The snip job

One man confronts his fear of sharp instruments in sensitive places.


Gary Kauf
June 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There is no part of a man's body he is more protective of than his penis, an organ he becomes intimately familiar with -- first as his own personal fire hose, then as an instrument of pleasure. Just the thought of a knife wielded down there brings shivering, or more accurately, shriveling. Going in for a vasectomy is not the kind of thing you share with the guys at work either. Guys don't talk about stuff like that. I would just have to suck it up and face the pain. The little boy deep down inside was going, "Nooooooooooooooo."

Having grown up in that camera-flash moment of wide-open sexual exploration we now refer to as the '60s, my view of responsible birth control never went much past asking the woman I was about to
become intimate with if she "had any protection." As an adult I hooked up with a woman so exceedingly responsible that she'd started taking birth-control pills a good two years before she ever needed them -- just in case. Consequently, in our 18 years together the prevention, as well as
production, of babies has fallen on her. Until last year. That's when Jayne first mentioned the word vasectomy.

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It's a harsh sounding word, meaning the tying or surgical snipping of the vas deferens, those precious hose lines that carry sperm from the testicles to the penis.

Speaking of harsh, over the years Jayne -- like most women -- has regularly endured a kind of medical humiliation men would never stand for: climbing into gynecological stirrups, having gloved hands inserted inside her. With pregnancy comes a whole new set of probes and monitors and, in Jayne's
case, two Cesarean sections that involved cutting through skin and muscle and womb to remove the baby. I wouldn't dare compare that with a relatively simple, 30-minute, minor surgical procedure done in a doctor's office and with local anesthesia. At least not in front of Jayne.

So a few months ago when Jayne brought home a piece of notepaper with two names written on it, Dr. Alfred Alekna and Dr. Ira Sharlip -- and the word vasectomy underlined beneath, I got the message: Jayne had decided that our two young sons were now old enough and healthy enough to be considered "keepers" -- no more children for us. Therefore, it was time for me -- as a sensitive, responsible guy of the '90s -- to go get cut.

Neither name sounded especially friendly, particularly Sharlip -- which was awfully close to sharp. I called Alekna first. We chatted for a bit as he breezily outlined a procedure that began with a tranquilizer to ease my nerves, followed by gas to soften my fear. "A coward's cocktail," he called it. Then would come an anesthetic that would leave me awake but numb to pain. He also said I'd be so groggy afterward someone would have to drive me home.

Next I called Sharlip. He took the "be a man" approach. A general anesthetic would make me feel horrible for a couple of days; a local anesthetic was smarter and safer. The whole thing would only take about 40 minutes, he said, and I could drive myself home. Yes, it would hurt a little, but mostly
I'd just feel a gentle tugging.

I'm not exactly sure why -- maybe because he'd made it all seem more routine -- but I made the appointment with Sharlip.

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The big day was Sept. 2, a Friday. Sharlip said that would give me the weekend to take it easy. As the weeks of August sped by I felt a tightening deep in my bowels. Three weeks, two weeks, five days, finally, that black Friday was upon me. Jayne insisted on driving me to the appointment,
thereby closing off the possibility of car breakdown or getting lost. I kept telling myself that it wasn't a big deal and that it probably wouldn't hurt, as I put on loose sweat pants and got into the car. No way out.

I found I had the doctor's office to myself; I was the last appointment of the day. Maybe Sharlip would be too tired and we'd have to reschedule? Nope. He sat me down in his office and asked how I was doing. Did I think it was going to hurt? "No," I lied, "but I'm really nervous." "Well," he said, "the
best thing for that is to get it over with."

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Off to the "operating room" we went, a room set up very much like a dentist's office. Only the part being put under a bright light isn't your mouth. Then came an excruciating five minutes of watching Sharlip set out his instruments: scalpels, scissors, something that looked uncomfortably like a
soldering gun, sewing needles and the big needle, for the anesthetic injections.

A very cold, very hard reality hit me: That giant needle was going to go right into my testicles. And it was going to hurt. A lot.

It did. So much that my eyes teared up. I'll spare you the grisly details, except to say that I found talking about baseball, specifically the San Francisco Giants pitching, to be a reasonably effective means of taking my mind off what was going on down below. Sharlip must have thought I was a chattering idiot since I rattled on pretty much throughout the 40-minute procedure while he was making his incisions, finding the tubes, cutting them and cauterizing the severed ends. After the second injection I knew the worst was over, and I would live through it. Afterward Sharlip told me there were no physical restrictions -- in fact he said one of his patients actually ran a marathon the next day -- but sex was out for one week. No problem. Sex was not at the top of my list just then. Neither was running a marathon.

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As it turned out I was sore for a few days, but everything healed up pretty quickly and, yes, the parts do work again. The first time out was a little awkward and contrived, though. I was still a little tender, which made us both overly cautious and hesitant -- and there's nothing that can take the fun out of sex faster than thinking about what you're doing. On top of that, we had to schedule that first foray to occur during doctor's hours, and use a condom, so a sample could be delivered to the lab within the required 60 minutes to get an accurate sperm count (to make sure I was now shooting blanks.)

In the days right after the surgery I wasn't sure I'd done the right thing. I almost felt like I had betrayed the little guy -- and weakened him.

But now, a good eight months later, I realize it wasn't that big of a deal emotionally; it didn't change my image of my own virility or manhood. What it did was hurt, and keep me sore and fragile in a place I wasn't used to being sore and fragile. I know that the procedure was the medical equivalent of having your wisdom teeth out -- and will pale against surgeries I'll have to face when I get old -- but still, when I
think back on it I wince, remembering the pain.

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The truth is that women, because they go through so many of these kinds of procedures, aren't sympathetic. They just think we're wimps.

A couple of days after the vasectomy an old friend stopped by, clearly wanting to offer sympathy, but not exactly sure how to bring the subject up. Finally he put an arm around my shoulder and said, "That was a very brave thing you did."

Well yes, that's what I thought too. It's just that I couldn't be the one to say it. And I certainly couldn't say it in front of Jayne.


Gary Kauf

Gary Kauf is a journalist who lives in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Gary Kauf


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