Tears & Blood: Life at a Sperm Bank
Among women in their 20s and 30s the issues surrounding reproduction - fertility, infertility, birth control, the struggles of pregnancy, the costs of having a large family, the choice to have no children - are major topics of conversation. In your 20s, these conversations are usually abstract, offhand discussions over a bottle of pinot noir. In your 30s, they begin to include crying over mugs of hot tea and boxes of Kleenex. It can be pretty rough, no matter what choices you have made or are about to make.
So when I met Orange County phlebotomist and fertility technician Raquel Mays, I was really curious what it was like working behind the counter that so many of my friends were lining up in front of. Raquel works at one of Orange County's most established and respected clinics and obviously her name has been changed.
Working at a Sperm Bank
How did you get into fertility work?
I began by working at a family practice and collected blood and fluid specimens on adults, children, and infants. After a few years I was offered a job at top fertility clinic. It was a promotion and I wanted to develop a new skill set. At the clinic, I still performed blood draws but I also learned semen analysis and preparation for donation - both intracervical insemination and intrauterine insemination.
Were there any surprises?
Every day is different and so many things about this job surprise me! It has really changed my perspective about fertility, family planning, and how much work from so many different people can go into one woman having one healthy baby.
The biggest surprise was probably the qualification process. Our sperm donor program requires extensive interviewing and screening. Our clinic is known for its high standard of donors. The process takes a long time - it takes months of interviewing, testing, and analysis before a man can become a qualified donor.
How does the porn work?
Everyone asks about the porn. There's not much to say. It's just part of our job.
We have a small library of magazines, and we stock general-interest periodicals like Hustler, Playboy, and Barely Legal. They probably don't get thrown out as often as they should, but they aren't as popular as our DVD's.
To be honest, our DVD selection is probably not that great. The videos get watched a lot, and donors always complain about them skipping, which can be either awkward or really funny depending on how the donors approach the situation.
We have a numbered list of the titles we have so the donors can just come up to the counter and request a number. So, for example, if you like "Dirty Russian Schoolgirls Vol 3" you can just ask for "Number 83." For the most part we have no idea what titles they are requesting - most of the videos are very specific in nature and feature a very specific set of fantasies and it's easier for everyone if we just don't know what's in there.
However, some of the titles are a little more "niche" than others and when a patient requests some of those it can be difficult not to laugh inside, but it's all about their comfort and we are professionals at all time.
Actually, it can be awkward if the donor looks through the list for a long time and then comes up to us to request a specific type of movie that we don't carry - we carry a wide selection, so what they want can be usually pretty "out there." But that's not common. To be honest, most guys who are into those things just bring their phones.
In fact, most guys just use their phones for the visual aides, and I think that is probably the most comfortable for all parties.
Donations, Privacy, and Infertility
In what other ways to you address the donors' comfort?
Well, we take our donors' privacy and comfort very seriously. Working with anonymous sperm donors means protecting their identities and confidentiality.
Because most donors live and work in the same area, it's common to see donors outside of the clinic. Even if I see the donor regularly for years, when I run into him in public I have to pretend that I have no idea who he is. It can make me a little nervous, especially because the donor is often with a girlfriend, wife, or parents. Part of me feels like it's rude to ignore them but I know that's a very important part of my job.
The most jarring time this happened is when I attended a wedding as a plus-one. I didn't know anyone there other than my date and then I finally see a familiar face across the room. I was so relieved that I had somebody to talk to - and I could see from his face that he had the same sense of relief! And then, at the exact same time, we both remembered HOW we knew each other. From that point we had to carry on as strangers. We were even introduced to each other later on in the night. We laughed about it the next time at the clinic, and he thanked me for not outing him in front of his date.
How do you feel about your work?
I'm sure that people imagine that the workers at a fertility clinic might become cynical about it and see everything as just another lab procedure. And when you're working with samples and fixatives and paperwork, it CAN feel a little industrialized and impersonal.
But every day, I remind myself that each one of the sperm cells could potentially be a human. Each slide I look at is full of potential babies, a baby that a woman or a couple really, really wants and will love. It's really important to remember that.
This was really brought to life early on in this job. A woman came into our office with her two preteen children. She asked if we could arrange to give them a tour because she wanted to show her kids where they came from.
At the time I was at the microscope and looking up at these two kids in front of me, and looking down at the microscope, and then up at the kids. It was such a surreal feeling. From that day on there was no way this job could ever turn into an ordinary clinical experience.
In IVF, there are always sad and happy moments. It can be really difficult and painful, and it can create miracles.
In most cases people think of the difficulty in becoming pregnant and the great hurdles that couples and women especially experience. But people often forget about how this experience affects the donors. The donors' feelings are often overlooked because people think it's easy.
Sperm donation is WAY more than just depositing into a cup. Donors go through their own hurdles and life decisions as well, and those decisions affect their whole lives. In most cases, the donors are young and want the extra cash. They don't really think about how their decisions will affect their lives in the long run. But we see them over the years, and eventually many struggle with how the decision will affect their partners and wives and families.
We've also had really heartbreaking moments with the donors. There are some men who come in for analysis and they're healthy and young and great-looking, they come from a great background and have a good education. And then we do the sperm analysis and we realize they are infertile. There's nothing. Zero. No sperm seen.
It's really difficult telling a young man that he is infertile. When they're young, it hurts their ego a lot. But as they get older they realize right away how much this will complicate their lives. They might even end up needing to a clinic like ours. However, had they not come in to us to be a donor, they might not have found out about their infertility for many difficult years.
In Case You Want to Donate...
What tips do you have for potential donors?
If a man is considering becoming a donor, that's great! I have a few reminders for them:
- Wash your hands before and after you collect.
- Please don't use any kind of lubricant and try not to get any stray hairs into the cup.
- When you bring the cup back, please don't ask the nurse or technician "Is this enough?" Every sample is different and we can't tell unless we're looking at it under a microscope.
- Most importantly, everyone knows how nerve-wracking this is for the donors. Our job is to make their job as easy as possible. There are no weird or embarrassing questions. We've heard every question before. We are really happy to do what we can to try to make it as fast and un-awkward as possible.
And as a side-note, don't forget to bring your smartphone, because although no questions are awkward, some very niche preferences might be.