For Steve Corey, Oct. 16, 2013, is a date that will live in infamy. It’s the day his testicles were cut open. That sounds bad—and it was. It was, however, a surgical procedure, and Steve was unconscious during the slice and dice.
Why did he consent to this? It was his last shot at having a baby.
The procedure is called microscopic testicular sperm extraction (microTESE), and Steve’s was done at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. During the five-hour operation, Dr. Puneet Masson sliced Steve’s scrotum, removing both testicles in a hunt for sperm that could be used to inseminate Steve’s wife, Cassie.
Obviously, this wasn’t how Steve imagined he’d get his wife pregnant. They’d tried the old-fashioned way, and they were surprised when it didn’t work. They were both young and healthy. When almost a year passed, and Cassie still wasn’t pregnant, the couple went to fertility specialists. Cassie checked out fine, so the medical microscope was trained on Steve.
When the first sample showed a lack of sperm, Steve assumed the test was flawed. “I did it at home, not in the doctor’s office, so I thought something went wrong with it,” he says. “Maybe it had been contaminated or sunlight hit it, or something else happened. Because … no sperm? Can’t be. Not possible.”
A second test confirmed the first: There were no sperm in Steve’s ejaculate. He was referred to Masson, director of male reproductive medicine and surgery for Penn Medicine, who offered two options: Accept the results or undergo the microTESE surgery.
It’s not a minor procedure; recovery involves a hefty amount of pain. Even so, Steve was game. “I wanted to have the surgery to see if there was any way I could get Cassie pregnant naturally—or mostly naturally,” Steve says. “I knew there’d be pain, but I didn’t want to give up without trying everything.”
When Steve awoke, Masson told him the bad news. No sperm had been found. Masson’s original diagnosis was confirmed: Steve has azoospermia, a condition in which men can’t produce sperm. “I was shocked,” says Steve.
And understandably so. Azoospermia is about as rare as a patient’s openness in discussing it. “The more we talk about, the easier it will be for all of us,” Steve says.
So he shares his experience—even at cocktail parties. That’s where Steve Mavros overheard him talking about it.
Mavros is an acupuncturist and herbalist, and the owner of the Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia, which has locations in Bryn Mawr and King of Prussia. He specializes in infertility, even developing a podcast about the subject. “Waiting for Babies” is a series of interviews with people talking about their fertility journeys.
Mavros has a unique point of view on what can be an emotional rollercoaster. He goes to fertility clinics with patients to give them acupuncture treatments before IVF insertions. “I sit in the waiting room with them and see how anxious they are,” he says. “Things happen that are sometimes physically difficult and sometimes funny. I wanted to convey all of that. Knowing that other people go through the same things can be helpful.”
Steve and Cassie definitely went through a lot. Once Steve’s azoospermia diagnosis was confirmed, they started looking for sperm donors, getting six IUIs from two donors. None of them worked. Discouraged but undeterred, the Coreys switched doctors and went to Shady Grove Fertility. “We bought every drop of sperm from those donors, because there wasn’t much left,” Steve says.
Using that sperm, Cassie underwent IVF. She miscarried twice. “At that point, both of our bodies had been through the ringer, and we still didn’t have a baby,” Steve recalls. “We were emotionally spent and fighting constantly. The anger was covering our sadness.”
That dynamic is familiar to Mavros. Frustration can run high during infertility treatments, especially if women are receiving hormone treatments. “For men, it’s difficult to watch their wives go through the process and not be able to help, especially if she’s grieving a miscarriage,” Mavros says. “Honestly, no one really knows how to handle miscarriages, despite the fact that one in four pregnancies end that way. I thought the most helpful thing was for men to hear about it from other men.”
After their miscarriages, Steve and Cassie took a break from their baby quest. They started talking about adoption. Then they decided to give IVF one more try. The physician at Shady Grove overstimulated Cassie’s ovaries. Twenty embryos survived to day three; 10 survived to day five. One was implanted. “That’s how we got Sibbie,” Steve says.
Sybil May Corey was born in October 2015. Steve admits that, for a few months, he felt disconnected from her. But Sibbie never felt that way. Steve is the man who feeds her, changes her diapers and hugs her when she cries. When Steve comes home from work, Sibbie runs to him, shouting, “Daddy!”
To her, that’s who he is.