The Egg Man

Dr. Sherman Silber says he can extend a woman's fertility by decades. All he needs is an ovary and some ice.

So he attends medical school. The Vietnam War breaks out and Silber gets a job working for the U.S. Public Health Service. They send him to Alaska. It's like the TV show Northern Exposure, a big-city Jewish doctor in the wilds of the Yukon. Silber loves every minute of it. He gets to perform procedures no medical student back in Michigan would ever have a crack at. When he has no clue what he's doing, he calls down to the Health Service headquarters in Seattle and someone gives him surgical instructions over the phone.

One day an Eskimo named Arctic Joe wanders in from the tundra. "Arctic Joe is rumored to be the greatest wolf hunter who ever lived," remembers Silber. "But at the age of 84 he's having to stop the hunt every hour to take a leak." Silber diagnoses an enlarged prostrate. He calls down to Seattle for advice and, by phone, they explain how to remove the gland. Silber performs the surgery and Arctic Joe is so happy and relieved he gives the young doctor a wolf-skin pelt as a token of gratitude. "I still have the pelt. It's beautiful," says Silber.

After two years in Alaska, Silber returns to Michigan and focuses his studies on urology. He plans on becoming an expert in kidney transplants. He gets a job as a researcher at Australia's University of Melbourne and spends the next 24 months transplanting kidneys in rats. Operating on the tiny rodents requires a steady hand, and soon Silber is skilled in the delicate craft of microsurgery. One night he's going to bed when he comments to his wife Joan: "You know, based on what I'm doing with rats I bet I could perform a vasectomy reversal on men. But there probably won't be much demand for it."

Eric Fogelman
If Ashley Perkins wants to have a baby at the age of 38, her ovary will still be that of a 23-year-old.
If Ashley Perkins wants to have a baby at the age of 38, her ovary will still be that of a 23-year-old.

Joan then shoots up from her slumber. "I bet you'd be surprised," she says. Thirty-two years later and Silber has become one of foremost experts in fertility treatment — and his expertise does not apply solely to humans.

A few years back, Silber published a paper explaining his theory on why dinosaurs became extinct — atmospheric changes caused the giant reptiles to have babies all of the same sex. More recently, Silber has turned his attention to primates. Spread across his desk on the seventh floor of St. Luke's Hospital last month were dozens of slide specimens of gorilla testes. He collected the biopsies this summer from a silverback at the Pittsburgh Zoo. The research, he hopes, will help shed light on man's struggles with infertility.

"Yeah, Sherman is a bit of a mad scientist," confirms Dr. Michael DeRosa, a St. Louis obstetrician and gynecologist who assists Silber in the operating room. "But by that I mean he's always finding new and innovative ways of doing things. If you look at the number of medical firsts he has, it's just staggering. He's just got just an incredible drive to learn and an uncanny knack for knowing what's going to work and what won't. He's like no other."

Like many patients, Manju Rentala discovered Dr. Sherman Silber through, his Web site. Rentala, an emergency-room physician in California, had recently turned 40 and had become gravely concerned about losing the opportunity to have a child.

"I guess I'd always expected to find a partner and have children by this point in my life, but things just didn't work out like that," says Rentala, who cites a hectic work schedule and three decades of schooling as a few of the factors contributing to her current single status. "Suddenly there was this feeling that I was running out of time. I found Dr. Silber online and scheduled a consultation last November. I found out I was right. Time was running out."

Rentala's antral-follicle count revealed just five to seven mature eggs in her ovaries. Women in their late teens, by comparison, typically have 20 to 30 mature eggs in their ovaries at any given time, indicating a far greater number of total eggs in reserve. The low number of mature eggs in Rentala's ovaries revealed she'd already begun transitioning toward menopause, making her an unlikely candidate for ovarian-tissue freezing.

"Dr. Silber recommended I freeze my eggs, and he suggested we begin right away," recalls Rentala. Now Rentala gives herself a shot of hormones each day to stimulate her ovaries to drop multiple eggs. When she's about to ovulate, she flies from San Francisco to St. Louis, where Silber and his team harvest her eggs for freezing. After three such trips, Rentala says she's produced six suitable eggs for freezing and spent nearly $50,000.

"A lot of my friends are in the same position I am," adds Rentala. "They're getting older and want to have children. They have money to afford something like this, but they'd rather hope for the best — that they're able to have children in the late thirties and early forties — instead of doing something about it."

Still, given the money and effort she's spent on egg freezing, Rentala admits she remains a bit skeptical. "This procedure hasn't been studied a lot, and it will probably be another ten to twenty years before it really catches on," she muses. "Until then, you can't help but wonder if it's worthwhile."

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