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A Tiffin family of four gives thanks to science and surrogacy amid a pandemic
‘With COVID, they had no idea what to do. They had no idea’
TIFFIN — In a small, dark room at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in November 2017 — just days after Thanksgiving that year — Alisha and Ross Stottmeister heard the devastating emptiness of unexpected silence.
On that Black Friday, Alisha had let the excitement of her first pregnancy overtake her — jumping at a deal to buy a new car seat. But by that Monday, an ultrasound of what was to be their first baby found no heartbeat.
“I’m so sorry,” the technician told the couple, who married just over a year earlier and immediately began their battle with infertility, eventually attempting in vitro fertilization due to Alisha’s severe endometriosis.
“I carried you every second of your life, and I will love you for every second of mine,” Alisha wrote after her miscarriage to the baby she never got to hold.
A lot can change in four years.
When the couple gathers today for Thanksgiving in their Tiffin home, they’ll be chasing their energetic toddler, Mila, which means “miracle.” They’ll be bouncing their 6-month-old daughter, Charlotte, who is much more “chill” than her older sister.
And they’ll be looking back with gratitude on the rocky path that made them a family of four — involving trauma, loss, resiliency, risk, excitement, health scares, massive medical intervention and eventual surrogacy under unprecedented circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was no precedent. … They could not tell us how this was going to work,” Ross told The Gazette. “With COVID, they had no idea what to do.”
Because the couple harvested 12 high-quality embryos from their IVF attempt in 2017, they planned to try again after their loss. Alisha said she was anxiously awaiting her period — which her doctor said she needed before a second round. But it didn’t come. In frustration, she bought a pregnancy test in Feb. 2018.
“I'm like, I'm just going to take a pregnancy test, but there's no way I'm pregnant,” she said. “I did it really early in the morning. I didn’t even tell Ross.”
That is, until she did. At 7 a.m., Alisha handed her husband a card that referenced their two dogs and read, “We’re adding two little hands and feet to our pack.”
“He was like, ‘No way, this isn’t a funny joke,’” she said.
Although they had gotten pregnant naturally, the coming months would be rough and packed with scares and complications — including placenta previa, when the placenta covers the entry to the birth canal.
Just after a 20-week scan, Alisha began bleeding, forcing on-and-off hospitalizations. At about 23 weeks, she was admitted to UIHC “until baby comes.”
Mila was born by an emergency C-section Aug. 15, 2018, at just 28 weeks and four days — making her “extremely preterm” and putting her among just 1 percent of babies born in the United States.
She weighed 2 pounds and 8 ounces, and was 14.5 inches long. Over her 74-day stay in the UIHC neonatal intensive care unit, she experienced a small-grade brain bleed, needed two blood transfusions, was diagnosed with two congenital heart defects, had an umbilical hernia and needed oxygen up until the week before she finally went home.
Alisha had complications of her own. In the delivery room, doctors removed her uterus, which they couldn’t separate from the placenta, and ended up taking her ovaries and appendix, too.
She awoke from the hourslong surgery desperate to see her baby for the first time — although the medical team made her wait until she was more stable. Later that night, Alisha rode up to her daughter’s room in wheelchair.
“I had to stand up because I couldn’t see her from my wheelchair, and the NICU nurse came in and she said, ‘I don't take care of grown-ups. I only deal with the little ones, so you better sit down,’” Alisha recalled. “I was white as a ghost. … But it was awesome. Being able to see her for the first time.”
Once Mila went home, she put on weight, graduated from therapy and today is thriving as an energetic and strong “threenager.”
Given the hysterectomy, the Stottmeisters knew they had to take a non-traditional route to get Mila a sibling, and they strongly considered adoption. But the couple also had those frozen embryos from their IVF attempt, and the means to consider surrogacy.
“But I needed a break,” Ross said, expressing exhaustion from the NICU experience and up-and-down pregnancy.
Plus, he said, “Mila was like a miracle baby. We needed time to cherish those two years.”
‘I'm going to see my kid’
Just after Mila’s second birthday in January 2020 — with the novel coronavirus starting its international spread — the Stottmeisters reached out to a UIHC-matched surrogacy agency in Chicago to begin the process of finding a gestational carrier.
They filled out bio forms and shared their life story — as did prospective carriers, divulging everything from finances to religious and political leanings.
“They make sure that they're in it for the right reasons,” Alisha said. “That they don't have any opportunities to be taken advantage of or take advantage of someone else.”
Families and gestational carriers are matched on ideology, as well as location, given biological families often want to be as involved as possible. And the Stottmeisters, after a “very rigorous” process, found a natural pairing with a surrogate in Louisville, Ky., named Olivia Bramble.
“We had to meet her, we had to go through contracts with her, we had to find out all her medical history,” Ross said. “She pretty much had to open her life up. She had to tell us everything.”
Bramble, 27, was a pediatric nurse and had her own daughter at a very young age. Although she didn’t want more kids, Bramble had watched a friend struggle with infertility and felt compelled to help another family.
“She knew that pregnancy was really easy for her,” Alisha said. “And that was something she said was placed in her heart.”
They needed attorneys in Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky — who drafted a 100-page contract with a detailed plan. It included caveats, for example, barring Bramble from traveling to states with laws unfriendly to surrogacy, including Indiana.
“And she lives five minutes from the Indiana border,” Ross said. “So they had to write in the contract that she could not go to Indiana for the last month of her term.”
If Bramble would have had the baby in such a state, the child could legally have been hers — not the Stottmeisters.
“All of this takes away from the general joy of having a kid,” Ross said.
Not to mention the massive wrench the pandemic threw into the process. The Stottmeisters had to meet Bramble over Zoom — not in person. And her medical screening was placed on hold, stalling the process in spring 2020.
“That's when they did a pause to procedures that weren't considered necessary,” Alisha said. “That was actually kind of disheartening … because, for people that are undergoing them, it does feel necessary.”
The process picked up again in July 2020, and by Oct. the Stottmeisters were telling their family they were pregnant. They couldn’t attend most doctor’s visits — although they fought for approval to go to the 20-week ultrasound in Kentucky.
“We had to knock on the back door because they were afraid that their patients would get mad if they saw multiple people coming in with a pregnant person,” Alisha said.
The couple found themselves fighting a battle of reality versus perception in a pandemic-plagued health care system.
“The lawyers were like, ‘Well, you're not going to be able to if the hospital won’t let you,’” Ross said. “But I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it's our kid. It's my kid. I'm going to see my kid.’”
About a month before delivery, the Stottmeisters received clearance to be present for their daughter’s birth. And they arrived in Kentucky a day before the induction.
On May 12, at 9:10 a.m., both were in the room to witness the birth.
“It was amazing,” Alisha said, noting she assisted in the delivery. “I got to hold one of her legs and be right there for the whole thing.”
Having induced lactation, Alisha took baby Charlotte immediately for skin-to-skin bonding and nursing. Her daughter latched naturally, and Bramble was taken to another room to recover — although she did get to hold Charlotte.
Within 26 hours, the Stottmeisters were headed back to Iowa with their daughter — and an epic bookend to their fertility journey.
On social media, Bramble shared gratitude for her role in the new life.
“Some days were easier than others by a long shot, but each day brought us closer to our end goal: a healthy baby for Alisha, Ross, and little Mila,” Bramble wrote in a May 13 post on Facebook. “The immense feelings of pride I felt watching them hold their baby girl was overwhelming.”
In that post, Bramble addressed questions about whether letting the infant go was hard.
“She was never mine,” Bramble wrote. “She was always a part of this family. She only vacationed for a bit with me as her womb mate.”
Alisha and Ross said they plan to be open with Charlotte about the woman who carried her during the earliest part of her existence. And they plan to stay in touch with Bramble.
“When Charlotte’s first birthday rolls around, we’ll invite them,” Alisha said of Bramble and her daughter. “They’ll always be welcome.”
The couple also is thankful for the science and health care providers behind their miracle babies — both in conception and intervention, when Mila was born premature.
“Without the intervention of medical technology, we wouldn't have been able to grow our family,” Alisha said. “Ross and I are super grateful for the ability to parent two amazing little girls.”
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