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  • Writer's pictureKirsten McLennan

My surrogacy journey

The day we met our beautiful surrogate Leigha, she sent me an illustration of a joey in a kangaroo’s pouch and the words: Ryan and Kirsten. I hope I can take some weight off your shoulders and bring you some joy in the years to come. I would be ‘honoured’ to carry your joey.

It had been a long road to get here so I can’t begin to describe the happiness we felt reading those words.

But why did we pursue international surrogacy rather than domestic? Ninety-two per cent of surrogate babies are born overseas and only eight per cent are born in Australia. Why? Australia has extremely tight surrogacy laws (State laws), with the penalty ranging from fines to imprisonment with commercial surrogacy. This leaves altruistic surrogacy, but the approvals process is usually long and arduous. There are also no surrogacy agencies and it’s illegal to advertise so it can take years to find someone.

When we met with Rocky Mountain Surrogacy (Idaho, USA), within minutes it felt like a chat with an old friend. A boutique agency, I could tell right away the owner Tess was personally invested with all her surrogates and intended parent(s).

Through Tess, we met Leigha.

On Skype, we formed an instant bond with our beautiful surrogate Leigha and her husband Josh.

We then met on Skype with Dr Russell Foulk from The Utah Fertility Center and we were immediately impressed. We found him extremely knowledgeable and you could tell Dr Foulk and our nurse Tonya were determined to give us the baby we so desperately wanted.

Leigha was confident. With two boys of her own and a surrogate baby she had carried previously for a couple from Spain, she was optimistic. I, on the other hand, was petrified of another failure. It felt like the US was our last dance.

Our first transfer with Leigha sadly failed.

Three months after our first attempt, we geared up for transfer number two.

Results day. It was early when Ryan got the call, around 5:30 am. Vigorously shaking my shoulders, he woke me up to tell me we were pregnant. We were ecstatic. We Skyped Leigha and Josh right away and they were just as happy.

As soon as we got off the call though, I had a pit in my stomach. I reminded myself it was early days. A lot could still go wrong.

During week seven, we flew to Hong Kong for a mini break. But it meant our first scan was mid-way through our holiday.

With the time difference, the scan was at 3:00 am. That night, I told Ryan I was too scared to Skype in. I thought back to a previous missed miscarriage we’d had, and I didn’t think I go through it again. So, we decided Ryan would take the call in the hotel lobby.

The first text I received from Ryan at 3:00 am was: “They’re running behind with ultrasounds, she’s still waiting.” Ten minutes later, and riddled with anxiety, a follow up text, “She’s going in now”. And two minutes later: “Strong heartbeat, everything looks perfect”.

I jumped on the call and listened to the magical sound of our baby’s strong heartbeat, happiness consuming me.

Our 10-week scan was again at 3.00 am (our time). Given everything had been tracking along so well and Leigha’s hormone levels were high, we decided not to Skype in. Josh would video the scan and we would call them once we woke up.

I woke up at 6:00 am and checked my phone. No messages. With a ball of anxiety aching in my stomach, I checked Ryan’s phone. There was a message on his home screen from Josh: “I’m so sorry but we’ve lost the baby…”.

Words screamed in my head: No!!!Not again!! Please God, don’t let this happen again. We were so close this time. I beg you, please let this be a mistake. But even though I never read Josh’s full message, I knew it was over.

At the 10-week scan, our baby had already passed. Dr Foulk estimated our baby had died around nine weeks. We were shattered. It was gut wrenching for all of us.

Our obstetrician, Dr Jensen, later told us Leigha is the only person he’s ever known to have been crying so hard while the general anaesthetic was taking effect. He had tightly held her hand at the start of the D&C and right up to the second before she fell asleep, she was sobbing.

The hardest part of international surrogacy is when something like this happens. All we wanted to do was see her and Josh in person and all comfort each other. But we couldn’t.

At this point I resigned myself to think we would never have a child. I wanted to scream and cry and be done with the whole thing. With every set back, I had faith. But this time the fight had vanished. I was struggling to move past the fact that we were here again.

I’ll admit I went into our final transfer half-heartedly. I wanted it to work but my thinking had shifted: It won’t work and if by some miracle it does, then it will be a dream come true. But don’t expect it to work as it probably won’t. I didn’t mean to sound pessimistic, but I had to protect myself. I didn’t know how much more hurt I could withstand.

Leigha felt anxious but she defiantly charged into the final transfer giving it her all. It reminded me of a quote from Attius Finch from one of my favourite books ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what”.

On 25 October 2018 we did our final transfer, our last hurrah.

Results day. With our nurse Tonya away that day, we had been told another nurse would contact Leigha. When I woke up, there was no news.

To distract myself, I checked my emails. There it was. An email from one of the nurses had been sitting there for hours with the subject line ‘GC Update’. We had never expected an email, so I hadn’t thought to check. The email simply said: “Hello Kirsten. We received Leigha’s results and they came back positive!!! Her HcG is 297! This is a wonderful start!!!”.

It was indeed a wonderful start.

At eight weeks pregnant, we had our first scan. Similar to our last pregnancy, everything looked perfect and the heartbeat was strong. But there it was, what had caused our last miscarriage, a Subchronic haematoma.

The sonographer noticed our uneasiness and told us unlike last time, it was tiny and nowhere near the placenta. It would most likely resolve itself in time. We had to trust that everything would be ok.

After our miscarriage, we had booked a Christmas holiday to Europe, something to look forward to. But our 12-week scan was the night we flew out. About a 22-hour flight, the scan was 12 hours into our flight.

As soon as we landed, I grabbed the sick bag while Ryan anxiously turned on his phone. Straight away his home screen filled with an ultrasound photo and the words: “Your baby is perfect”. We both burst into tears. Truth be told, we actually jumped up and down, squealed and hugged each other. Our fellow passengers looked at us like we were nuts. But we didn’t care. We were so incredibly happy. I had also never felt so energised after such a long flight.

The next few months flew by and before we knew it, it was time to head to Utah. We left Melbourne on a rainy Winter’s day and arrived in Utah on a beautiful summer’s evening.

We pulled up to Leigha and Josh’s house around midnight. The second I caught a glimpse of Leigha’s warm infectious smile, I turned to mush and was a babbling mess. We hugged each other so tightly, both crying.

Two of the most genuine and decent people you will ever meet, Leigha and Josh made us feel so welcome. For the next few weeks, their home was our home. That night I also got to feel some kicks. Throughout our pregnancy, Leigha sent me boxing emojis. Feeling her belly, I finally understood why. She joked that he had kicked her so hard once, she was scared he may have broken her ribs. Although once I felt him karate kick for myself, I wasn’t sure she was joking.

We were due to be induced at 7:00 pm on 5 July 2019. But nothing goes according to plan. At around 2:30 am on 5 July, half asleep I stumbled out to see Leigha leaning on the wall trying to hold herself up, crouched over and moaning. It was time.

We had been through this scenario a million times but even still, Ryan and I both froze. I remember asking Ryan if I had time to have a quick shower. I’ll never forget the ‘you’ve got to be kidding me?’ look he gave me. No, there wasn’t time.

For the next few hours, Leigha had contractions but suddenly they slowed down. This threw us. We had two choices – stay at the hospital and get her induced or go back home and wait until the evening. Of course, we decided to induce.

Once Leigha was induced, everything happened quickly. Her contractions came on hard and fast. Being a pro, she handled them exceptionally well. Witnessing it firsthand and up close, I’m in awe of anyone who gives birth. The tenacity and strength women have during childbirth is simply incredible. And I must admit, I now get the joke about how if men could give birth, there would be hardly any children born.

It wasn’t long before Dr Jensen was asking Leigha to do some final pushes and saying he could see the head. Ryan, Mum and I couldn’t stop balling. Thank goodness for the person who invented waterproof mascara. And then we heard him cry. His first beautiful cry. Spencer was here.

After six years, our long-awaited darling son was finally here. Our eyes flooded with tears, Ryan and I stumbled over and held Spencer’s tiny hand. In that moment, we knew it had all been worth it.

Shortly later, the midwife ushered us into our adjoining room so that Dr Jensen could check Leigha and we could feed Spencer. A few moments later, it was pandemonium. We saw an Emergency team rush into Leigha’s room. Ryan quickly followed but was told to wait outside as Leigha had started to bleed out.

With Spencer resting quietly in my arms, I prayed she would be okay.

Dr Jensen calmly took charge and stopped the bleeding. Leigha was okay, but she did lose more than 1.5 litres of blood. In the days that followed, she also experienced Postpartum Preeclampsia, a rare condition that causes high blood pressure and if left untreated, cause seizures or other serious complications. For Leigha, it was causing painful headaches, swelling, and dizziness.

It was another reminder of the extraordinary gift Leigha had given us. She had risked her life for us, for Spencer.

It may have taken us six years, but the day Spencer was born, most of the heartbreak and grief melted away. I had heard this from a friend who had battled infertility. That the day you have your baby safely resting in your arms, so much of the pain goes away. While I was sceptical, the mere thought of this was always a warm comfort. And she was right. The bubble did finally burst.

It was a long and often difficult journey but by the end we had our beautiful son Spencer. So I would do it all again.


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