagnosed at age 4 with a rapacious type of brain cancer. He died 20 years later, two years ago. He was the only one in his cohort of kids with this cancer to live so long. At their home last week, I was enchanted by the black and white photographs gracing their walls and hallways that chronicle the passage of their family’s life. There is 5-year-old Brandon with shunts clearly visible, bisecting the crown of his denuded head after chemo, looking much like a front yard in which voles have tunneled pathways to and fro. The shunts channeled fluid from one part of his brain to another. His body is sharp angles, stick limbs, and his brown limpid eyes mesmerizing. He does not look afraid and I have to remind myself that he is no longer living — his eyes look that alive. There is 8-year-old Brandon and his younger sister wearing goofy hats — a sailor one moment, a pirate hat the next. Their faces were captured just as they erupted with the uninhibited smiles that only the young can exude. There is 15year-old Brandon, in his wheelchair, wishing madly for someone to look past his small stature and unusual looks, into his soul. There is 20-year-old Brandon with his yellow Lab service dog, Speed, who never left his side and pined for Brandon after death had its way.
The pictorial was gripping in a way that I hope I will never forget. I was and remain transfixed.
But what rendered me mute were his sister’s and his words written underneath the pictures. Brandon had lived with his condition all of his remembered life and he knew that many people were discomfited by his differences. He must have been incredibly lonely. Below one studio-framed photo, Brandon challenged passersby — well, actually all of us who avert our eyes when we see someone different—with the words, “I dare you to play with me, to dig deep into your reserve of sacred patience and give some of it to me. Sit still so I can see you. (Brandon was blind in his left eye because his occipital lobe was removed, which is responsible for vision.) Open your eyes and see me with your heart. I have endured many winters of cancer, but today I am wearing a rainbow.” Then there were his sister’s, Brianna’s, words, “I was scared, I was wounded … notice me and not only him. My scars are on the inside.”
As I paused in front of the images, reading the children’s words over and over, it occurred to me that many men must feel about the women they love as they endure the crucible of infertility, as Brianna did her brother with cancer. I thought of two patients whose husbands have never missed one of their appointments. I thought of just the day before when I was performing an procedure on a patient, during which her husband enveloped her in his arms, murmuring into her ear while she cried, noiselessly. I thought of my husband who, as I lay on the floor losing consciousness in a pool of blood, hemorrhaging after surgery, certain that I would awaken with my problem-child uterus surgically removed. scooped me up in his arms then ran to get help. The last thing I remember before the world became downy, gray, then black, was a nurse saying, “Oh my God, it’s like an Officer and a Gentleman.”
And so for the long-suffering, kind men who stand by us with little or no acclaim — you are special and incredible. And although we may not say it, your presence in our lives is irreplaceable and revered. Let us all remember that our guys struggle with us, and that two little kids suffering from the ravages of cancer unknowingly offered us sage wisdom, “Open your eyes and see me with your heart …” and “notice me.”