Parents of fatally injured US military cadet obtain court order to preserve his sperm

Peter Zhu, 21, had an accident on Feb 23, 2019, that left him with a severely fractured spine.
Peter Zhu, 21, had an accident on Feb 23, 2019, that left him with a severely fractured spine.PHOTO: FACEBOOK / PETER ZHU

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Peter Zhu, a West Point cadet who died last week, always wanted to be a father, his parents said. His dream was to live on a ranch, where he would have horses and raise five children, never mind his parents' jokes about how much all of that would cost.

Now, thanks to a court order, his parents can hope that some part of that dream may still come true.

Mr Zhu, 21, was found lying in the snow on a ski slope at the US Military Academy at West Point on Feb 23 after an accident left him with a severely fractured spine. He was taken to Westchester Medical Centre in New York, where he was declared brain dead on Feb 27. But because he was an organ donor, his body was kept alive until last Friday (March 1).

In the two days between the death of his brain and the death of his body, Mr Zhu's grief-stricken parents - desperate to hold on to a piece of him and determined to pass their family name to the next generation - petitioned a state court to allow them to retrieve his sperm before his organs were removed.

"Peter was the kindest, most loving and caring young man that you could ever meet," his parents, Yongmin and Monica Zhu, said last week in a filing in state Supreme Court in Westchester County.

"In addition to retrieving Peter's organs to donate to others in need, we are seeking to retrieve sperm from Peter's body in order to preserve Peter's reproductive genetic material.

"Without obtaining sperm from Peter's body, we will never be able to help Peter realise this dream of bringing a child into the world," they added.

"This is our one and only chance of fulfilling Peter's wishes and preserving his incredible legacy."

His sperm would have to be retrieved before his organs were removed, his parents wrote, and the removal procedure was scheduled to begin at 3pm last Friday. They filed their petition to the court at 9.38am that day.

"Our son's dying wish was to become a father and to bring children into this world," his parents, who flew to New York from their home in California to be with him, said in the court filing.

"Our family has been torn apart this week by the loss of our precious son. We now beg the court not to further devastate our family by eliminating the possibility of preserving some piece of our child that might live on."

The judge, Justice John P. Colangelo, quickly granted their request.

At 11.34am last Friday, he directed the medical centre to collect Mr Zhu's sperm and to provide it "to a sperm bank or similar facility of Petitioners' choosing for storage until further Order of this Court regarding disposition of such sperm".

He also scheduled a court hearing on March 21.

Efforts to contact Mr Zhu's parents and representatives for Westchester Medical Centre on Monday were unsuccessful, but in court documents, the Zhu family said doctors at the hospital had been "extremely kind and understanding of our situation".

They said, however, that the doctors were "hesitant" to retrieve their son's sperm without a court order "because the hospital has never conducted a procedure like this before under these circumstances".

In his ruling, the judge said the hospital had not objected to the order.

A lawyer for the family, Ms Kathleen Copps DiPaolo, declined an interview request on Tuesday.

"While we are extremely proud of the successful and landmark efforts made so far on behalf of our clients, the case remains pending, necessitating our discretion," she said in an e-mail.

"As you would expect, it is a very bittersweet result for the family and, out of respect for their privacy, we cannot discuss further at this time."

Efforts to reach the public affairs office at West Point on Monday were unsuccessful, but officials from the academy spoke to Army Times, a newspaper that serves the armed forces.

"Peter was one of the top cadets in the Class of 2019, very well known and a friend to all," Brigadier General Steve Gilland, commandant of cadets, told the paper.

"He embodied the ideals of the Corps of Cadets and its motto of duty, honour, country, and all who knew Peter will miss him."

Army Times reported on Sunday that Mr Zhu was the president of the Cadet Medical Society and planned to attend medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. It said the circumstances of his death would be investigated.

In addition to their grief, Yongmin and Monica Zhu told the court that they wanted to retrieve their son's sperm for "deeply personal cultural reasons as well".

Their son was the only male born into his generation of the Zhu family, largely because the Chinese government's one-child policy had kept Mr Yongmin Zhu's brothers from having more children after their daughters were born, the family said in court documents.

According to Chinese culture, only Mr Peter Zhu could have transmitted the family name to the next generation. Without his sperm, the family name would die.

"When Peter was born, his grandfather cried tears of joy that a son was born to carry on our family's name," the Zhus said in their filing.

"Peter took this role very seriously, and fully intended to carry on our family's lineage through children of his own."