Peter Zhu’s parents said their son always wanted to be a father.
The 21-year-old from Concord, Calif., dreamed of having five children, unswayed by his parents’ good-natured warnings that raising such a large family would be expensive, Yongmin and Monica Zhu wrote in a court petition filed Friday in Westchester County, N.Y. The vision Peter had for his future was idyllic: living on a ranch with his family and caring for horses.
But Peter would never get to experience that life. The promising cadet, a senior at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, suffered a fractured spinal cord that deprived his brain of oxygen while skiing on Feb. 23. Less than a week later, he was declared brain dead.
Now, his grieving parents say they only have one chance of “fulfilling Peter’s wishes and preserving his incredible legacy” — retrieving their only child’s sperm and saving it.
“Peter’s death was a horrific, tragic and sudden nightmare that neither of us could have prepared for,” his parents wrote in the filing, seeking a judge’s permission to obtain their son’s genetic material. “We are desperate to have a small piece of Peter that might live on and continue to spread the joy and happiness that Peter brought to all of our lives.”
Just hours later, the case involving a medical procedure long fraught with ethical concerns, heartbroken parents and the pressures of cultural expectations was brought to a head when a judge directed the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., where Peter was being kept on life support, to retrieve the sperm and store it. Another hearing has been scheduled for March 21 to discuss the next steps, according to court records.
The Zhus and their attorney, Joseph R. Williams, could not be reached for comment late Monday. In an email to the Journal News on Sunday, Williams described the result as “bittersweet,” but declined to comment further citing the pending case.
The cadet’s fatal injury came during an excursion to the Victor Constant Ski Area, located near the prestigious military academy, the filing said. While skiing, the Zhus wrote, their son was involved “a very bad accident.” According to the Army Times, the cadet was found unresponsive on the slopes by another skier. After rescuers performed CPR, Peter was transported to a nearby hospital before being airlifted to the Westchester Medical Center for emergency treatment, the filing said. The incident remains under investigation, the Army Times reported.
Peter’s condition, however, only worsened and on Wednesday afternoon, his parents received the news that he was brain dead.
“Our entire world collapsed around us,” the Zhus said in their petition. “We cannot even begin to put into words the pain we felt, and continue to feel, seeing our son lying lifeless in his hospital bed.”
They added: “Peter was the love of our lives. He brought us more joy, pride and happiness than words can say."
According to the Journal News, Peter excelled at the U.S. Military Academy and was described by superiors as “one of the top cadets” in his class. He was president of the Cadet Medical Society and after graduation in May he was set to receive a commission as a medical corps officer and attend medical school, the Journal News reported.
“We lost a brother today, and the pain will be felt for a long time,” Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the academy’s superintendent, told the Army Times.
With the hope of possibly “preserving some piece of our child that might live on,” the filing said the Zhus asked medical professionals at Westchester about a procedure they had never done before: postmortem sperm retrieval.
Since it was first performed about 40 years ago by Cappy M. Rothman, a Los Angeles-based urologist, the unusual practice has prompted many to question its ethical implications, the New York Times reported in 2004.
“Is it appropriate to consciously bring a child into this world with a dead father?” Alexander Capron, a professor of law and medicine and co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at the University of Southern California, told the Associated Press in 1999. That year, a woman made history in the United States when she successfully gave birth to a child using sperm extracted from her dead husband, the AP reported at the time.
“Would we want, at the moment that a death occurs, to have doctors asking: ‘Do we harvest eggs? Do we harvest sperm?’" Capron asked. “This is not for the betterment of the human condition.”
Other studies have attempted to answer equally challenging questions, chief among them: How can you make sure the wishes of the deceased are being respected?
In April 2000, researchers concluded that written or verbal consent documented by a health-care provider would be “desirable,” but not “an absolute requirement,” according to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Human Reproduction. The paper noted it is “possible that in some cases a reasonable inference can be made if the patient has previously discussed these matters with family members.”
The Zhus laid out their son’s detailed plan for fatherhood in the petition.
“When Peter was alive, he often told us how he wanted children of his own one day, and that he wanted to give us grandchildren,” the filing said, going on to describe the young man’s desire for five children. “There was never any question or doubt that Peter intended to become a father.”
But beyond his personal desire for a big family, the couple said their son’s legacy also needed to be preserved “for deeply cultural reasons.”
Peter was the sole male child in his family and in Chinese culture, only sons can pass down a family name, his parents wrote.
“When Peter was born, his grandfather cried tears of joy that a son was born to carry on our family’s name,” they said. “Peter took this role very seriously, and fully intended to carry on our family’s lineage through children of his own.”
Without Peter’s children, his parents wrote that it would be “impossible” for the Zhu lineage to continue and the “family name will die.”
On Friday, the Zhus insisted that retrieving the sperm needed to happen before 3 p.m. when their son, an organ donor, was scheduled to undergo an organ removal procedure. The doctors had informed them that retrieval would not be possible after Peter’s organs were removed, the filing said.
According to the documents, the hospital had a urologist who was “ready and willing” to perform the procedure as long as they obtained a court order.
The Westchester Medical Center Health Network told The Washington Post in a statement early Tuesday that “out of respect for patient and family privacy” they do not discuss the specifics of any cases.
“However, from time to time, like most hospitals, Westchester Medical Center is presented with complex legal and ethical situations where guidance from the court is appropriate and appreciated,” the statement said, adding the center “is grateful the family sought a court order during such a difficult time.”
It is not yet clear how the Zhus plan to use Peter’s genetic material. In 2009, a Texas woman whose son died after he suffered injuries in a bar fight got permission to retrieve his sperm and planned to hire a surrogate, the AP reported.
Now that they have the sperm, the Zhus may be one step closer to helping their son achieve his dream.
“Our son’s dying wish was to become a father and to bring children into this world,” they said in the filing.
A memorial for Peter is scheduled for Tuesday and a private funeral will be held later this week at West Point Cemetery, the Journal News reported.
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