When Army medic Sgt. Thai Lee was serving in Afghanistan in 2014, he suffered a lower-body injury during an explosion that he feared had forever ruined his ability to father children. But thanks to an advance in fertility medicine, Thai, like many other wounded warriors, has had his hope renewed.
Thai, pictured above with his wife, faced a slew of setbacks after being caught in an explosion — a stroke and a neck wound that partially paralyzed the left side of his body, a hit to the stomach that left him without part of his intestines, a severe cut to his penis, and the loss of one testicle and the crushing of another.
Immediately after the blast, when he’d asked a friend to take a look at “his boys,” the friend had told him, “Sorry, man, you’re not going to be able to have kids.” And it was that idea, aside from all his injuries, that hurt him the most.
Thai Lee (Photo: Facebook)
“All the guys coming back from deployment started having kids. I felt so left out,” Thai, 29, an agricultural genetics researcher, told NBC News in a special report. “And I felt like I had disappointed my wife.”
Indeed, Nkao Ger Lee, 28, his wife of eight years, had a hard time dealing with the new reality. “I’ve always wanted kids,” she said. “I’d lost 15 pounds while he was gone to get ready to start trying.” The two had planned to buy a house back home in Grimes, Iowa, and to raise a family there after his duty was complete.
Luckily, while recovering from his injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a urologist informed Thai about a cutting-edge fertility treatment that could maybe help him become a dad after all. It involved retrieving sperm from his seminal vesicle, where it sits before ejaculation, to be frozen until the couple was ready to try for a baby.
The happy couple. (Photo: Facebook)
Thai agreed, and so, guided by ultrasound, a doctor used a long, thin needle to draw out nearly a half teaspoon of semen, which contained an estimated 40,000 to 6.4 million sperm — just enough for several cycles of in vitro fertilization. (For comparison, according to NBC News, a normal sample contains 20 million to 200 million sperm.)
So far, only Thai and five other patients have tried the approach, which has been available since 2012. But it’s showing promise for men, especially wounded servicemen, who have no other options: More than 1,300 U.S. service members in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered genital injuries between 2003 and 2014, according to the Department of Defense Trauma Registry, the majority from improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.
“Those blasts go up and injure more of the pelvis region and cause more limb loss and penile and groin injuries,” Walter Reed urologist Col. Robert Dean, Thai’s doctor and a male infertility specialist who developed the technique, told NBC. “Sometimes, men would come back with no testicles. That means they’ll never have another chance to make sperm again.”
A recent Facebook post by Nkao Ger shared her baby’s due date with a cute family-shoes photo. (Photo: Facebook)
And as medical advances have made it more possible for young men to survive such blasts, the fertility damage has become more apparent. “You have 19-year-olds with no legs, and that’s hard enough for them to deal with psychologically,” Davendra Sharma, a urologist who worked for the U.K. Royal Air Force, told NBC. “Then they learn they’ve lost the ability to have biological kids and may have erectile problems.”
Another fast-advancing treatment, according to a recent New York Times article, is that of penis transplants — with the organ coming from a deceased donor and expected to have sensation as well as urinary and sexual function within a matter of months. Doctors from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore are preparing to perform their first such transplant within the year.
As for Thai’s recovery, he had four surgeries to his stomach, neck, and groin, plus the implantation of prosthetic testicles. He still has ankle and hand issues and takes daily medication to control seizures. But he was buoyed by hope when he and Nkao Ger began IVF a year ago, using his wife’s eggs, with the aid of their fertility doctor, Navy Lt. Dr. Mae Healy. Healy said the biggest issue with this technique is that it can be difficult to extract enough high-quality sperm. And meanwhile, the military is now starting to encourage some men to freeze their sperm before deploying, said Dean.
Luckily, Nkao Ger became pregnant on the second try and is scheduled to give birth in April — and has a second frozen embryo ready and waiting, though the Lees are not sure if they’ll be able to afford more IVF treatment, which costs an average of $12,400. Still, they are thrilled they’ve come this far. “I can’t wait to be a dad,” said Thai. “When she got pregnant, I finally felt complete.”
Top photo: Facebook