Paralysis doesn’t keep UCLA Health patient from receiving the best-possible Father’s Day gift

Anthony Purcell and family
Anthony Purcell and Karen Purcell hold their daughter, Payton Purcell. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Campbell Photography)

Anthony Purcell was in Miami in 2010 to attend Super Bowl XLIV with his cousin, but he never made it to the game.  

An accident at the beach the day before the big event sent him to the hospital with a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

The years that followed were difficult, filled with obstacles — both physical and emotional — that had to be overcome. But Purcell persevered.

And when Father’s Day came around this year, he and his wife, Karen, had something particularly joyous to celebrate. With the help of UCLA Health urologist Jesse Mills, MD, director of The Men’s Clinic at UCLA, they were able to conceive a child. Their daughter, Payton, was born in March.

A terrible injury

Purcell was no stranger to the ocean. Born in California, he later attended school at the University of Florida. On that Super Bowl weekend, he did what he had done so many times before: running to the water and diving in to begin a swim. 

But this time would be different. “There was a wave crashing as I dove, and I didn’t see the sandbar under the surface,” Purcell recalled. “I broke my neck on it.”

After being rescued by his cousin, he tried to lift his head, but was unable to do so.

The emotional toll of his injury was nearly as great as the physical, Purcell said. He felt “mentally defeated” and embarrassed to the point that he didn’t want to be around people.

“I was extremely depressed, and I thought I would never get married — what girl would look at me?” he said. “I used to believe I had it made. Now, I felt like my life was over because I was in a wheelchair.”

Time passed, and Purcell worked to strengthen both his body and mind. One day, he found Karen, whom he knew from high school — and always had a crush on — on Facebook and mustered the courage to contact her. A friendship developed, and then a romance. They married in 2017.

Anthony and Payton Purcell
Anthony Purcell holds his daughter, Payton Purcell. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Campbell Photography)

Finding a doctor

Eventually, the Purcells wanted to start a family. After some research, Karen found Dr. Mills and The Men’s Clinic at UCLA to help them fulfill their desire to achieve a pregnancy through in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which an egg is fertilized outside the body.

Purcell’s paralysis curtailed his ability to ejaculate due to complications from autonomic dysreflexia, a common condition associated with spinal cord injuries. Dr. Mills used a procedure, done under anesthesia, called percutaneous epididymal sperm aspiration (PESA) to collect sperm from his testes. PESA is one of several procedures that can be employed, depending on the patient’s individual circumstance, to obtain sperm for IVF.

Often men like Purcell, with a spinal cord injury that prevents them from ejaculation, are discouraged from attempting to conceive a child. Instead, “they are told to go the adoption route or to try in vitro with donor sperm,” Dr. Mills said. “But most of the time we are able to figure out a way to find sperm in these men and allow them to become biological fathers.”

A miracle baby

The process wasn’t easy for the Purcells. It took six attempts over two years to achieve a pregnancy. When it finally happened, “Karen and I both were ecstatic,” Purcell said.

“Our faith was tested, so you can imagine our joy when we were told we are having a baby.”

Purcell’s story is a necessary reminder for men with spinal cord injuries that they, too, can be parents, Dr. Mills said.

“It’s so important for a story like Anthony’s to be told, to let men with spinal cord injuries, or other fertility issues, know that they have a good chance to become fathers.”

“For Anthony, this was particularly heart-warming because his injury took so much away from him,” Dr. Mills continued. “But we were able to give him something back, to help him become a biological father.”




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