Half-blinded by the bright summer sun, I staggered out of the doctor’s office, still dazed by the prognosis, when I called my wife Emily to tell her the bad news.
Twelve years had passed since my vasectomy, and the urologist said a reversal procedure would be a waste of money. He told me that an in vitro fertilization was the only option for having a child with my new wife, but she and I both knew we couldn’t afford such an expensive procedure. That night Emily and I held each other and cried, mourning what we would never have together.
But it wasn’t over for Emily. A few weeks later, she started doing her own research, trying to find out if there was any new procedure or research that my original doctor might not have known about. She resolved to find us another doctor, and to get a second opinion. And if that doctor said no, we would get a third opinion. We would keep asking until we found a doctor in town who could do it.
If you haven’t gathered as much already, be advised: This story is going to be… personal.
* * *
Emily and I were discussing our options for having a baby even before our 2016 wedding. She went to a fertility clinic to make sure she was in good reproductive health even before I started looking into options for contributing my half of the DNA. I had picked a urologist who was on my insurance plan, even though I knew a reversal would never be covered. It didn’t matter in the end.
My vasectomy was done in 2003, when I was 25. That is young for the procedure, but it seemed to be a mature decision at the time. By then, my first wife and I already had two kids. We were already perpetually broke, and didn’t want to be outnumbered by kids or forced to buy a minivan.
During our initial consultation, the urologist asked my wife to give us a moment so he could talk to me one-on-one, patient-to-doctor. When she was gone and it was just the two of us in his office, alone among the, ahem, models, he asked if I was certain. He said something vague about how situations can change for men. I knew what he was getting at, but I was sure about the decision.
Our marriage was a strong, Godly partnership, and we were happy together. Divorce was unimaginable. The only way I could even begin to foresee regretting the vasectomy would be if my wife met an untimely end and I later fell in love again with a woman who had no children of her own and wanted to have them with me. Thinking about what I would do in this situation struck me as unseemly. It hinged on both the fear of death and the vain fantasy that this hypothetical new wife couldn’t bear the thought of not having my baby.
There amid the models and the diagrams, my urologist wanted to be sure I understood that a vasectomy could very well be permanent, notwithstanding the money-back-guarantee vasectomy-reversal billboards you see on the freeway. Scarring and other complications could make successful reversal impossible, he said, and the more time passed, the less likely I’d be able to get someone pregnant after a reversal. In 10 years or more, it would be all but impossible.
Of course, a little more than 10 years after the snip, I was a different person than the man who went under the knife. I was divorced, for starters. In disentangling our lives from each other, my ex moved out and I stopped going to the place of worship we had shared. I kept the house and my ex kept the church.
I think it was the best possible arrangement because we each thought we were ripping the other off: The house was worth less than I owed on a mortgage that I couldn’t afford with my paycheck alone. She probably figured I would just stop paying the mortgage, wait until foreclosure, then squat in the place until a constable forced me out. (In fact, that was my original plan.)
Still, deep down, Emily wanted a child of her own. I knew this when I asked her to marry me.
On the other hand, as far as I was concerned, the church was paying out diminishing returns. By this point, I was mainly going for the fellowship, not out of any heartfelt belief, and as much as I loved some of the people in the congregation, I knew they were more her friends than mine. When I started to miss going to church, I decided, I would begin looking for another one to attend.
It never happened. Without the constant reinforcement of being around other believers, my faith faded and finally blinked out like a snuffed candle. The sense of finality took me by surprise.
Then I met Emily. She was loving, funny, smart and beautiful. She grew to love my children and they loved her. If we never had kids together, she said, she could still be content with a good partnership, sweet stepchildren and a fulfilling career. Our three dogs enjoyed an excess of attention. Still, deep down, Emily wanted a child of her own. I knew this when I asked her to marry me.
* * *
Around the same time I got my vasectomy, a young doctor was getting started in his residency in urology at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
He believes every opportunity arose because God put him in the right place, creating a path so that he would eventually be able to help couples as he does.
Growing up, Dan French looked up to his grandfather, Dr. Raul de los Reyes, who had immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1960. He had brought his family, including French’s mother, on a vacation and job-seeking trip to Florida that unexpectedly turned into a permanent move when political developments in their home country made it unsafe to return. The family began their new lives in this new country with no more than their vacation luggage, French says. From this start, his grandfather built a successful gastroenterology practice. French decided to follow in his professional footsteps, up until the medical school realization that “gastroenterology was kind of gross,” French says.
He pauses and adds, with a knowing half-smile, “I’m not saying urology is that much of an improvement.”
Urology, though, looked like a promising field for him. A mentor took a job heading the male fertility training program at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic’s academic medical center, which had world-class technology and experts, and offered French a fellowship. His other professors encouraged him to pursue the opportunity, and there he learned cutting-edge microsurgical techniques before going on to join a clinic in Dallas with two partners in 2008. He introduced himself to every OB/GYN he could, and told them to keep him in mind when counseling couples with male fertility issues.
Along with the choice to specialize in urology, French had made another decision in medical school. He and his wife would dedicate themselves fully to their Christian faith. This added a spiritual significance to his career choice. “Even before I had kids, I knew I wanted to be a dad,” he says. “To help other people be fathers is rewarding. I’m a Christian, and to be part of God’s creative process is a joy.”
French came to specialize in microscopic vasectomy reversals, but looking back now, he doesn’t think it was his skill that got him where he is. He believes every opportunity arose because God put him in the right place, creating a path so that he would eventually be able to help couples as he does.
* * *
A few weeks before our first wedding anniversary, Emily booked me an appointment for another urologist she’d found online.
She came to his office with me for the initial consultation appointment, where he told us we would probably be throwing money away with a vasectomy reversal. He could do the operation, but by this point my “count” was likely too low anyway, and we would probably have to opt for the expensive in vitro fertilization, a process that involves “retrieving” genetic material from the man with a needle and is said to be about as fun as it sounds.
Five months after my procedure with French, I received a pleasant surprise in the form of a text from my wife. It was a photo of a pregnancy test.
Emily’s online research had given us reason to believe a reversal could work even after this much time, but this doctor dismissed her sources as patients who had gotten extremely lucky or clinics whose motive was to sell more surgeries. Outside of in vitro fertilization, he said, the only thing that might work was a microscopic procedure that a select few doctors offered. It would be a gamble, but there was one microsurgeon he knew of in Dallas who might take our case: Dan French, M.D.
We left with a sliver of hope.
During the first appointment with French, Emily and I were both impressed by his matter-of-fact confidence in his success rate, particularly the offer to do a retrieval for free if the surgery wasn’t a success. He was the first doctor I’d ever heard offer to do anything for free. Emily, who works in the healthcare industry, noted that he was the first doctor she’d ever seen wearing cowboy boots under his scrubs.
We booked the microscopic reversal procedure for July. Panicky second thoughts nagged me as the date approached: What am I doing starting over again with kids just three years before we will have an empty nest? I would be 41 at the youngest by the time this kid was born, which would make me nearly 60 when he or she graduated from high school. Isn’t that kind of old? Looking back, these fears were almost certainly amplified by the idea of having a doctor cut open the most sensitive part of my body and the memory of a painful recovery from my vasectomy.
* * *
Despite his passion for helping couples have children, French also performs vasectomies, and he isn’t conflicted about it. He points out that he is not Catholic and says that helping couples with family planning is also a rewarding part of his job. He estimates only 40 percent of his practice is fertility-related at all. Another 40 percent is related to sexual function, mostly helping to keep aging men in the game, with the rest of his work going toward other urology practice—routine checkups, kidney stones and such.
French and his wife volunteer as small-group coordinators for the Young Married Adults department at Park Cities Baptist Church, where he hopes to be a resource to couples in their 20s or 30s who might be struggling with fertility issues. It would be easy for a cynical person to see this as a callous attempt to get more patients. But he seems genuine when talking about this service, and as he does, it makes me nostalgic for the sense of spiritual purpose I felt as a younger man.
On the day of the surgery, the clinical scent of antiseptic sent my nerves jangling with fear, but French and his staff settled me down before putting me under general anesthesia for the two-hour procedure.
I woke up intact. After the anesthetic fog lifted, the doctor debriefed Emily and me. The surgery had gone fine, and he had seen plenty of live swimmers under the microscope while doing his work. If we weren’t pregnant in six months or so, he said we could discuss what to do next.
Today, Malcolm Thomas Hughey is more than a year old. He changes every day with some new skill or strength.
In the following weeks of recovery, the warm full-body hug of hydrocodone and its accompanying sense of well-being resulted in some oversharing.
“Do not get a vasectomy,” I’d slur to any male friend or relative who found himself stuck in a conversation with me as I clutched a bag of frozen peas. “Ever. You never know how your life is going to turn out, man.”
Some lessons are learned the hard way. “That bad, huh?” they’d say with a sympathetic teeth-sucking wince.
My recovery from the initial vasectomy had been excruciating, and this was no better. But I was at least mentally prepared for the pain this time. The urologist who performed the first operation back in 2003 gave me a spiel about how 99 percent of men have little to no discomfort afterward, so finding myself in the unlucky 1 percent was a horrifying surprise.
This time, there was no surprise.
I take that back. Five months after my procedure with French, I received a pleasant surprise in the form of a text from my wife. It was a photo of a pregnancy test.
A positive pregnancy test.
* * *
Following an uncomfortable and emotionally exhausting nine months that wiped the slate clean of any credit I thought I was owed for the pain of my recovery, our son was born in September of 2018, a little more than a year after French performed my life-enabling surgery.
Today, Malcolm Thomas Hughey is more than a year old. He changes every day with some new skill or strength. He is an intense, muscular baby with an enormous noggin who loves being pushed in a stroller around our block under the trees, consuming unbelievable amounts of food and splashing in pools or bathtubs. Emily and I could not possibly love our little family any more.
And this is the part of the story where maybe you expect me to tell about a spiritual reawakening and how a miracle-working doctor with his own devout faith helped me find my way back to Jesus like the prodigal son. I will leave it to your imagination.
Some things are just too personal to share.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.