Former Marine left quadriplegic by sniper in Iraq has baby thanks to physician with similar story
By NANCY DILLON AND MOLLY CRANE-NEWMAN | The New York Daily News | Published: March 11, 2019
NEW YORK (Tribune News Service) — Visnu Gonzalez was a young Marine serving his second tour in Iraq when a sniper’s bullet severed his spinal cord.
In an instant, the 21-year-old corporal clearing houses in the war-torn city of Fallujah was paralyzed from the chest down.
Almost everything changed for Gonzalez that day in April 2004 — but not his dream of one day becoming a father.
Last week, the quadriplegic vet and his wife, Sahily Machado, beamed with pride as they visited a Manhattan medical office with their new, little miracle — a baby daughter named Lia Valentina, born Dec. 28 against so many odds.
“We’ve been trying for so long. She’s finally here. We did it,” Gonzalez, now 36, told the Daily News.
“We knew, at some point, we were going to have this baby,” said Machado, 34. “We just didn’t give up.”
The couple’s road to parenthood was an emotional odyssey filled with challenges, an incredible stroke of luck and plenty of heartbreak.
When Gonzalez first returned from Iraq, he had to endure multiple surgeries to stabilize his vertebrae and years of painful rehabilitation before he was even in a place to consider starting a family.
He was on vacation in the Dominican Republic in 2010 when a cousin introduced him to Machado.
“I always say I fell in love with him for his humor. His dark humor. He has a very special humor. He’s a funny person,” Machado said in 2016, when The News first began talking to the couple for this story.
“He has a golden heart,” she added. “I knew I wanted Visnu as the father of my children. His values are very high. I’ve never met anybody as brave as him.”
The couple married in November 2013 and were living together in New Jersey when they decided it was time to seek the medical assistance they would need in order to conceive.
Dr. Doron Stember, a urologist specializing in reproductive medicine at Mount Sinai, got the call first. He led the couple to the man they call their “angel,” Dr. Tomer Singer.
They couldn’t believe what Singer had to tell them. Not only was he the head of reproductive medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital — he was born to parents in a stunningly similar situation.
Singer’s father was shot in the neck while serving in the Israeli army in 1962 and became quadriplegic.
Singer’s mother was a nurse who met his dad after the injury. She conceived the future doctor in the mid 1970s through artificial insemination and even took the same fertility hormone Machado ended up using.
“Growing up knowing what my parents had to go through in order to conceive me, I felt an obligation to give back,” Singer told The News.
“I met Visnu and Sahily, and I knew that this was gonna be a journey for all of us.”
Gonzalez and Machado started their process four years ago. The first step was extracting sperm.
Men with spinal cord injuries typically experience fertility problems because they aren’t able to ejaculate regularly, the doctors said. Many also experience low sperm counts and impaired sperm motility, they said.
Stember extracted Gonzalez’s sperm in two surgeries. Singer then retrieved eggs from Machado and fertilized them in a lab. After the first round, the couple ended up with four viable embryos.
“It was amazing to have four embryos. That was a party. We celebrate everything here. That was party No. 1,” Machado told The News.
Two embryos were transferred to Machado in late 2016 and everything seemed to be going so well, the couple began sharing their story with The News.
When a subsequent pregnancy blood test came back negative, the couple were disappointed but undaunted. A month later, a second transfer of the couple’s two remaining embryos also was unsuccessful.
When a third transfer failed in March 2017, the couple were devastated and decided to regroup and go private with their process.
They tried three more transfers and finally learned Machado was pregnant shortly before Mother’s Day 2018.
“Oh my God, I wasn’t supposed to jump, but I jumped like crazy, I was so excited. We called our moms right away,” Machado said.
“I was the same. I couldn’t jump, but it was the same,” Gonzalez joked.
Machado said she has “no words” to express her gratitude for her doctors’ dedication and the assistance they received from Lenox Hill.
While the process of extracting sperm was covered by Gonzalez’s VA insurance, Machado’s treatment was not.
“It’s crazy because they provide the IVF treatment, but for the female, so the female has to be the veteran, not the male. It makes no sense,” Gonzalez said Wednesday.
“It’s bad, it’s not a good policy. I hope it changes. It’s very expensive and … it’s not just one try,” he said. “That’s a lot of money you have to cover.”
Typically, IVF starts at about $12,000, with necessary pills and injections adding about $5,000 to $8,000 more.
To help the aspiring parents, Singer and Lenox Hill discounted the procedure by more than 50 percent and recruited outside donations to cover the pricey medications.
Singer said the process has been a labor of love for him.
“Immediately, we had this bond,” he said of the couple.
“I shared my story with them and we all cried a little bit,” he added. “My father was a painter. He painted with his mouth as rehabilitation. I had paintings in my office showing how you can overcome all kinds of struggles and I think it helped Visnu feel more comfortable with me.”
Machado said she cried not just when she met Singer, but many times after that.
“He told me the history of his father, and he told me that he was sure I was going to have a baby. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, we can do it,’ ” she recalled.
“Every time it failed, he told me, ‘We can do it, don’t worry, it’s going to happen,’” she added. “He’s like an angel for us.”