When Kevin Byrne was told, at 16 years old, that it was unlikely he would ever be able to father a child, he knew a rite of passage that most men take for granted had been snatched away from him.
Now, 22 years on and following advances in fertility medicine, he is the biological father of little Arthur, born following IVF treatment at Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge.
“Looking back at that day, I was angry, frustrated, and I hadn’t even contemplated fatherhood.
“Years later and having been through so much, I still can’t believe Arthur is here. He’s amazing – the baby that would never have been without the team at Bourn Hall,” said Kevin.
In 1980, aged four, Kevin, who lives in Soham, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a rare cancer that affects the body’s lymphatic system – the network of glands and vessels that forms part of the immune system.
The cancer had formed in Kevin’s liver and spread to his kidneys by the time it was picked up. For the next two years, Kevin was in and out of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London.
He recalls: “Even though I was very young, my memories of that time are still vivid. My dad was an ambulance technician, and when I was really poorly I’d be rushed down to London, blue lights flashing, by his crew mates.
“I remember one doctor who used to try and distract me from the pain by playing card tricks at my bedside. There was also a time where I came round from an operation and told my mum I could see five of her!
“I was spaced out from the medication and I think it was definitely scarier for her than it was for me.”
Kevin battled the illness for two years and underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and a cycle of radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy can cause a man to become infertile and due to Kevin’s young age, he did not have the option to freeze a sperm sample prior to the treatment.
Given the all clear aged 11 and thankfully in good health ever since, Kevin jokes he grew up a normal “tearaway teen”.
When he was 25, he met Natalie, while they were both working for a cable TV company.
“We got to know each other over the 18 months we worked together and became friends. Natalie had decided she wanted to become a midwife and went away to university to train. We didn’t see much of each other and kept in touch with the occasional phone call… Natalie always called me, I was rubbish,” Kevin laughs.
However, when Natalie finished her training and moved back, the couple got together and became engaged. Kevin had been open about his medical history and Natalie remembers having to consider the prospect that she may never be a mother.
“I had to think hard about whether we had a future together if we couldn’t have a family. Being a midwife, surrounded by pregnant women and babies, it could become difficult to cope with. I loved Kevin and wanted to be with him, so we chose to cross any difficult bridges when we came to them.”
The couple decided to seek help early on. They saw their GP in February 2011 and Kevin was asked to provide four sperm samples for analysis. All four came back with a zero sperm count, confirming their worst fears.
Kevin remembers: “I knew it was unlikely that I would be producing sperm but the results still came as a blow – I was disappointed but not surprised. I felt particularly bad for Natalie as she was more hopeful then I was about the result and was quite upset. We talked about adoption but decided we wanted to try IVF with a sperm donor first so went to our local hospital for further fertility testing.”
Their consultant referred the couple for IVF treatment at Bourn Hall Clinic and they met with consultant, Oliver Wiseman, one of only a handful of urologists in the UK to specialise in fertility medicine.
He encouraged the couple to try a procedure called testicular sperm extraction (TESE) before considering sperm donation.
Mr Wiseman said: “Although there may be no sperm in the ejaculate, the man might still have sperm in the testes. TESE involves the removal of small pieces of testicular tissue under general anaesthetic.
“In the embryology lab we look for any viable sperm that can be used for IVF. It is not always possible to find suitable sperm but if we do, the man has a chance of becoming a biological father.
“We treated Kevin just before Christmas in December 2011. We were all delighted when sperm was found. It was a great Christmas present for all concerned.”
Kevin spent Christmas and New Year recovering from the operation with renewed hope that he could become a father. The couple were also planning their wedding at the time and decided to wait until later in 2012 to begin IVF treatment.
Kevin’s sperm was frozen and stored at Bourn Hall.
The couple had IVF with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) – where a single sperm is injected directly into the egg to fertilise it.
As part of the treatment, Natalie was given medication to stimulate egg production but suffered a reaction known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. This caused her ovaries to swell and produce too many follicles; the fluid-filled sacs in which each egg develops.
The reaction caused the first cycle of IVF treatment to fail. Despite this setback, Kevin and Natalie were determined to keep trying. They started their second ICSI cycle with Natalie very closely monitored: “We were nervous,” she recalls. “We didn’t want the same thing to happen again but we put our trust in the doctors and this time the symptoms were only mild.”
Natalie’s eggs where collected and fertilised with the sperm that had been kept frozen in storage. One of the resulting embryos was selected and transferred to Natalie’s womb. The couple were advised to wait two weeks to take a pregnancy test as before this time the test can give a false result.
“I was feeling a bit strange and suspected I could be pregnant so I decided I couldn’t wait a fortnight,” says Natalie. “I snuck off to the bathroom and took the test.
“I went to tell Kevin the good news; he was playing Xbox at the time and was a bit grumpy as he doesn’t like to be disturbed. Once I got through to him that we had such happy news, we both celebrated and ended up in tears!”
Natalie’s pregnancy progressed well and she gave birth to 9lb 5oz Arthur by caesarean section on November 10 last year and the couple are loving life as parents.
Kevin smiles: “He’s a very special little boy. I was concerned my family line would stop with me, but now Arthur is here, he can go on to have a family of his own.
“Being a parent – something I never thought would happen for me – is simply incredible.”