ICSI gave us our miracles after we were unable to conceive

Charlotte had been trying to get pregnant for four years, but the GP said he couldn’t refer her for fertility testing until she had lost three stone. She managed to lose the weight but then tests found her husband had ‘sticky sperm’ which can be caused by an illness or injury.

Something is wrong here

“My periods are regular as clockwork, but I am not a gym goer,” says Charlotte. “And I don’t like seeing myself in the mirror, but when the GP said I needed to lose weight I signed up to Slimming World and my motivation to keep going was to get pregnant.”

Nine months later Charlotte returned to her GP – three stone lighter – and was referred for NHS level 2 (hospital level) fertility testing at Bourn Hall’s Wymondham clinic.

“We had stopped using contraception when I was 29 thinking ‘no pressure, let’s see how it goes,’” explains Charlotte. “After a couple of years, we decided to be a bit more strategic, and I had every gadget and gizmo going. I was peeing on ovulation sticks right, left and centre!

“When it got to four years we thought ‘something is wrong here’ and that is when we had gone to see our GP.”

Sticky sperm was the issue

NHS fertility tests for both Charlotte and James at Bourn Hall’s Norwich clinic revealed that James had sperm agglutination, where the sperm clumps together, affecting its motility (movement).

Charlotte continues: “Basically he had sticky sperm, which can be caused by injury or illness. Although his sperm was good and healthy, we were going to need IVF with a technique called ICSI, (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), to select and separate them.

“The only illness James had ever had was glandular fever and when we told the fertility doctor, he said that could have been the cause.

“We had kept our fertility struggles a secret until we got a diagnosis but when we were told we couldn’t have children naturally, we shared this with our families, and it was a massive relief.”

Many men are told that they will never be biological fathers and not told that there are options. There are many treatments for male infertility and with some expert advice and support you may be able to become a dad, like Matthew. Find out more about the causes and treatments available for male infertility.

Fertility fit for IVF

At the time South Norfolk didn’t provide funding for NHS IVF treatment (that has now changed) – and so the couple had to pay for their treatment themselves.

“The other woman at Slimming World who was losing weight for treatment lived really close to me and was entitled to NHS treatment, that is how crazy the postcode lottery was at the time,” says Charlotte.

“We approached our first round of IVF with a sense of excitement,” says Charlotte. “It was all new. I took all the ups and downs with the hormones and the injections and I just got on with it. I was three stone lighter, I was happy.

“James had been taking vitamins, he was taking everything he could, whatever we were told about we tried. We just wanted to know that every box had been ticked at our end and that if it didn’t work it wasn’t ‘us’ and it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Charlotte works in social housing and when she spoke to her boss about the IVF treatment she was told that she could take five days of leave for the egg collection and embryo transfer. “I didn’t know that existed actually until my manager told me which was awesome,” she says.

James had sperm agglutination, or 'sticky sperm'.
James had sperm agglutination, or 'sticky sperm', where the sperm clumps together, affecting its motility (movement)

Successful first time but then a struggle

The couple’s ICSI treatment worked first time – and their daughter Phoebe was born in 2019 on the 11th November at 11pm.

“When she arrived everything was absolutely surreal,” says Charlotte. “We had music on and it was Prince ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ playing, everything was just so lovely.”

The couple had frozen embryos from the first cycle of treatment and tried a Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET) for a sibling, which sadly was not successful.

“I went into a very dark place because I had the naivety of being successful the first time and so assuming ‘of course I am going to be successful second ‘ and it was horrendous… the wait to hear if the embryo had thawed successfully is tortuous and I didn’t realise until later how badly I was affected by the whole process.”

Charlotte and James with Phoebe
Charlotte and James with Phoebe

Trying again

Charlotte and James then opted to have a further fresh round of ICSI treatment which worked first time and resulted in Phoebe’s little sister Millie being born earlier this year (2023).

“Phoebe absolutely adores her,” says Charlotte, now aged 37. “She looks after her the whole time, it is gorgeous. We have got two miracles.”

Now she is a mum-of-two, Charlotte admits that she wishes now that she had reached out more when she and James were going through their fertility journey.

“I am not a big talker and now I do wish that I had talked about it more openly with people or had counselling, or gone to the Fertility Support Group,” she says.

“I have since met a few people who have also had IVF and I find my conversations with them are so different to the ones I have with people who haven’t gone through it. I feel so much more comfortable talking about it to people who have experienced it too, our conversations are a lot more empathetic to the emotional journey as well as the physical.”

A male perspective

Proud dad James says:

“Having tried to have children for so many years you obviously begin to think that something is wrong when it doesn’t happen, but you hope in a selfish way its not you.

“When we were told what was wrong and that it was me that had the problem, I went to quite a dark place. I felt less of a man, a let down because I couldn’t do my part to create a child with my wife how I should.

“It took me a while to pick myself back up again, having the sticky sperm issue explained to me helped a lot, made me realise it wasn’t anything I’d done to myself directly to cause the issue and to find that although I had a problem, it could be treated and still mean we could use my sperm to fertilise Charlotte’s eggs.

“Looking back on it now, the journey has taken us both to some absolute highs but also some very very low places and there are no bigger highs than the birth of Phoebe and Millie. To say I’m a proud dad is an understatement, I don’t think when they grow up they will understand exactly what it took to create them, they really are our two little miracles.”

Charlotte and James with Phoebe and Millie
Charlotte and James with Phoebe and Millie
Adam Burnley, Lead embryologist at Bourn Hall

What is sticky sperm and how can ICSI help?

“Sticky sperm or agglutination can be caused by anti sperm antibodies, which can occur when sperm and blood come into contact with each other, usually following some sort of illness, testicular trauma or injury,” explains Adam Burnley, Regional Lead Embryologist at Bourn Hall. “When blood and sperm meet, which they shouldn’t normally, the sperm are identified as foreign bodies and antibodies against them are produced by the immune system.

“Sometimes the effect of the antibodies is not obvious to see, but it can cause the sperm to agglutinate which can be easily seen using a microscope.”

Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) is a micromanipulation technique used in the embryology lab in conjunction with an IVF cycle when it is believed that fertilisation is unlikely to occur using conventional IVF.

During an ICSI procedure eggs are collected in the same way as IVF but rather than being ‘mixed’ with sperm a single sperm is selected by the embryologist and captured with a very fine pipette – and then injected directly into a mature egg.

One or two of the resulting embryos can then be transferred and any additional suitable embryos can be frozen for future use, as with a conventional IVF cycle.

More information

We have a section on the blog called Men Talk which has resources for men and more patient case-studies.

More information about the causes of male infertility and the treatments. 

If you would like to talk to others going through a similar experience our Fertility Support Group will help you to connect.

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