My story began 11,000 miles away in 2013, when I was living in New Zealand. It was a pretty normal day – I had an appointment to have my contraceptive implant removed, then I’d be on my way. During the appointment the nurse told me my smear test was due, so to save me coming back they decided to do the smear there and then. But something wasn’t right – the nurse noticed quite a lot of bleeding and within minutes a doctor was in the room and an ambulance was called. I had no idea what was going on, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop.
I was rushed to hospital where I had an ultrasound and, at this point, the team thought I was having a miscarriage, but there was no way I could be pregnant. They took a sample of the mass and sent it over to America for testing and diagnosis, which revealed I had cervical cancer. During the time it took to diagnose, I started IVF. I wasn’t in a relationship or ready for children at that moment in my life, but I always knew I wanted a family.
During my IVF treatment, we managed to retrieve 13 eggs through keyhole surgery in my ovaries, 11 of which were mature enough to freeze – a result we were all super happy with. After this, it kind of went to the back of my mind. I knew from the start I wouldn’t be able to carry my own pregnancy due to the intensity of the radiation treatment and the effect it had on my cervix. My sister, Rebecca, who had one child of her own at the time, made a throwaway comment and offered to be my future surrogate. I thought, yeah, yeah, whatever and brushed it off as I wasn’t ready for kids anyway.
Fast forward to 2016, I’d moved back to England to be closer to my family and met my now husband – Ben. I was open with him from the start, and he understood the reality of what had happened. He was on board and as a couple we discussed the different options, like adoption, if surrogacy didn’t work out for us.
Rachel with her husband Ben.
We got engaged and again my sister offered to be our surrogate, but still I didn’t think too much about it. One of the main tasks though was to move my eggs to the UK from New Zealand, which was surprisingly a really easy process.
On our wedding invitations, we wrote a short poem to our guests about our surrogacy situation and that anything would be gratefully received – we didn’t need a fancy holiday or gifts, it was our dream to have a family of our own. Through our guests’ generosity we received a huge amount of money to help us start the process.
This was when we really started the conversation with Rebecca. To start with, I didn’t want to involve her because, by this point, she had three children of her own and her family was definitely complete, and I was worried about something happening to her. But after speaking in more detail, she told me how much she’d love to help us – she’d already had three very happy and healthy pregnancies for herself. We both lived close together and have such a close-knit bond, so it was the ideal situation.
We spoke to the clinic; Rebecca went through a series of health tests and checks and they were more than happy for her to become our surrogate. After this we sat down with my parents, Ben, Rebecca, and her husband Phil and had an open discussion about it and how things will work. We all went through a series of counselling, which is normal in the surrogacy process, which cleared us to proceed with treatment.
Image credit: Helen Rowan Photography
My eggs were thawed, and of the 11, nine survived the initial thaw. Seven then survived the initial fertilisation. Five then survived the first night. Then three survived the second night. By this time, they were classed as embryos so they had to be refrozen and go back into quarantine to ensure they were free of HIV – again completely normal in the process. Three months later, in February 2020, the embryos were cleared and thawed.
We were over the moon, as we thought we had three tries at transfer, but the clinic brought us back down to the earth and warned us the chances of any of them transferring was still quite low. One embryo was stronger than the other, so it was time to implant it into Rebecca’s uterus. This was just before the first lockdown, so I was lucky to be with her throughout the appointments.
A few weeks after the transfer, the clinic did a blood test to check Rebecca’s HCG levels, which would tell us if the transfer had worked, and if she was pregnant. Ben and I went away to Whitby that weekend as whatever the result was, we wanted to be together. I phoned up the hospital and they allowed me to get her results – she was pregnant! It was a feeling I can’t describe. Incredible. I immediately called my sister and told her, and she confessed she’d done a pregnancy test the day before – as if the result wasn’t good news, she wanted to come to terms with it herself and better help and comfort us.
But then Covid hit. We thought it made sense to form a support bubble with Ben, myself and Rebecca and her family so we could all help out and be closer together. The hospital team and NHS were amazing, I really couldn’t praise them enough. At the time, the lockdown rules meant no one could attend any scans or appointments unless they were the pregnant woman. But after explaining to the matron what our situation was, they were happy for me to come along with Rebecca, which was a relief.
We had monthly scans to keep an eye on Rebecca and the baby, and were lucky that she had a smooth, healthy and happy pregnancy, despite all the madness going on in the world.
Rachel in theatre with baby Ezra.
When we started putting together our birth plans, a non-negotiable for us was that we didn’t want Rebecca to be put on the ward after birth and we all agreed a private room would be better for our situation. I also wanted her to choose what kind of birth she had – it was her decision and her body. With her own children she had three natural births with very little pain relief, but for our baby she chose an elective C-section to stay in control of when it happened so we could all be there, and to separate this birth from the birth of her own children for psychological reasons. Our consultant was completely on board, and we were good to go.
On the day of our baby’s birth, we were all at the hospital together and I was able to go into theatre with her which was an amazing experience to be by Rebecca’s side and support her – there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Normally there’s only one midwife present for the baby and the mother, but we had two – one to stay with Rebecca after the C-section, and one to look after the baby and me. Our midwife checked over our baby, put a tiny knitted yellow hat over its head and let Ben and I be the first to find out the gender. It was a beautiful baby boy, who we named Ezra – which is Hebrew for ‘to help’.
Rachel, Ben and baby Ezra.
Rebecca was moved to her private room, and after having skin-on-skin time with Ezra I went back to check on my wonderful sister. We had such a special moment all together and introduced her to Ezra. Rebecca’s husband, Phil – the unsung hero of this story – came into the hospital and met Ezra and you could just feel the happiness in the room. After everything that had happened, we had our own little family.
The surrogacy clinic, midwives, doctors and hospital staff were phenomenal, and I couldn’t speak highly enough of them and how caring and compassionate they are. And my sister, Rebecca, you really are my superhero.
Banner image credit: Helen Rowan Photography