When a college football injury left Ken Kunken paralyzed from the neck down, he thought his dreams of fatherhood were gone.
Almost 40 years later, Kunken, 59, of Rockville Centre, bent his head to kiss the children he was certain he'd never have.
"The thought of having natural children at that time seemed impossible," said Kunken, an assistant district attorney for Nassau County, who was injured while playing football at Cornell University. "Now we have three wonderful, beautiful 5-year-old boys."
Kunken and his family gathered with his doctor Thursday for an early Father's Day celebration and to talk about the procedure that made their family dreams possible.
Ken's father, Leonard Kunken, who turned 88 Wednesday, and his father-in-law, Kazik Blazejczyk, who lives in Rzeplin, Poland, and flew in to meet the boys for the first time, were doting on their grandsons as the boys, Joseph, James and Timothy, climbed on Ken Kunken's lap.
"It's truly a blessing." said Leonard, who traveled from Orlando, Fla.
In 2002, after Kunken and his wife, Anna, became engaged, the couple looked into sperm retrieval, a procedure where sperm are taken from a man's testes, frozen and later used to fertilize an egg which is then implanted in a woman's uterus.
"We promised each other and my parents that we would at least try," Anna Kunken said.
It took four attempts by Dr. Bruce Gilbert from the Smith Institute of Urology at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, which specializes in the procedure for spinal cord injury patients, to secure and store Ken Kunken's sperm. A year later in 2004, three fertilized eggs were implanted into Anna Kunken. After 34 weeks, Anna, now 40, delivered fraternal triplets.
Given the breakthroughs in female and male reproduction in the last 18 years, Gilbert said he can now offer most of his patients hope if they want to conceive.
"There are lots of modalities to make those dreams come true," said Gilbert, who continues to keep in touch with the family. "It's a miracle of science, and I was happy to be a part of it."
As they've grown, the 5-year-olds have changed their father's life. When Ken, who still experiences pain from his injury, becomes discouraged, he looks at his children and remembers to smile.
"That's enough for Ken to feel better, to have a smile on his face, to go on with his life," Anna said.
The boys take walks accompanied by their dad in his wheelchair, and he goes with them on bike and scooter rides around their Rockville Centre home.
"These boys have given a whole new meaning to my life. I absolutely love seeing the excitement and wonder in their eyes," Ken said. "And when I look at them, I truly believe they've shown me what the real meaning of life is."