The only thing newlyweds Julie and Mike Boyde wanted was a baby. The couple had already begun planning for a family and started to build a nursery in their Ambridge, Pa., home.
So the Boydes tried a revolutionary new treatment they hoped would allow them to have a baby. And although it proved unsuccessful for them, doctors hope it can help other women who have a similar problem.
Julie and Mike Boyde had been friends for years before he had the nerve to ask her out.
"I didn't ask her out until after our first year in college," Mike Boyde, 27, said. "We were just friends the whole way through high school."
The couple became engaged two years later. They married in 2005 and spent their wedding night at a bed and breakfast.
"Before we were always very careful and, you know, used protection, and that time we didn't," Julie Boyde, 26, said. "So, we figured we were married now, so if we got pregnant, we got pregnant."
But then something went terribly wrong.
"Pretty much right after, I knew something was not right because I was in a lot of pain," she said. "The pain that I was feeling was inside, kind of like, somebody was sticking needles up inside of me and like a burning, like really painful burning."
It was a scary moment, she said.
"Was there something wrong with me? Was there something wrong with him," she said.
But the attacks only got worse. Boyde said she was in pain for days, and they wondered if one of them had a disease.
"When … this actually happens, afterward on a scale of ... 1 to 10, it's pretty much close to 10," she said. "And I don't think that that's what a lot of people understand is ... how painful this actually is."
Test after test came back with no explanation for why she experienced pain after sex. Then a friend of hers suggested that she might be allergic to her husband.
"And after they said that, I'm like, you know, it kind of crossed my mind. Could that really be possible? So, I kind of went home that night and did a little research on the computer," she said.
It's possible to be allergic to another person, according to sexual health experts.
"The body recognizes semen as a foreign protein just as it would recognize a peanut allergen or pollen," said Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the Centers for Vulvovaginal Disorders in Annapolis, Md. "So you have swelling, you have itching, you have inflammation of the nerve endings."
Boyde said those were the exact symptoms she was experiencing.
Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity
The condition is called seminal plasma hypersensitivity, and an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 women in the United States may have it, Goldstein said.
Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an immunologist at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, said, "It can be systemic and present anaphylaxis where individuals have not just localized discomfort. They actually can have hives, soft tissue swelling … and, in the severe situations … they can ... potentially die."
But the diagnosis can be devastating for women like Boyde, who are hoping to get pregnant.
"In a person with a semen allergy, you can have infertility because the body is attacking the sperm, making them inactive, so they are unable to fertilize the egg," Goldstein said.
Due to an agreement with the Catholic school she worked for, in vitro fertilization was not an option for the Boydes. But a revolutionary new treatment offered hope for them and other couples living with this condition.
Bernstein, who treats women who are, essentially, allergic to their husbands, developed a desensitization treatment.
The treatment is similar to receiving an allergy shot, Bernstein said. After determining the three proteins in Mike Boyde's semen that triggered his wife's reaction, the lab created a serum from his semen that is used almost like a vaccine to immunize his wife.
She received her serum injections twice a week for the first two weeks and then once a week thereafter. Each shot was stronger than the previous one.
Despite her fear of needles, Julie Boyde said it was worth it if it could help her start a family.
Although the treatment has worked for other couples, it, unfortunately, did not work for the Boydes.
She continued to have a reaction to her husband's semen and, eventually, stopped taking the shots.
The couple said they are going to wait for their adoption agency to match them with a birth mother.
Julie and Mike's story airs on "Strange Sex" tonight on Discovery Health.