In order to share our story, I will begin by sharing my story. It is filled with moments of pain, insecurity, and fear yet threaded with glimpses of hope, healing words from dear friends, and miracles upon miracles of God’s perfect timing and plan. I hope that after you read this you will find hope and faith in whatever you are facing today. So get ready. Take a seat. Grab a cup of coffee, maybe some tissues, and enjoy.
When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with a syndrome called Mullerian Agenesis, also known as MRKH Syndrome. Basically, this chromosomal-genetic syndrome means you are born without a uterus. Yes, the very organ that is designed and functioned to bring new life into the world.
I went through a series of ultrasounds, MRIs, blood panels, tons of questions and raised eyebrows from doctors. Eventually, I found myself at the Center of Reproductive Medicine in Seattle, Washington under the care of Dr. Soules. My mom and I sat in an office overlooking Lake Washington waiting for the final MRI result. I couldn't help but think the craziest thoughts, “Am I dying? Do I have cancer? How long do I have to live? What’s wrong with me?” Immediately thoughts of fear and frustration filled my heart and mind. I spent nearly two months attending doctor appointments and undergoing tests with no answers. In came the doctor and the nurse holding a thick stack of papers. As they slowly walked in, the nurse handed me the stack of papers with shaking hands. “Hollie dear, I hate to tell you this but you have a syndrome called MRKH Syndrome. You were born without a uterus and will never be able to have children of your own”...
Then immediately my ears began to buzz. I couldn't hear what they said next. My head was spinning. I wanted to throw up. My mouth dried up. My stomach was in knots. The next thing I heard...
“Is this my fault? What did I do to my baby girl? Did this happen when I was pregnant with her? - Mom
“No ma'am. This is a genetic abnormality. There is no answer. No cure. No way to explain why or how this happens. This type of syndrome is still undergoing a variety of medical research and study to understand its development in women.”
As I sat listening to my mom and Dr. Soules talk back and forth about what this means for my present and my future, I was in complete shock. I couldn't respond. In that very moment I felt my entire life shift. I felt every dream of ever wanting a family of my own gone in about 3.2 seconds. At age 16, my innocence was gone. In April, 2004 my life started over. Every desire I wished upon my life, every dream I had of someday taking a pregnancy test, telling my future husband that I would carry his child… all of it gone. Just like that. The dream taken away. We got into the car, and as my mom sobbed driving us back home, I sat in the passenger seat in complete shock, staring out the window. I was still not fully comprehending what had just happened or what I had heard. I got home and went to my room. I took a deep breath and sat on the edge of my bed. I felt something strange come upon me. I felt a quiet presence, a calm courage overtake my buzzing head. Something whispered to me “I have a plan. This is just the beginning”.
The next day I sat with one of my best friends, Natalie Pica (now Narayan) over a cup of coffee at a local Starbucks. She was my first friend I told. She began to encourage me through the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible.
Genesis 11:30 “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive”
Genesis 15:5 “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars - if indeed you can count them,’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’”
Genesis 21:1-3 “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the very time God has promised.”
Abraham and Sarah waited for 25 years for their promise. 25 years of sleepless nights, heartache and pain. 25 years of watching all of their closest friends and family experience the greatest gift.. the gift of new life.
I wish I could tell you from that conversation on I was okay. The truth is I journeyed through seasons of anxiety, fear and insecurity. Who would love a girl like me? A girl who didn't have a uterus? A girl who couldn't provide the very thing that we are “called” to bring into the world? God created women to carry children. It was the way He designed us. So what happened with me? Did God forget me? Did He make a mistake? Maybe I was a mistake.
At age 16, I became an adult. I began thinking of marriage, family and what my future would look like. Nonetheless, I kept my head down, got good grades, and worked for the approval of others. I desired to be something great, trying to overcompensate for the “lack” that I felt deep inside. Over time, friends and family began to find out about my syndrome.
“I heard the news! I am so sorry Hollie Jo, maybe God didn't want you to have kids.”
(Side Note: If you know someone journeying through infertility, please keep those comments to yourself. Just encourage them!)
I placed the dream of having a family in the back of my heart. Every time I thought about having children, the pain was too unbearable. I focused on graduating college and serving at my local church.
In 2012, I took a job at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. I served under the leadership of Andrew and Christina Gard (Campus Pastors). It was a dream job! With overwhelming excitement, I moved across the country to start a new chapter of my life. It was in that year, I met Jarrell Joseph Hepler. He was four years younger than me. I did what most girls do. I acted like I could care less, gave him the cold shoulder and expressed my independence as a single lady. (cue Beyonce!)
I quickly realized that I was fooling no one but myself. I fell head over heals in love with the guy who had long hair, a lip ring and tattoos. As we approached a new season of our relationship, I could tell at any moment the words "I love you" were about to come shooting out his mouth. Insecurity and fear began to overtake my mental state. I was so afraid of that moment because I knew I needed to be completely honest with him regarding my syndrome. How do you tell someone you love you can't have children?
One night, we sat talking for hours and I knew that it was time.
"I have to tell you something, before we move forward in our relationship, I was diagnosed with a syndrome and I cannot have children."
Without missing a beat Joe got up from his chair, calmly walked over to the door, and turned the lock saying, "Well you're going to have to try a lot harder than that if you want to get rid of me." BEST ANSWER EVER. Sounds like a romance novel! I was so relieved to hear those words. In that moment, I knew that God was working everything together perfectly.
LET'S MAKE A BABY
The story goes on and we got married. We moved a few times, enjoyed life together through every season. We waited patiently for a path that would allow us to have children. We spoke about adoption. We even applied to be a part of a medical research project that would allow me to receive a uterus transplant. Unfortunately, I was disqualified due to medical reasons (I will write an entire blog post about that wild journey.)
In 2015, my sister-in-law, PJ - (Joe's oldest sister), called us and asked if she could come visit. She had something she wanted to share with us but it had to be in person. She and her husband, Clay, and my in-laws, sat on our living room floor in our Miami apartment. PJ was 10 weeks pregnant with their first baby. She wanted to share the full story behind their decision to start their family. She felt like God had spoken to her (and Clay) and said "it's time to start having your babies because one day, you could carry theirs." With tears in our eyes, we hugged, wept, and had no words except thank you. I couldn't believe the selflessness, generosity and faith that PJ was describing.
We knew it would be a few years before PJ could be medically cleared as a gestational carrier. In that season of life, we were not ready for children. We knew it wasn't the right time or place. We remained faithful and kept living our lives, knowing the plan would continue to unfold in the right time.
Before we go any further, allow me to educate you on the terms "gestational carrier / gestational surrogate":
A gestational carrier (GC) is a woman who carries a child who is not biologically her own. A gestational carrier may be a family member, friend, or a woman matched through an agency. The embryo is created by a process called in vitro fertilization (IVF). The egg and sperm of the intended parents (IP) are retrieved and fertilized. The embryo is then transferred to the GC.
Joe and I knew once we started the process of IVF, it may take nine to twelve months to get to the point of pregnancy. We quickly learned it was very expensive, required lawyers, special health insurance, etc. This process requires a great deal of emotional stamina, a supportive community and a unified team to see it through.
In the fall of 2017, we felt it was time to MAKE A BABY. We began researching and talking with friends and family. In January 2018, we began the process of IVF with a gestational carrier. We chose to work with a clinic in Colorado (Colorado Center of Reproductive Medicine) under the care of world-renown, Dr. William Schoolcraft. Choosing the right doctor can make all the difference in a successful IVF journey. It is important to do research, ask a lot of questions and take your time finding the right fit.
From the first phone consultation, to our first clinic visit, we have been blown away by the hospitality, kindness, and the intentionality from every nurse, doctor, and administrative staff.
In April of 2018, we began IVF. For the sake of time, I won't go into the full story (I will save that for another blog post). I can honestly say, this process was physically challenging, emotionally taxing and beautiful all at the same time! I was surrounded by friends and family who texted me daily, and checked in on how I was progressing.
In May, we flew to CCRM for the retrieval. It was a wild experience. I was taken care of by my husband,Joe, best friend, Jill Green, and the best nurses and doctors on the planet. Through this process, I was able to physically contribute to having my own baby. It was a miracle! I had pregnancy symptoms such as moodiness, swelling, gained weight (never thought I would be thankful for that), and bloating. Although these things sound awful, they meant something to me. They were an opportunity to partake in creating my biological baby. Over half of my life I had the understanding I would never be able to conceive. IVF made it possible for me to "conceive" in my own unique way.
So here we are. Joe and I did our physical part. We retrieved some very strong, healthy embryos and now we wait. Our GC (PJ) is flying out on June 22nd to begin her process of preparing her body to receive the embryo. We still have a long way to go, but we are so hopeful for the future.
Sharing our story before the actual "pregnancy" is announced is a risk. We are completely aware of that and are willing to take that risk. We have thought through every possibility of how our story could conclude. We are choosing to use whatever comes our way as a platform to encourage and equip families who find themselves in a similar circumstance. The purpose of Team Baby Hep is to be a resource to those who have a desire to educate themselves about infertility, and for those that want to stay up to date on our progress of having a family. We will share videos, blog posts, resources and more.
We invite you to join the team! On Team Baby Hep there are no players benched, everyone is suited up and ready to play their part in this process. Every player is needed to make this miracle happen.
Being labeled as "infertile" by a doctor's report can cause many women to experience shame, fear, and insecurity. Failed attempts with IVF, a loss of a child through miscarriage... all of these tragic scenarios can drive families to remain silent in their pain. I don’t blame them. It is a painful process and one I do not wish upon anyone.
According to the CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention), there have been 6.1 million women between the ages of 15-44 who use infertility services. This proves there are women who are silently suffering as they cope with the realities of infertility.
What if we can help these 6.1 million women?
What if we created a society where the word “infertility” wasn’t associated with fear and shame?
What if we supported and came alongside these women who are hurting and confused?
I never asked for this to be my story, no woman ever does. But here is what I know, God uses unconventional means to bring about His plan and His mission. The process of IVF, and having PJ as our gestational carrier, has allowed us to someday have a biological child of our own and for that we are forever grateful.
No matter what you are facing today, whether you are a woman in the midst of your infertility story, or maybe you are facing a tremendous obstacle that seems impossible to overcome, I leave you with this:
Ephesians 3:20 "God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us."
This journey hasn’t been easy, but I can see my perseverance being developed, my character being strengthened and my promise coming to pass. I am seeing God orchestrate everything in His perfect way and in His perfect timing.
Whether you have a relationship with God or not, He is at work within you. Your pain is turning into His promise. We are praying for YOU today and ask that you do the same for us.
Team Baby Hep
(written by Hollie Jo Hepler)
Have questions, need some resources, or encouragement? We would love to hear from you!
In addition, please share prayer requests or your personal story!
*Your privacy matters to us. Any and all information that is submitted will remain confidential.
Jill and Terry Green started a Go Fund Me page and invited friends and family to help surprise Joe and Hollie with financial support for their IVF/GC journey.