The issue of male infertility can leave men floundering and uncommunicative but taking a medical and holistic approach can have astonishing results.
By Catherine Shanahan
THERE are a range of labels
and phrases around male infertility designed to kick a man when he’s down.
There’s the word ‘jaffa’, slang for an infertile man, inspired by the seedless
orange. There’s the reference to ‘shooting blanks’ and ‘bad swimmers’.
The terminology adds insult to injury for men struggling to come to terms with
the fact that their ability to father a child is either severely compromised or
Thomas McCluskey, a 32-year-old security worker from Clondalkin, Co Dublin, was
beginning to think he was in the latter category after he and wife Karen, (31)
had spent five years trying to conceive.
Initially, he kept quiet about his difficulties.
“It’s not like you’d walk into the local and say to the lads ‘I’m shooting
blanks’. There’s a stigma attached,” Thomas says.
Perfect result: Baby TJ McCluskey with parents Karen and Thomas
Dr Tim Dineen, laboratory manager at Cork Fertility Centre (CFC), agrees. He
conducted a series of interviews to study the male reaction to fertility
problems while working on a masters in genetic counselling.
“When I conducted interviews for my thesis 10 years ago, male fertility was a
taboo subject and I found men were very slow to discuss it.
“My research suggested that identifying the root cause of subfertility, (a less
than normal capacity for reproduction), can help the male psychologically, in
that he may not blame himself and/ or think that he contributed to his problem.
Men may also be reassured that male factor subfertility can be overcome through
various treatment options,” Dineen says.
His research also highlighted the psychological impact of subfertility on the
“Many men had feelings of disappointment, failure, anxiety and anger,
particularly when it’s something they have little control over such as a
genetic condition,” he says.
Then there was the impact of infertility on a relationship. A colleague of
Dineen’s did a study which found men can suffer low self-esteem and have high
levels of stress when a diagnosis of subfertility is made, and these feelings
can be acerbated by a lack of openness to communication. This in turn can
decrease the level of overall contentment with the marital relationship.
However, what many men did not realise, says Dineen, is that male factor
subfertility problems are not as rare as they might think.
“We see men every week who think they are the only one with this problem, but
in fact, in at least one third of all cases, subfertility can be attributed to
the male,” he says.
McCluskey was surprised when his sperm count came back on the low side after he
had it tested three years into trying for a baby. The doctor advised him to
lose weight (he was 19½ stone at the time) and to cut back on smoking (20 a
day) and drinking, (24 cans a week).
“There was some sperm there so I though I was not doing anything too wrong. The
doctor said, ‘You’re a young lad, try and cut down’, but I didn’t make too much
of an effort to change at the time,” he says.
After another year-and-a-half of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, McCluskey
went again for semen analysis, the principle investigation used to evaluate
male fertility — it measures the number of sperm, the motility, (ability to
move), and the morphology, (shape). Costs vary per clinic. At CFC the test
ranges between €75 and €125.
Thomas’ sperm count was even lower this time around, but it took a TV show to
get him motivated. He heard that TV3 were looking for a couple experiencing
difficulties conceiving for a show called How Healthy Are You?.
“I had nothing to lose by doing the show. We didn’t have money to go down the
IVF route and the show was looking at alternative therapies, so we went for
it,” Thomas says.
The alternatives included analysing diet and lifestyle and making the necessary
changes and trying out complementary therapies such as acupuncture and
Senior clinical embryologist Declan Keane, founder of the ReproMed clinics in
Dublin and Kilkenny, was one of the show’s contributors. He’s a firm believer
in exhausting the alternatives before heading down the route of advanced
“At present in Ireland, there’s no true link between those offering medical
therapies and those offering complementary or holistic therapies. There should,
in my view, be an integrated medical approach incorporating nutrition, dietary
advice, psychological advice and other holistic therapies,” he says.
Being identified as subfertile can threaten men’s core identity. Keane believes
men take infertility very personally, that it “hits the masculine or macho
side”. While Dineen believes men find it difficult to distinguish between
virility (sex drive), and fertility.
Many ask, “Am I not a real man if I can’t procreate?” he says.
CFC offers free counselling to help men deal with the psychological side.
McCluskey concedes that he was under a lot of stress. “You can get very
stressed thinking ‘I’ll never have kids’. From a male point of view you don’t
want to think that you can’t father a child,” he says.
The couple seized the opportunities the show offered, changing diet with the
help of nutritionist Elsa Jones, moving from heavily processed convenience
foods to wholesome, fresh produce. They tried acupuncture with Karen Costin, a therapy
Thomas said gave a “huge sense of relief” and hypnotherapist and
psychotherapist Aisling Killoran put him in a better mental state. “It might
seem like a lot of hocus-pocus to some people, but it’s actually quite
practical. It relaxes you and puts you in a fantastic frame of mind,” says
But despite their best efforts, he got more bad news during the show. Another
semen analysis showed no sperm present whatsoever.
Was this the end of the road? Not necessarily, Dineen says.
“The good news is that it is possible for him [a man with no sperm in the
ejaculate], to still have his own biological child. We can carry out a
testicular biopsy, Testicular Sperm Extraction (TESE), to retrieve sperm from
testicular tissue; this may either be carried out on the day of ICSI treatment
or a sample may equally be frozen and stored for use at a later date.”
ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection), one of the most popular techniques
used to overcome the problems of low sperm count and poor motility, involves
injecting a single moving sperm into the female partner’s egg, (collected for
fertilisation outside the womb and transferred back after fertilisation has
At CFC, TESE is carried out under local anaesthetic and takes approximately 20
minutes; the clinic carries out approximately 40 procedures a year. Dineen says
this method of sperm retrieval is very successful, and sperm is retrieved from
tissue in about 80% of cases, resulting in a live birth rate of 42% per
However for men who undergo biopsy and no sperm are recovered, they do
unfortunately hit a genetic cul de sac. “And you are then looking at options
such as use of donor sperm,” he says. Donor sperm was not an option McCluskey
had ever considered. It was suggested to him after the test where no semen was
“That was stunning news. That was life-changing. When it only takes one sperm
to get pregnant, that news was devastating. I felt I had nothing to work with.”
In a panic, the couple sought more intense help from the therapists and doctors
involved in the TV3 show. Declan Keane was encouraging. “He told me it takes
three months to make sperm. I think that’s why my lifestyle changes didn’t take
immediate effect. But I didn’t now that until he told me,” says McCluskey.
In the end, he did have something to work with. On January 5, he and Karen, an
office administrator, had their first child, Thomas Jack (TJ).
Against what seemed like overwhelming odds, it was a spontaneous pregnancy. And
amid all the stress and disappointment, the manner in which McCluskey learned
he would finally become a father had its humorous side.
Karen was a week late menstruating and decided to do a pregnancy test.
McCluskey didn’t encourage her. “I said ‘Karen, we’ve been here so many times
before’.” Karen did a test anyway but didn’t hang about for the result. “She
was annoyed with me about something. She went off to work and left the
pregnancy test on top of the cistern,” he says.
Later in the bathroom, he spotted the test. A casual glance gave way to an
incredulous stare. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was a massive
surprise. There were two blue lines,” he says.
McCluskey rang his wife with the news. She didn’t believe him. In the end he
had to send a photograph via his iphone. So now that he’s achieved what seemed
the impossible, (in his words “a true miracle”), what advice does he have for
other men dealing with infertility issues?
“Do your research. Don’t give up. You don’t necessarily have to go down the IVF
or ICSI route. Examine your diet and lifestyle”.
And ultimately he says ‘Get yourselves checked out’.
“When you are coming to an age where having children is on the agenda, get the
test done to see where you are on the scale.”