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

June 15, 2023
By Chayil Champion
4 min read

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, and 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.”

He was rescued by his cousin and recalls trying to lift his head but being unable to do so.

And a terrible toll

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’m 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)

A miracle baby

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

Because of the nature of Purcell’s paralysis, which 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.”

Still, the process wasn’t easy for Purcell. It took six attempts over two years to achieve a pregnancy.

“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 through a biologic process.”

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