The patient is dead.
He has, in fact, been so for a while—over 30 hours, according to his chart—but some of him survives. What the doctor has extracted is a liquid that can create life. An incredible substance that is neither person nor property; simultaneously so abundant yet valuable that we still haven’t quite figured out how to treat it. It is the dead man’s sperm.
* * *
Ana and Michael Clark had only been married a year when Mike got orders to ship out overseas for his fifth deployment. Mike, 25, was a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He joined at 18 and in his seven years had already earned several ribbons and medals, including a Purple Heart. The couple had decided to connect with a trip before Mike’s deployment: a motorcycle ride along a California highway.
It would be their last together. On the way back onto the highway after lunch, Mike lost control of their bike and they flew off a cliff. Ana survived the accident. Mike did not.
Recovering from spine and shoulder fractures in the hospital, Ana was grieving for not only her husband, but their future children. “We had talked about it maybe a week or two before he passed because he was going on the deployment, and he said, ‘Yeah, you know it’s too bad that we can’t go to a sperm bank now and freeze sperm … I have way too much to do at work.’”
Seeing Ana distraught over her lost chance at children with her husband, a friend suggested that she consider retrieving some of Mike’s sperm. You know, her friend said, sperm live a lot longer than you think. So Ana googled it. “I looked online and called the number for the sperm bank,” she says. It took a few calls before she found a doctor willing to perform a sperm extraction on a deceased patient. “And then I had to hire a hearse…”
The hearse took Mike’s body the 100 or so miles from the hospital in Riverside to San Diego for the procedure, and back again.
Over the phone, Ana comes off as independent and level-headed. Articles in the media sometimes hint that women interested in creating what is sometimes known as a posthumously conceived child are a little off, still clinging to the loved one they can never get back, not quite in touch with reality. Ana Clark’s feet seem firmly planted.
“It gave me a sense of hope that he wasn’t going to be gone for ever, that I was going to be able to have a piece of him that was still alive. Just for me. My very own little piece of my Mike.” More than that, Ana wanted Mike to have a legacy. “He was a very, very good man. He was a very good Marine, and to know that I would be able to carry a form of legacy, someone that was going to continue the path as the hero he was, I think that’s what really motivated me … ”
* * *
In the late 1970s, Los Angeles urologist Cappy Rothman performed the first post-mortem sperm retrieval.
Before this, Rothman had been extracting sperm from men living with infertility, work that gave him a detailed knowledge of male reproductive anatomy, experience in sperm extraction and preservation, and contacts who knew he was interested in assisting men with reproductive issues. He had quickly become known in Los Angeles.