Getting the snip: Why I ‘took one for the team’ and had a vasectomy

After two children, Stephen Corby has had enough kids. He shared his recent snip-by-snip experience.

Vasectomy-web

Yes, some men are go-getters, day-seizers and goal setters, but most of the ones I call friends are, like me, exceedingly proficient procrastinators. And there’s nothing we’re more likely to put off than having a vasectomy, because it’s just never, ever a good day to have someone attack your scrotum with sharp implements.

Nor, it turns out, will there ever be anything good about the day after a vasectomy, when you wake up with what looks like an accident at a liquorice factory in your pants and a gut pain that feels like the mafia put a whole horse in your bed overnight and made it kick you in the balls.

My personal procrastination was particularly powered by the chilling testimony of a former work colleague, Mick, who crabbed into our office in evident pain a few days after his procedure and proceeded to relate his tale of horror.

In the most unwise example of tightness ever, he’d decided to save some money by having a local anaesthetic and staying awake for the whole thing, which was only mildly disturbing, until the drugs, unfortunately, stopped working.

His description of kicking trays of instruments across the room while the nurse tried to
hold him down so the doctor could get more anaesthetic into him was awful enough, but it was the double-punch of pain he felt — “like I’d been kicked in the balls really hard by someone, who then slashed me down there with a knife at the same time — it was both a dull pain and a stabbing one all at once” — that stuck with me.

And yet somehow, despite all that, I’ve now had the dreaded snip, after years of putting it off. Why? How? And why now? These are all very good questions, but I know what those of you who are considering it, or know they might one day, really want to know — how bad was the pain?

Well, there are two answers to that, and I’ll give you the most important one first, because you need to be prepared to hear it coming at you: it’s not as bad as childbirth.

Which is why no man who’s had a vasectomy should look for too much sympathy from their partner.

My wife, for example, did, after all, give birth without the blissful IV sedation that we can, and indeed must, choose for the snip. And her recovery did not involve sitting on the couch weeping onto a remote control and nursing frozen peas. It involved a mewling baby, a sleepless whirl of panic and pain, and a husband complaining about being tired.

So when she decided, not unreasonably, that her body had had enough of being on the pill and that she should stop taking it, I was, theoretically at least, ready to “take one for the team”, as my cheery vasectomist put it.

As I say, theoretically. In actual fact, I was far too frightened to go through with it, and even a lifelong hatred of condoms and a withering fear of an accidental pregnancy (we have two children, they are perfect, we don’t want any more and I’m too bloody old anyway) wasn’t doing anything to change it.

Why? Oh why?

Obviously, having the vasectomy was the logical thing to do, but the only way I could talk myself into it was by making it a work project, a story to write, so I started doing the research.

My wrong-headed impression, growing up, was that most married couples turned to tubal ligation at this point — the woman got her tubes tied, and vasectomy was mainly a punchline for jokes. One of my mates, who had kids decades before me, laughed his head off at the idea of being “neutered” as he put it, and his wife dutifully had the operation instead.

My GP, however, assured me that men getting a vasectomy is not only cheaper and safer (because it’s a less-invasive procedure than tubal ligation) it’s also more common. That’s partly because of improvements in the way the procedure is done these days, but also because of the general empowerment of women, he believes.

“It’s really a case of women saying, ‘No, why don’t YOU go and do it’, and it really is much safer, it just makes more sense for men to do this,” he said.

In Australia, the number of vasectomies actually peaked, at nearly 29,000 in 1997, and then fell off over the next decade (as other forms of contraception became more popular), before a rise in the past four years, with the Medicare figures for 2017 hitting 24,380.

There are still far fewer women having their tubes tied in Australia, with the numbers done via Medicare falling from 6824 in 1997 to just 1124 in 2017. We are an enlightened country with a functioning health system, of course, and globally the story is very different. In some countries — the kind of places where women aren’t allowed to drive — the very idea of vasectomies is absurd.

Despite health organisations offering free vasectomies in various countries, as the cheapest and most effective way to control population growth, tubal ligations still far outnumber them worldwide. One study found that out of 222 million people who were “protected from pregnancy by sterilisation”, 180 million were women, and 43 million were men.

According to Dr Justin Low, National Lead Vasectomist at Marie Stopes Australia and the man I chose to help me with both my research and my scrotum, part of the recent rise in numbers in our country is driven by the number of men in their twenties and early thirties choosing to have the procedure before they’ve even had kids.

“In the past there was no way, because a urologist would simply refuse to give you a vasectomy if you were under the age of 30, but that’s changed, and now we’re seeing more men in their twenties and early thirties, with no kids, who just don’t want them, sometimes because they say there are enough children in the world already,” Dr Low explained.

You’ve got the fear

Dr Low knows all about the fear that men go through when it comes to having a vasectomy, because he sees it every week, and he hears the stories from men who’ve put it off so long that their families are now two or three children larger than they’d planned.

The most amusing ones, though, are the runners.

“We have guys who make it to the front desk and then the nurse will turn away to get their paperwork and they’ll vanish,” he laughs. “You call them up and they pretend they were suddenly called to a meeting.

“We had one guy, a big fellow, a plumber, looked like a tough guy, and he got up off the table, wearing nothing but his surgical gown, and ran off down the street. Two years later, he came back, I recognised his name, and once we had him on the table I grabbed him by the balls and said, ‘Ok you’re not going anywhere this time!’”

Dr Low does more than 1300 vasectomies a year and he loves his job, and seems to find it endlessly amusing. He refers to his place of work as “the sausage factory”, promises we won’t have a “balls-up” if I agree to let him operate on me, and tells me the one about the Irish vasectomist — “he slipped and got the sack” — more than once.

“…once we had him on the table I grabbed him by the balls and said, ‘Ok you’re not going anywhere this time!’”

But he does also feel very strongly that, for a man in a committed relationship, having a vasectomy is “an act of love”.

“In Australia what we’ve noticed is this sentiment of ‘I’m taking one for the team, it’s my turn, she’s done everything else,’ and it’s good to see men stepping up and contributing,” Dr Low said.

“And it is an act of love. It’s about men taking responsibility; Jonathan Stack, the co-founder of World Vasectomy Day (November 14) argues that a real man has a vasectomy for his family, because he loves his family and he knows they can’t afford to have more children.”

As for the fear, Dr Low understands it, and says it usually comes in two forms; the first being a natural and inherent desire to protect our balls, and a horror that any harm might come to them. This is a physical fear of the actual pain, you might say.

“And for other guys it’s the whole masculinity barrier — if I’m sterile, that’s my seed, that’s my masculinity, that’s who I am, I won’t be a man any more. But I think that’s changing, because it is totally unfounded,” he said.

“Plus there are studies showing that sexual frequency and the experience of sex are better after vasectomy.”

The nitty-gritty details

After all this chat, I feel emboldened enough to ask about the actual procedure, and Dr Low does his best to quell my inescapable, gut-gnawing nausea as he starts talking about the allegedly “open-ended, scalpel free” technique.

He describes the scrotum as being “highly elastic” like a hessian sack, which means you can pierce it “and make a tiny, diamond-shaped hole”, pull apart the fibres and extract your vans deferens, the tiny tubes along which sperm pass, and render them inoperable.

He can then shut the tiny incision by just squeezing the unattractive skin back together like two bits of foam rubber. Somehow the hole just closes up. Magical.
I had to listen back to all the details later on tape, because all I really heard was “no stitches”.

The big day

Okay, so I’ll admit that what partly got me over the line was my friend Mick, who I decided to call to see how he looked back on his whole anaesthetic-fail vasectomy now. He reckons he can still recall the pain, that it was, possibly, the worst agony of his life, and yet without hesitation he described having the procedure as “the best thing I’ve ever done”.

He talked up the benefits of carefree sex and no more pregnancy scares and seemed strangely sanguine about the whole screaming nightmare thing. And so I went in to Marie Stopes (after a bit of a wobble on the actual morning, when I said goodbye to my two beloved kids and realised that, yes, these are the only ones I’ll ever have), paid the extra $60 to be knocked out (plus around $600 for the actual procedure, but prices vary, and your level of medical insurance makes a difference), and got it done.

The actual procedure was far easier than the night before, when I’d had to shave the area completely. How do porn stars put up with that? It’s awful.

Still slightly cushioned by the pain killers for the procedure, I went home with what you’d almost call a smile on my face, and a tender spring to my step. And then the fun began.

Pained it black

Look, I expected my testicles to turn black, and even purple, but it was something of a surprise to find, the next morning, that my actual penis looked like I’d stepped on it. Nay, jumped up and down on it.

By this stage, Dr Low and I were such good friends that I could send him a dick pic and he could write back and tell me it was nothing to worry about. Easy for him to say.

I can honestly say that constant Panadol and ice-pack use kept the pain, for the most part, to a reasonable level, but there were moments of surprising excruciation. And just a general level of discomfort that hangs around a lot longer than you’d like.

The real problem, for me, was that I seriously thought the whole thing was broken, and would never work again. Not a stir was seen or felt down there, not a thing, for six full days (you’re not allowed to have sex for a week anyway), and I was genuinely terrified. It certainly didn’t look operational, either.

But, thankfully, it all came back to working order in the end, and the bruising went away. I’m still waiting for the all clear, because you have to test your “ejaculant” (98% of which is not sperm as it turns out) after three months to find out if the procedure has worked.

You also need to “clear the pipes” by having at least 25 ejaculations in that 90 days (Dr Low, typically, offers to write a medical note to your wife on your behalf). As such, it’s possibly too soon to say if all the worry was worth it, but I will say that I definitely think I worried too much.

What I’m looking forward to, of course, is not having to worry anymore about my fantastic fecundity, ever again.

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