From penis amputation to fatherhood

Mike and Heather Moore with their son, Memphis, and Dr Gordon Lee.
Mike and Heather Moore with their son, Memphis, and Dr Gordon Lee. Photo: Stanford Medical Center

Mike Moore spent most of his life feeling different. It stemmed from a botched circumcision as a child, which resulted in an infection and forced doctors to amputate almost the entire organ.

But now, at 30, he is revelling in the joy of an accomplishment that is fairly ordinary for someone his age, but almost completely unheard of for men in his situation: he has fathered a child, naturally, as perhaps the first man in the US to conceive a child with a reconstructed penis.

The journey all began with a mistake. The doctor who performed the circumcision on seven-year-old Moore used the wrong machine, bringing on a dangerous and painful infection. Soon, he was rushed back to a hospital.

"The last thing I can remember is talking to the anaesthesiologist," he said. "When I woke up, it was gone."

Moore saw several doctors as he grew up in Mississippi, in the US, but because of his young age, none of them could guarantee that reconstructive surgery, called phalloplasty, would work.

"It was hell," Moore said. "If you're different, you get made fun of. When one person finds out something is wrong, it spreads, and you're constantly the centre of everybody's joke."

When he got older, he underwent three phalloplasty procedures. But each failed, and he and his family "pretty much just gave up."

From failure to success

It was 1936 when the first phalloplasty was performed, using abdominal tissue and rib cartilage to construct a penis. But by the time Dr Gordon Lee entered the field, penile reconstruction relied on forearm tissue.

Though fairly successful, the technique has limitations, Lee said. It leaves large scars and the skin colours don't match. And the operations don't always work; Moore's failed procedures featured arm tissue.

"I just thought, 'There has to be a better way to do what we're doing right now,' " Dr Lee said.

Instead, he looked at tissue on the upper thigh. Not only was it stronger and thicker, but it also could be cut away, rolled and shaped into what is known as a neophallus - with a temporary catheter at the centre.

Dr Lee eventually streamlined a successful technique, operating on a 63-year-old man who had lost his penis to cancer in 2005.

The first procedure gained media attention, and, by chance, Moore's uncle happened to notice it on television. He called Moore, who was reluctant to try again after his failed procedures.

Still, he got in contact with Dr Lee, who was working at Stanford Medical Centre. In 2007 he tried again.

"It was a painful process," Moore said. But after nearly a year of healing, he finally felt a measure of normalcy. Still, it wasn't enough to erase a lifetime of self-doubt.

"I had been in several relationships and when it came down to having a sexual relationship … they couldn't deal with it," he said.

"I had a wife at the time of the surgery in 2007 and she couldn't even deal with the sight of what it looked like after Dr Lee repaired it. That was a major contribution to her leaving as well.

"It put me in a deep depression," he said. "You just think, 'It's never going to happen. Would anybody want to be with me because of it?'"

A new life begins

In 2011, Moore met his new wife, Heather, now 25. She knew of his situation, but assured him that normal is relative - to her he was, and still is, "perfectly normal”.

"She accepted me for who I was, and not for what was wrong with me," he said. "She continues to this day to assure me that there's nothing wrong."

They married, and in September 2012 decided to try for a baby. After so many medical procedures, Moore said, he wanted to do it naturally.

Months went by, though, and the couple eventually consulted a fertility doctor, who recommended artificial insemination.

"He told us it may take 12 to 18 months," he said.

A month later Heather ran into the room and told him some surprising news: she was pregnant.

And eight months later, he was holding his son, Memphis.

After the birth, Moore said, all he wanted to do was thank Dr Lee. He didn't realise he might have made history.

"I was speechless," said Dr Lee of hearing the news. "I thought to myself, 'Did I really help make a baby?' That's not something that happens when you're a plastic surgeon - maybe as a gynaecologist, but not as a plastic surgeon."

Lee said he scoured the medical journals and contacted all his colleagues in the field.

Moore was a sort of phalloplasty exception; most operations are performed on transgender people or men who had penile cancer or sustained severe trauma, and few patients have the "plumbing" necessary to create a child, Lee said.

Today, Moore can not thank Dr Lee enough.

"The one thing I wanted most in this world was a family, and I didn't think it was going to happen - to have kids, to have a wife who loves me for who I am. It wasn't going to happen, not to me," Moore said.

"I still have people to this day that want to make fun of me, but I don't let it bother me anymore," he said. "I have a beautiful wife, I have a handsome son. What more can I ask for?"