It Took a Miracle for Paraplegic Paul D'alessandro to Become a Father, And, Happily, Doctors Provided One

UPDATED 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

Anna D'Alessandro vividly remembers that day five years ago when her world seemed to shatter. She was teaching at St. Adalbert's School in Elmhurst, N.Y., when she heard she had a message in the principal's office. There she learned that her husband, Paul, a construction worker, had been injured in a building collapse in Manhattan. Phoning the hospital, she was told that Paul had fractured his spine. "I knew what fracturing a spine meant," she says. "They did not have to tell me any more."

Anna knew that Paul would probably never walk again. What she did not know, until some days later, was that he would be unable to father a child. Each year, some 8,000 men suffer spinal cord injuries in the United States; in 75 percent of these cases, as in Paul's, the nerves controlling the sex organs are damaged, and the victims cannot ejaculate.

The D'Alessandros were nearly as devastated by this news as they were by Paul's life sentence in a wheelchair. The couple had been married for only a year and a half, but it seemed as if they'd known each other forever. Their roots went all the way back to Cassino, Italy, where, during WW II, their families had hidden together to escape Allied bombing. "After the war my parents came to America on the boat with Paul's grandparents," says Anna. "Paul's uncle married my sister. Then Paul chased me."

A deeply traditional couple, the D'Alessandros had always expected to have a family. For the first two years after the accident, they occupied themselves with Paul's rehabilitation. Then they began to consult fertility experts, but the news was discouraging. Nothing could be done, they were told, unless Paul could produce a sperm sample. Then early in 1986, Paul read in Paraplegia News about the work of Dr. Carol Bennett, a urologist at the University of Michigan. Bennett had used electricity with paraplegics to induce ejaculation. In a procedure that is painless to most paralyzed men, a probe placed in the rectum administers low-voltage stimulation in a wavelike pattern. The technique has been employed for years in animal husbandry. Australian doctors pioneered its adaptation for humans in 1975, and Dr. Stephen Seager, a professor at Texas A & M College of Veterinary Medicine, designed the equipment now used at the Michigan center and at seven others like it around the country.

The D'Alessandros began making regular pilgrimages to Michigan in April 1986, each time bringing along a statue of Saint Gerard, the patron saint of motherhood. But it wasn't until the fifth visit that Bennett and a team of gynecologists felt they had a good enough sperm sample to try intrauterine insemination. Anna began taking sick leave each month on the days she ovulated, and flew to Michigan with Paul so that she could be injected with his sperm. Five times the couple made the trip, with no luck. The doctors decided to move on to in vitro fertilization.

Anna was sent home with a ration of Pergonal, a hormone that stimulates the body to release more eggs than usual. This time when she returned to Michigan, the doctors harvested three of her eggs and mixed them with Paul's sperm in a petri dish. When all three eggs were successfully fertilized, says Bennett, "it was one of the nicest things to happen to me in my medical career." Bennett remembers calling the D'Alessandros at their hotel to convey the good news. "I told Paul not to get excited, and then when we started to get excited Paul said, 'I don't know what is wrong with you people. You told me not to get excited!' "

The three fertilized eggs were implanted in Anna's uterus; only one developed. Last December 30 at 3:33 a.m., Paul D'Alessandro Jr. checked into the world, tipping the scales at 7 lbs. 10½ oz. and becoming the fourth child born in the U.S. as a result of this procedure. His parents, needless to say, were ecstatic. "See a resemblance?" a beaming Paul Sr. asks all visitors to the family's tiny one-bedroom bungalow in Elmont, Long Island. Paul is so taken with the new arrival that he gladly wakes up in the middle of the night and from his wheelchair feeds the baby his bottle. Nor will Dad hear any complaints about the hours little Paul keeps. "You know how hard we tried to get this baby?" he asks. "Whatever comes, comes."

When pressed, though, Paul does admit to some worries. Since he is still in therapy and has not been able to work, the family's finances are a sorry patchwork of workmen's compensation checks and disability benefits. Then there's the house, which the D'Alessandros bought six years ago and which is ill-suited to a man in a wheelchair. And, of course, Paul, minus the use of his legs, must eventually face the daunting task of dealing with an active toddler. Still, Daddy is not discouraged in the least. In fact, an exhausted Anna was still in the recovery room after delivering Paul Jr. when her husband leaned over and said with a grin, "So, Anna, when do you want to go to Michigan for the next one?"

—By William Plummer, with Giovanna Breu in Chicago

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