Birth stories: “Surrogacy during a pandemic was harder than I ever could have imagined”


by Mother & Baby |

Kreena, 40, began looking into surrogacy after a cancer diagnosis when she was 33. She now has 4 children – a 2 year-old daughter and a new surrogate gave birth to triplets in 2020. Here she shares her journey to motherhood…

I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2013, I was 33 at the time. Everything I knew ground to a halt overnight. The treatment I had was most likely going to affect my fertility, I was put into an artificial menopause as part of my treatment. I received a mastectomy and a subsequent reconstruction, and was also treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. So before I went into chemotherapy, I was offered the option of IVF to preserve my fertility.

14 days before my first chemo session, I underwent urgent IVF and harvested eggs, which were then fertilized with my husband's sperm and put in the freezer. I only ever saw that as part of my cancer treatment, I never really bonded to my embryos at the time, it was just part of what we had to do to get through cancer and then kind of left it for a while and got on with active treatment.

As I came through the other side, I was starting to ask my oncologist when I might be able to have a baby or carry a pregnancy. And every time I asked the answer was the same - that I had a very hormonally sensitive tumour and to come off my medication at any point before five years had passed would be pretty high risk in terms of a cancer recurrence. So I started looking into other options, because I knew I wanted to be a mum, I knew I had the embryos, and I knew if I waited for the five years, I'd be 38/39 and then it might just all be too late and too difficult. So if I could do something sooner I would. And that's when I started looking into surrogacy.

The first thing I did was Google it and I found agencies but it wasn't quite for me. I felt like it was a bit clicky if I was honest, and I didn't like the vibe. Then someone who I was on a private Facebook group with from a cancer perspective, said to me, have you ever considered independent surrogacy. In that you have these chat room spaces where you meet people on Facebook and do it yourself and see how it goes. It sounds really bizarre but actually, it's a really beautiful community and everyone's really welcoming. So I joined there. I think it was about 2015, so two years after my diagnosis, I joined on the forums just to sort of have a look at what people were saying and doing on there and dipped my toe in the water a little bit. And then introduced myself and explained my story.

'I ended up in cardiac intensive care'

The following year, I went on holiday to Vancouver to celebrate the end of life with oncology. And as I arrived, I started feeling really unwell. Very quickly I got a lot worse and ended up in A&E and from there into cardiac intensive care. My diagnosis was acute heart failure. So basically the chemotherapy I'd been given in 2013 had slowly been damaging my heart muscle, to the point at which it now was only functioning at 6%. I couldn't breathe on my own. I was on quite a lot of medication to keep me alive and breathing apparatus. My husband was told to call my family over to Canada, because it was very unlikely that I would ever come back to the UK, and I would probably pass away within a week. They just couldn't see a way out of it.

But fortunately, I did turn a corner and I did make it through. And after eight weeks in Vancouver, we were allowed to come home and fly back with medical assistance. So we came back to England. And ironically, Ina, my surrogate who I ended up having my first daughter with messaged me whilst I was in intensive care in Vancouver. I'd always been the one who messaged a surrogate but she was the first surrogate to message me. I remember saying to her ‘the timings a bit off, I'm in hospital, I don't know what's going on’. And she never let it faze her. Her optimism was bizarre. But I think it gave me hope at a really, really dark time.

And so I did get better. And when I got back, we continued talking. At first I was wheelchair bound, and I couldn't do much for myself at all. But we kept talking and I was then having very regular appointments with my oncologist and my cardiologist and they both said, ‘Look, you'll never be pregnant, your heart will never cope with a pregnancy the medication you're on now for your heart would kill a fetus. So motherhood is looking really unlikely’.

'I never ever gave up on that dream of being a mum'

But I never ever gave up on that dream of being a mum. I focused on rehabilitating myself, physically building myself back up again. My heart will never fully function properly but I take a lot of medication that helps me live a pretty normal life.

I met Ina, then in the December of 2016. We carried on talking for the best part of a year and after a year, we agreed to transfer an embryo into her.

So my treatment in 2013 had given us I think it was 11 or 12 embryos. And we got to transfer day and there was one really outstanding embryo as well as four or five pretty good quality ones. We transferred the one embryo into Ina on that day. We then expected the remaining ones to be frozen again. And when I eventually got hold of the clinic, probably about four days afterwards, having not heard from them about that what had happened to our embryos, I was told that they'd been allowed to perish and nothing had been frozen again.

Hearing that was horrendous for us because we knew we couldn't do it again. We knew that we there was no way of getting eggs out on me again without putting my life at risk. And we didn't know if we were pregnant with the embryo that had been transferred. So the pressure was really on for our surrogate. She was incredible, but the pressure must have been so immense for her.

Fortunately, we then did find out that that she was pregnant, which was just unbelievable, to know that it worked the first time was just incredible for us. And so nine months later, we welcomed our daughter Amaala into the world in April 2018.

When she joined us I think she just healed me in ways that I didn't even realise I needed healing, you know from, the cancer journey, my heart, everything, she fixed it all. She still fixes it all to be honest, having her in our life is incredible.

And I think having gone through the sort of cancer journey that I went through - I lost my hair, and I lost my lashes, and I lost everything feminine about me, I lost both of my breasts, I was in menopause. I was mid 30s, and had nothing womanly left about me. And I think that's one of the hardest things that I've found since my breast cancer diagnosis, that loss of identity, of what we sort of perceive to be everything a woman has. And but yet Amaala came along.

After that, we knew that we wanted to go again, we knew that we didn't want her to be our only child. And we knew we would have to look into donor eggs or some form of donation to become parents.

Again, because we had no embryos, I did sort of briefly explore an egg collection of my own again, but it just wasn't for me, the risk wasn't worth it. And my team was still saying not to do it. So we decided then to go to donors. I looked in the UK for a bit and realised there were no viable Indian donors, there's just nothing from the BEAM community available unless you're willing to wait years and years, I guess. Then that I spoke to someone on the surrogacy pages, who told me about another person in the community who had gone down known egg donation and had actually been able to see pictures of the donor and get a little bit more information, and would be able to meet this donor if this person wanted to. As soon as I heard that I thought I really want to do that, because I'm not carrying this pregnancy, I'm not going to have the genetic link. So if I can create some sort of relationship or connection with this person, I would love to do that for my future children and be able to just say to them, ‘I met the person who gave me a piece of you, and they were wonderful’.

So we went on this search via a clinic in Cyprus, because you can't do this in the UK, and this clinic worked with a South African donor agency that allowed you to know the identity of the donor. I read a few profiles – I always think about it being a bit like buying a house, I just knew when it wasn't right. But when it was right, I knew it. One profile landed on my laptop and I was like, this is this is the person I want it to be. Fortunately, it worked out.

In April 2019 the whole family went out to Cyprus. Really only my husband needed to go, but for me it was a family affair. It wasn't just about inseminating a donor egg, it was about her knowing who our family were and our family knowing who she was. We were told we had a 10 minute window to speak to her. 10 minutes rolled into three hours, and three hours rolled into the next day. We spent loads of time together and it was just perfect.

The eggs were collected, we fertilised them and then put them in the freezer. Ina was due to be our surrogate for our sibling journey, however her circumstances changed and she didn't think she would be able to carry for us, which was a massive blow. It takes so much time to get to know a surrogate and to build that relationship and build that trust. I was 40 that year I just thought ‘god how long is it going to take to find someone else now and to match and feel the level of trust I felt for Ina?’

'There were a lot of people rooting for me to match again'

After a lot of heartbreaking conversations with my family and people that really cared for me, I decided to go back out on the forums and introduce myself again. When I went back out there, I was stunned to find that there were a lot of people rooting for me to match again. I think that really helped me find my second match because people were saying behind the scenes ‘she's an amazing intended mother, they're great parents, you know, if anyone's looking, I would advise you try and get to know them’.

So within two months, I met Laura through a friend of a friend. We started talking, and we really got on really, really well. We met in December, and again in January with our children. Actually we took our agreements with us, we were ready. It wasn't rushed in any way we just knew. We knew we needed for this journey to be successful.

We had planned to go out to Cypus in April 2020, but luckily ended up bringing it forward to February. So we did it. And we went out in the middle of February. If we had waited another for the next cycle, we would never have gone out because of Covid. We were very lucky really.

We transferred two embryos and I will never forget the words of the doctor, he said, ‘I recommend you do two, because if you do one, there's a 40% chance of no pregnancy 60% chance you will have a successful pregnancy. But 40% is quite a large, large risk to take given that you've come this far. If you transfer to you probably have an 80% chance of a successful pregnancy and a 20% chance of twins’. Now, we knew that if we were transferring two embryos, there is a risk of non identical twins. And we were we were happy for that. We weren't ready for anything more. In fact, in our agreement, we said we weren't ready for anything more.

After we got back, Laura sent us over some holiday photos, and at the end of her holiday photos was a positive pregnancy test! I couldn’t believe that we’d been so fortunate to have a positive the first time again.

'The pregnancy journey was so different and so difficult this time'

Then she had a few complications that required her to have quite an early scan at five weeks. She phoned me after it and I expected her to tell me that we'd lost the pregnancy. And then she just said ‘you're having triplets!’

And I was a bit like, oh my god, hold on. Let me just get that biology straight in my head. At this point we had to have the conversations around whether we were all happy for a triplet pregnancy - whether Laura was happy to carry triplets, if we were happy to raise triplets. From the minute she told me, I knew I would never reduce that pregnancy. I knew that if we'd been gifted three babies, that's what we take. And she felt very strongly that she wouldn’t stop a pregnancy unless it was for real, real severe medical reasons. And that's when you know it's a good match because we were on the same page with all of this.

This time the pregnancy journey was so different and so difficult versus Amaala. We were locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn't see her, we didn't get to see the bump. We didn't get to feel any kicks. Obviously you're disconnected from your baby anyway when it's a surrogacy pregnancy, but when you can't even see that person, it's infinitely worse. And then knowing that the eggs were donor conceived, there was probably something on my shoulder saying, ‘are you ever going to connect with these children’ because there's just so much against you right now.

When we got to the 12 week scan no one was allowed to go with their partners to the baby scans. It was just the mum, obviously, but Laura wasn't the mum, but she was a pregnant person who couldn't take anyone with her. And I was shielding then because people with a heart condition were told to stay at home. That was really difficult – having to stand aside, when previously we’d have been a part of that, you'd be able to get excited and you would share so many memories about this journey, and this wonderful baby.

By the time the 20 week scan came along, Laura had been talking with the hospital and insisting the mum needs to be there and that if every other mother can be at the baby scan, then I needed to be there. So she made it work. I went up, saw the babies for the very first time and I was just blown away by the fact that there were three humans inside her. It absolutely mental, but also really brought home everything I couldn't do because she had been scanned every two weeks. So she knew everything about where which baby was, whose arm this was, whose foot this was, she knew it all. And I just thought, she knows them so much better than I do. And it kind of just reminds you of everything you can't do for your own family. We had one more private scan after that, which allowed my husband to see the babies as well.

'I'm the baby's mum and my surrogate is here about to give birth'

At 30 weeks, in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was like 3:45, Laura rings me and says ‘the babies are coming’. She's in an ambulance on the way to hospital. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, like we need to get in the car’. Within 15 minutes, we were on the motorway, on our way to meet our babies. We just kept hoping the babies wouldn’t arrive before we got there, that we’d at least get to see them come into the world. We got to the hospital by six, and then a lady at reception just went, ‘Well, what do you want, who are you?’

I said, ‘I'm the baby's mum and my surrogate is here about to give birth’. And then she looked at it my husband and asked ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘I'm the dad’. I had my birth plan in my hand and just said, ‘Look, here's the birth plan. Everything you need is here’.

But they refused to let us be with Laura, she insisted we needed to be Covid tested – she wouldn’t even let my husband in as the father. So after 20/30 minutes of her not letting us through, I asked about the phlebotomist I’d asked to be on standby to harvest stem cells from Laura so we’d have them if we, god forbid, ever needed them for the triplets. She goes, ‘I don't know what you're talking about’. I said, ‘I've got a phlebotomist, we just need the phlebotomist to get to Laura to harvest the stem cells. They're so time critical now’. And she looked at me, she goes, ‘Oh, well, that's not going to be possible. The placenta is not available’. And I was like, ‘why would the placenta not be available?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it's been sent away’.

I looked at her and I was like, hold on, ‘Are you telling me the babies are here?’ She goes, ‘did you not know?’ And I thought well, no, I did it. Then I was just in tears in front of this woman who was just being so difficult, thinking ‘this is how we find out that our babies are here’. I asked if they were all okay, because we knew there were only 32 weeks old, there's so much risk on whether all three would make it and she just said ‘I can't tell you’.

We thought we’d lost one, we didn’t know what was going on, and all she kept telling us was that we needed to have a test, that we had to wait four hours then come back for a Covid-19 test, then wait six to eight hours for the results before we could even see our children.

Eventually, we bumped into another nurse who thankfully let us get swabbed immediately, though we still had to wait for the results. We later found out that no other parent had to do that – no one else had to be swabbed before they got to their child. Every other father was let in to be with their wife or partner.

As we were walking out of the hospital a nurse, who’d overheard our argument with the receptionist, ran over to tell us that all three babies were alive and in neonatal ICU, and they’re fine. We came home really deflated because we didn't know what was going on at all. Laura was asleep, she didn't know I’d been there.

'I couldn't believe these three little humans in these Perspex boxes were mine'

As soon as we got our results back we went back up the motorway to Northampton. And first thing we did was meet Laura and check that she was okay, because she'd been on her own and she'd produced these three amazing babies and she'd had to do it all on her own- it was as unfair on her as it was on us. It was unfair on her to be on her own when she's just giving birth to triplets by emergency C section.

She told us all about what happened and then she told us that we had three boys and we were just like, ‘I cannot believe it’s three boys’, we genuinely thought we would have a mix. I asked her if she’d like to come up to the ICU with us to visit them, and she just said ‘no, these are your babies, they're your children, they're your sons. Now you go and meet them for the first time. This is for you. And I'll see you tomorrow, I'm still going to be here’.

Obviously, I've never been a neonatal unit before, you only see what you see on the TV. We were lucky because we had three babies, we had a whole room to ourselves. And I just couldn't believe that these three little humans in these Perspex boxes were mine. All that went through my head is the song “Wires” – it goes, ‘you've got wires coming out of your skin’, and I just kept hearing that as I was looking at these babies, but I knew when I looked at them, yeah they're premature, but they're gonna make it they just need some time to grow.

The neonatal team were amazing, as soon as we walked up, they were like, ‘Mum and Dad are here!’ That's what they said, and the consultant walked in straight after saying ‘Oh, hi, you must be mum and dad, aren't you lucky, look at your miracles’. And I just thought, I wish I could have spoken to you all those hours ago, because you would have let me in, because you knew I was the mum and you knew he was the dad. There was no question about it.

We met the boys for the first time and we got briefed on all of what they’d been through to be alive at that point in time, which was just bonkers. The next day, Laura came up, and we saw the boys together. Since we have Amaala as well, we decided to move up to Northampton, rather than trying to go up and down every day. That allowed us to be with the boys for a lot longer and to get really involved in their care and to look after our two year old at the same time. NICU is really difficult, it's just one of the hardest things you'll do as a mum – to allow other people to take care of your baby when you have to walk away at night. But what was really lovely, and I didn't expect it to happen at all, was that I started to feel that that last eight weeks of the boys life was my way of doing pregnancy, if that makes sense.

I could never have been with them like that if there were still inside Laura. But Laura, having delivered them early meant that their last trimester became my responsibility. I was feeding them and I was changing them and I was medicating them, and it was a beautiful thing. We just had to see it as a positive. It also allowed us a lot of time with Laura, which was really, really nice to have such a long time with her. The relationship just got so much stronger for that time we spent together.

We transferred the babies down to our local hospital when they were just over four weeks old. And we packed up our flat in Northampton and moved back to our own home. I guess, that was the beginning of our life with just us and the boys and it was really, really lovely. They came home on the 14th of October 2020. I remember the day we put the car seats on the carpet and I just started crying, uncontrollable balling. Because this is it, this is my family complete.

And it's not just about these three babies, or the neonatal experience, it’s about everything that happened since 2013. Everything that made me think I would never be a mum, everything I went through, this is what it was for and we're now here. I'm so full of gratitude for everything that we've got because it didn't come easy, but it's worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears it took.

Friends Kreena and Fran host The Intended Parent Podcast sponsored by Macmillan Cancer Support. They share their surrogacy stories after both were left infertile when they were diagnosed with cancer.

Macmillan is doing whatever it takes to support people living with cancer during this difficult time. For more information and support call Macmillan on 0808 808 00 00 or go online at Macmillan.org.uk

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