Ciaran still remembers low sperm count shock

“There is not much we can do for you.” Ciaran still remembers the shock of being told he had a low sperm count. After some initial fertility tests the hospital consultant confirmed that Ciaran’s wife Jenn would start ovulating with the medication, and then he turned to Ciaran.

Nothing we can do for you

I kind of brushed it off; then he realised that I had no idea about my infertility.

There was a real change of atmosphere in the room. Most people have been through a stage where you hear that someone you love has died or something’s happened and you have that absolute moment of panic, like an out-of-body experience. It happened to me then.

My heart was racing, and I felt like I was watching the whole conversation from the side, before it altered back to me being in the room and conscious of what was going on.

The doctor immediately asked me, ‘have you ever taken steroids?’ I used to do a lot of body building and lifting because I played rugby, but I never took any stimulating drugs. I said no and he said ‘you can tell me if you have because it can have a major effect on your fertility’.

Ciaran and Jenn
Ciaran and Jenn

Low sperm count shock

I kind of left that room in a bit of a daze. I can’t really remember the rest of the conversation. Jenn took over because she could see that I was just ‘what the ****?’.

We were told that I’d need to do another sample, and I convinced myself that they’d got it wrong, it was just a blip, and this next sample would be alright.

But it was worse. We had an over-the-phone consultation and they said there were 1,500 sperm in my count and less than 1% were deemed viable.

It was a complete shock and for a long time I denied it. I thought ‘they’ve got it wrong. You’ll be fine.’

The start of my downfall

We were living in Sussex but moved up to Bedfordshire shortly after this. We had to live in Bedfordshire for a year before we could access fertility treatment on the NHS.

That was a difficult year – we were literally sat on our hands waiting. I found it extremely challenging, that kind of empty time. If we’d move forward quicker, I think I would have processed the infertility quicker, and had better mental health.

It was the start of my real big downfall. I was still in the denial stage.

Something I’ve definitely learned is that men and women process things differently. I just buried my head and almost pretended it wasn’t there, whereas it was very active in Jenn’s mind. She was counting down the days until we could start, to the moment when she could pick up that phone and say ‘right, get us in’.

In the summer of 2013, we had our first cycle

Sebby is a Bourn Hall baby. I just want to praise the work that they do because it’s a phenomenal place. Once we got later on down the journey, they really helped me. But I’ll get to that shortly.

The NHS actually placed us in Bourn Hall, which was amazing. I couldn’t ask for any better treatment. Our first cycle went really smoothly. We had ICSI, got a number of embryos, had one put back, it took: we were pregnant. At the five-week scan, there was a heartbeat and we were really happy.

We were so excited, we told everyone – looking back that is the biggest thing I wish we hadn’t done. Then we went back at seven weeks for another scan, and there was no heartbeat.

The positive thing was, we got to a certain point, and it took. But we couldn’t see that at the time. We were both absolutely heartbroken.

We’d lost the baby and now we had to tell everyone. Jenn really did fall apart, because we’d waited for so long and this is what we wanted.

I still remember on the phone call to Jenn’s mum and dad, Jenn just sat there and cried. I thought ‘we’re doing this because of me’ – that real guilt.

From denial to guilt

That’s when things changed from denial to guilt, and I started to feel worse about the situation, about myself, and I really started to struggle.

That was the summer of 2013. We went for treatment again in December. We were due to go to my mum’s on Boxing Day; she lives in Devon and the whole family was going down.

Jenn got up at the crack of dawn to do the test and I was sitting on the edge of the bath, waiting while she did it, because it’s that intimate; you’re there, you’re waiting. Then nothing.

And there was nothing

It was just after Christmas, so we had to go and put on a happy face for the whole family. It was incredibly difficult, and I don’t really have many words to describe it apart from it was probably the toughest three days of my life.

Jenn kept going upstairs and having time to herself; I would go upstairs, and she’d be crying. Then I’d go back downstairs and, in my head, I’d be thinking ‘this is happening because of me’.

Other people I’ve talked to have been to family events straight after things like this, where there’s little ones running around, and you think ‘I don’t want to be here’. And it’s completely fine to feel like that, I think.

If everyone hadn’t been expecting us, I would have pulled the plug on it and said we weren’t going to go, but I couldn’t. It was family. It was Christmas, right? Where Santa brings every gift you ever want… except for this year.

Ciaran presenting the Male Fertility Podcast
Ciaran presenting the Male Fertility Podcast

I couldn’t function

It was really at that point I kind of crashed and, there’s no other way of putting it, I had a complete breakdown. I stopped socialising with friends, I couldn’t function in my workplace. I couldn’t communicate with Jenn effectively. I’d started to drink more and I was in a really bad, bad place.

We decided that we’d take a break from treatment to basically get my head in gear, so we could face what was going to be the last roll of the dice in the best possible position.

And this is where Bourn Hall came into its own. Jenn reached out and said, ‘my husband is in a really bad way’ and they got me in and gave me some counselling. I don’t say it very often, but I was suicidal at that point.

Counselling saved my life

It’s important that you talk in those counselling sessions. I’m convinced it saved my life. Absolutely saved my life.

For the first three counselling sessions I sat there and just nodded. I was like ‘yeah, yeah’.

And then, Jenn said ‘you just need to talk’, and on that fourth session I went in and started to talk, and I sat there and I cried.

I cried for about 45 minutes and at one point I couldn’t get a word out for about 15 minutes.

I left that counselling room like someone had lifted the world off my back. It had done so much good.

All I needed was someone to talk to, someone that was disconnected from the whole thing. I was afraid of being judged for the fact that, in my mind, I couldn’t give my wife the one thing that she really wanted. The one thing that, as ‘a man’, I should be able to do.

Changed my perception of being a man

My perception of what ‘being a man’ is has completely changed since that counselling.

It was a really emotional few months for me, but I’d finally managed to feel like I was getting back on my feet.

I started to look into how I could improve my fertility myself, so I started to exercise and make lifestyle changes, and focussed on that with real success.

The first thing I did was get rid of alcohol. It was one of the best things I did – it made me able to think clearer, and my body responded better. I lost some weight and started to feel better about myself and the situation. It all stemmed from that bit of counselling.

Felt better about myself

Our last cycle had been in early 2014 and it wasn’t until July 2015 that we went again – we had a proper break because I was in such a mess.

It was really successful in that we had really two really strong embryos. We wanted both in, despite the doctors requesting that we didn’t; we asked them to put both back because it was our last roll of the dice. Then at the seven-week scan there were two heartbeats.

Of course, we’d been there before, so we were a bit cautious, but we were pleased; we were happy.

Vanishing twin – but still one chance

When we went back for the 12-week scan there were the two embryos, but only one heartbeat. We had lost one of the twins, but Sebby’s little heart was pumping strong. We still refer to Sebby as having a twin and he asks us questions about it because he’s aware of what’s going on.

Then we went back – and this is the most bizarre thing about this – at week 20, and that embryo had disappeared. It’s called vanishing twin syndrome. Basically, Jenn’s body had absorbed it.

Sebby was born in March 2016, a month early.

It was bizarre, but when I first met Sebby all the pain of the journey vanished for a period of time.

That’s important to note because I was still struggling mentally with a lot of things, but the clouds had definitely started to clear. I became a dad, and it was a wonderful, wonderful day for me. And for Jenn, obviously.

Ciaran with Sebby
Ciaran with Sebby

The Male Fertility Podcast

A podcast for men experiencing fertility issues, by men who experienced fertility issues.

Welcome to The Male Fertility Podcast, a show hosted by Ciaran and Shaun – two men who have walked the challenging path of fertility struggles themselves. With a mission to break the silence and stigma surrounding male fertility issues, they share their personal stories, insights, and knowledge to provide support, education, and inspiration to men facing similar challenges.

Listen at

The Male Fertility Podcast is presented by Shaun and Ciaran
The Male Fertility Podcast is presented by Shaun and Ciaran

More information

Read more from the male perspective in our Men Talk section of the blog.

Shaun and Ciaran interviewed Oliver Wiseman, a specialist in male fertility, for their podcast – see more here.

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