Father’s Day: The journey to fatherhood starts with a health check
Joel Mecklenburg and his wife, Stacey, wanted very much to have a child. They tried. And tried. For 3 ½ years.
Finally, they decided it was time to see their doctors.
“I was a big, healthy guy. I was thinking there’s no way it was my issue,” said Mecklenburg, now 38. “But I went to get tested anyway.”
Then his doctor called with bad news. All Mecklenburg’s sperm were dead.
“That hit me like a punch in the stomach,” he said. “Me. It’s really me?”
He was referred to a urologist and underwent all the same tests he had done before. The urologist didn’t have any better news. Mecklenburg was told he had three choices - use a sperm donor, adopt or opt not to have children.
“I said, ‘Don’t we have any hope here? Can’t we try?’ My first urologist told me there was no hope,” he said. “I thought to myself, man, this is not the doctor for me. I need someone who is on my side.”
That doctor was urologist Dr. Jesse Mills, director of The Men’s Clinic at UCLA and a specialist in male infertility. Mills was direct. He told Mecklenburg it was a huge uphill battle, but he would do what he could to give the Mecklenburgs a chance for a family.
“He had two problems,” Mills said. “He had a low sperm count, and the ones he had were not moving.”
Sometimes, tweaking the balance of hormones and making lifestyle factors can boost sperm health in men, Mills said. Another option was surgery -- what’s known as a microdissection, in which the sperm are extracted directly from the testes.
At Mills direction, Mecklenburg and his wife first dedicated themselves to making lifestyle changes. He already exercised, so he continued to do so. He underwent acupuncture every week, ate healthier, took supplements and made sure to stay cool. Mills says excessive heat can impact sperm health.
“I wanted to be all in,” said Mecklenburg, who relied on his faith to keep him going. “I didn’t want to have any regrets. So I literally did everything I could to heal.”
For months, he returned to Mills for sperm testing, but the results were the same. No live sperm. He and Mills began to consider the surgery, but then Mills decided to test his sperm one last time. After analyzing the sample, Mills walked back into the treatment room.
“What did you do,” he asked Mecklenburg? “You’re healing, getting healthier. You have moving sperm.”
Mecklenburg’s jaw dropped.
The number of live sperm fluctuated over the next few months, but eventually Mecklenburg produced enough to initiate a pregnancy through IVF.
On June 18, Mecklenburg and his wife will celebrate his first Father’s Day with his five-month-old daughter, Annika Elliana, whose first name means “in God’s grace” and whose middle name means “God has answered our prayers.” They have nothing special planned, just being together as a family.
One tiny baby washed away all the stressful years of trying to conceive, all the disappointments.
“It’s the best thing ever,” Mecklenburg said of fatherhood. “Never for a second did I think I wasn’t going to have a kid. I just love every second with my daughter. I just don’t want to be without her, ever.”
Shortly after he and his wife discovered she was pregnant, Mecklenburg called Mills with the news.
“I was elated. This is a great example of a couple who were really at the margins, whose chances were not great. But they kept trying,” Mills said. “My message is always the same: Whenever a couple is trying to conceive, if they’re not successful after six to eight months, they both should get tested. Many men are like Joel, healthy like he is, and can still have problems with fertility. It’s very easy for men to get their sperm tested.”
Joel and Stacey Mecklenburg still have four fertilized eggs, which are frozen and awaiting implantation. They plan to grow their happy family again, hopefully by the end of the year.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Mecklenburg said. “And I want to tell my story in order to give people hope.”