Man's fatherhood hopes 'dashed' after sperm destroyed

Shane Breen from County Down provided the sample in 1983 before he began chemotherapy treatment

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A Northern Ireland man has said his hopes of having children have been dashed after a sperm sample stored with the Regional Fertility Clinic in Belfast was destroyed.

Shane Breen from County Down provided the sample in 1983 before he began chemotherapy treatment.

He learned it was no longer available when he and his wife went to the clinic hoping to start a family.

Up to 35 other men could be affected, the BBC understands.

In a statement, the Belfast Health Trust said it could not comment on an individual case.

Mr Breen said he was "disappointed and shocked".

"I was devastated. I just couldn't believe it when the call came through, I couldn't bring myself to talk to my wife for a day and a half," he said.

"Then, I was consumed by anger as well."

Sitting in their living room, Mr Breen and his wife Nora are surrounded by pictures of nephews and nieces. The couple said their plans for having children of their own were now destroyed.

They were given the news by telephone in 2010, having visited the clinic a few days previously to discuss IVF procedure.

Mr Breen said it was hard to accept.

"Our lives have been shattered. We've just been comforting each other… but this has changed our lives forever," he said.

His story begins back in 1983 when, aged 26 and single, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma - a form of cancer.

Before embarking on chemotherapy treatment that may have left him infertile, he gave a sperm sample which could be frozen, stored and, if necessary, used at a later date.

'Void'

When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was not thinking about having a family. But when he married a few years ago, in the back of his mind, the sample was a safety net.

"Back then, first and foremost, I had to get through the illness, the cancer," he said.

"But it was good to know that my sample was in storage so whenever I did come through it and needed it, it was there."

But almost 27 years later, in 2010, he and his wife went to to the fertility clinic in Belfast to discuss the procedure.

"At the beginning of the week when we went to meet the consultant we were both so excited," he said.

"While it was very early days, it was a positive conversation about using the sample.

Start Quote

Shane Breen

They had a duty of care to me to look after my sample. Indeed if they were going to dispose of it, they should have made sure they contacted me to ask or to let me know”

End Quote Shane Breen

"But by Thursday evening things had turned round and we were told by telephone call that the sample no longer existed.

"Then they said we would not have stood much of a chance anyway."

Nora Breen said having a family was one of the couple's main priorities.

"It has left a void in our lives," she said.

"We had wanted a family so much and realise that with the destruction of the sample, it won't be possible."

In 1991, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority introduced new rules putting a 10-year time limit on storing sperm samples.

However, the guidelines stated that patients affected should be notified well before the 10-year deadline. As Mr Breen's sample was deposited in 1983, it was affected by the guidelines.

'Not available'

After it emerged that Mr Breen's sample had been disposed of, the trust wrote to the couple apologising for the distress caused.

The letter, seen by the BBC, said: "In 1992 in order to create more storage space within the Regional Fertility Clinic, patients with semen in storage were contacted with a view to either using the semen stored or agreeing to it being disposed of."

The Belfast Trust said letters were sent to the address held on file at the clinic. Also, it said that attempts were made to contact Mr Breen's GP.

Shane Breen refuted this.

"Absolutely not. My father continues living at the same address, I live close by," he said

"They could have contacted me through my GP. It should not have been any problem whatsoever. "

The BBC understands that another 35 patients could be affected.

But according to the health trust due to no "data set" being available for this time, they cannot be completely sure how many samples were disposed of.

The BBC asked the Belfast Health Trust for an annual breakdown of the number of samples that had been disposed of between 1983 and 1994.

The trust said these figures were not available.

They were unable to state how many babies have been born in the past 30 years using sperm stored in the clinic, nor could they tell us the longest period that sperm has been frozen and then used successfully.

'Very worthwhile'

The trust was able to confirm there are samples in storage for 74 patients between 1983 and 1994. Samples provided by 87 patients have been disposed of during those 10 years.

While Mr Breen accepted it is a long time ago, he holds the Regional Fertility Clinic responsible for what has happened.

"They had a duty of care to me to look after my sample," he said.

"Indeed, if they were going to dispose of it, they should have made sure they contacted me to ask or to let me know."

Declan Keane, senior clinical embryologist at ReproMed Consultancy Services in Dublin, said: "Freezing sperm has been available to us clinically and applied successfully since the 1950s. It is very successful and very worthwhile.

Nora and Shane Breen Nora and Shane Breen say their hopes of being parents have been dashed

"Worldwide, it is accepted that freezing of sperm is worthwhile.

"In the hands of a good fertility treatment unit, realistically frozen sperm should get you the same success rates as fresh sperm."

Mr Keane added: "We do know that the longer sperm is in storage, whilst theoretically it should be in a state of suspended animation, we do see a drop off in the quality of sperm.

"However, in the majority of cases the sperm that is frozen and stored should be viable and should be able to create a pregnancy in the future."

Using frozen sperm to conceive is not unusual. Last year, a baby was born in England from sperm that had been frozen 22 years earlier.

Guidance was issued by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in 2004 that all young men and boys undergoing cancer treatment should be offered the opportunity to store sperm.

The Regional Fertility Clinic in Belfast currently holds a total of 719 frozen sperm samples.

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