(NEW YORK) -- Raul Rodriguez of Camarillo, Calif., has been paralyzed since a 1997 car accident when he tried to pass a truck on a canyon road. His car spun out of control, slammed into a large tree and landed upside down in a creek.
An athlete before he became wheelchair-bound, Rodriguez, then 24, bounced back quickly. Six months out of the hospital, he was water skiing, and in 2004, he found love and got married.
Because the injury in his spine was low -- on the T-5 vertebra -- Rodriguez can get an erection but cannot ejaculate. So his doctor told the couple they could never have children.
Rodriguez said he was told, "Sorry, your best bet is to look into adoption or a donor -- that's it."
That doctor was wrong. Today, at 39, Rodriguez and his wife, Maria Angelica Rodriguez, or "Angie," are expecting twin girls. It's all because of a procedure called testicular sperm extraction, or TESE.
Rodriguez said he feels as if he has been "reborn."
"They are having twins -- It's a miracle," said Dr. Philip Werthman, director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Vasectomy Reversal in Los Angeles, who performed the procedure.
"Here is a guy who lost everything, and for whatever reason, he was told the wrong thing," he said. "They took away all his hope."
During this week of National Infertility Awareness, Rodriguez's story should bring hope to many couples who may have thought they could never have children.
"I have spent my career dedicated to...countering misinformation and rumors and old wives' tales about fertility," said Werthman. "Many people are denied the hope of reproduction, even though it's technically feasible."
Rodriguez was diagnosed with anejaculation, meaning he wasn't producing enough ejaculate because of nerve damage, and nonobstructive azoospermia, meaning he had no measurable levels of sperm.
"He had sperm, they just weren't very good," said Werthman.
In a 30-minute office procedure, Werthman removed a piece of testicular tissue through a 2-inch skin incision, which requires nothing more than a small Band-Aid afterward.
The tissue is placed in culture and morseled into tiny pieces, which liberates the sperm so that it can be extracted. The sperm can be used for insemination right away or frozen for later use.
Despite Rodriguez's paralysis, erection is still possible because it is controlled by a separate division of the central nervous system than his leg movement.
"No one is exactly sure why in many men who have a spinal cord injury the sperm quality deteriorates after the injury," said Werthman.
"It may well be, sitting in a wheelchair, the heat builds up -- that's one theory," he said. "Many also develop chronic urinary tract infections, and that affects their reproductive tissues."
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