There’s an air of joyful excitement at Delores Lisle’s house. In the cozy, comfortable living room of her ranch-style home, the coffee table is scattered with pacifiers and burp-cloths. A baby blanket is draped over the back of a chair. In the adjoining kitchen, spread across the countertop is an assortment of baby bottles and cans of baby formula.
The reason for this happy disarray, Delores’s four-day-old granddaughter Lily Lisle, lies swaddled up in her father Matt’s arms. “We’re trying out different formulas on her,” Matt explains, gesturing at the bottles. “We want to see what she likes best.” He and his wife, Sarah Helwick Lisle, have a brief conversation about the next type they’ll feed her. They settle on a brand and get to work, Delores preparing the bottle, then Matt feeding tiny Lily.
“Oh wow, she really likes this one,” he remarks happily. Sarah, Delores, and Matt’s sister, Lisa, look on approvingly.
Raising and loving Lily is, no doubt, a family affair.
But the story of how Lily came to be here is a truly special one, even beyond the extraordinary miracle of every newborn. It, too, was a family affair.
It began when Sarah and Matt first met at Fayette County High School in the mid-1990s. Although they weren’t very close at the time, they had mutual friends and were casual acquaintances. After graduating from FCHS (Matt in ’96 and Sarah in ’97), they both attended the University of Georgia in Athens; Matt was earning a B.S.Ed. in Business Education, while Sarah was pursuing a degree in art education. This time, their acquaintance led to a friendship, and then they became more than friends.
In 2004, at the age of 25, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgeries to remove the lump and lymph nodes, then went through chemotherapy, a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and hormone-blocking therapy. Sarah chronicled some of her experience on her personal blog, writing with honesty and humor about the effects of chemo, her collection of hats, and the surreal experience of reconstructive surgery. Finally, after months of extensive and exhausting treatments, Sarah’s doctors gave her a clean bill of health.
After grad school—first Matt at UGA for instructional design, then Sarah at the University of Oregon for historic preservation—the couple married in 2006. After Sarah’s graduation, they moved to Austin, Texas, “just to experience it,” Sarah explains. Over the next few years, Matt and Sarah, who are themselves artistic and creative, immersed themselves in work and life, enjoying Austin’s eclectic and vibrant culture. They began to think of starting a family.
However, in October of 2009, shortly after she’d made it to her five-years-cancer-free anniversary, Sarah received heartbreaking news: a lump on top of her breast, which she initially thought to be part of the implant, was cancerous. She would have to endure the same surgeries, chemo, radiation therapy—all over again.
This time, however, Sarah’s doctor was deeply concerned that estrogen was part of the problem, and recommended that Sarah’s ovaries be removed over the course of the cancer treatment. And despite the deeply disappointing news that this meant Sarah wouldn’t be able to give birth to children, her doctor also made a suggestion that gave the couple a little hope for a biological child someday. Sarah, the doctor explained, was a good candidate for in-vitro fertilization (IVF); with her harvested eggs, the couple could create and freeze embryos for a future surrogate mother to carry. Although nothing about the plan was foolproof, Matt and Sarah decided to try anyway, just to have explored the option.
“The IVF process wasn’t bad at all,” Sarah wrote in a blog post (jokingly titled “Kids on ice – oh so nice!”) in late December of 2009. “I’m not sure if it’s because what I’ve already been through or if it was just easy for me. Those stories of massive bloating, uncontrollable mood swings and painful injections were mere legends to me.”
In spite of the chemo she’d undergone five years earlier, Sarah still had productive ovaries, and was able to have some eggs harvested; she and Matt were able to create five embryos and have them frozen. Then Sarah moved on to her next round of chemotherapy in early 2010.
“We did the IVF and then we didn’t really think much about it after that,” Sarah recalls. “I just had so much other stuff to worry about.”
But for Matt’s sister, Lisa Lisle Cover, the couple’s decision to create the embryos was extremely meaningful.
Lisa, the communications coordinator for Peachtree City’s Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, had had a dream one night back in 2009, well before Sarah’s recurrence of cancer. “I dreamed that I was pregnant with their baby,” she recalls. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, since it [Sarah’s cancer] hadn’t come back yet. I just told my mom about it.”
However, Lisa’s dream was so vivid, so powerfully real, that she woke from it with a conviction: “From that point on,” she says, “I knew that I would have their baby for them if I needed to.”
So while Sarah was undergoing cancer treatments once again—chemo and radiation—Lisa was thinking through the relevance of her dream. She began to discuss privately with her husband, Steve, about making it a reality. Although both of them knew it would be complicated and at times difficult, Lisa was determined to do what she could do to help Matt and Sarah become parents, and Steve supported her decision. “Steve was completely awesome from day one,” says Lisa. “He knew it was something I wanted to do for them.”
Lisa’s only real concern was how her surrogate pregnancy would affect her children, ten-year-old Davis and six-year-old Anna. “My kids are my universe,” she says emphatically. “For the last ten years, all of mine and my husband’s decisions were wrapped around them.” But as they carefully presented their decision to their kids, Lisa and Steve took the moment as an opportunity to teach a powerful lesson about love and family, explaining to Davis and Anna “that this is what families do for each other, when one hurts they all hurt and when you can help you do it,” Lisa says. “The kids were great with it.”
Once Lisa and Steve had decided that they were serious about offering to carry the baby, they presented their offer to Matt and Sarah. The couple was astonished and grateful. “I cannot express how Lisa’s unconditional love and selflessness have influenced me. I am in awe of her grace every single day. It’s a struggle to say just how much we appreciate her gift,” Sarah says.
Then on May 22, 2010, around the time when Sarah was finishing up with chemo and Lisa had started to move forward with preparations for carrying the baby, the unthinkable happened. Sarah was participating in a fashion show fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Texas, in which the runway models, who are breast cancer survivors, strutted the runway wearing bras created by artists. With her artistic talents and background (she’d once considered pursuing an MFA in book design), Sarah designed a bra that was both beautiful and meaningful: she’d crafted it from the get-well cards friends and family had sent her after the cancer returned. That evening, “I was having a great time chatting with friends, getting prettied and practicing my walk,” she recalls. “I felt as normal as I could with having chemo the day before.”
But as Sarah took her turn walking down the runway, something went wrong. Michael Barnes, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, witnessed what happened to her and recounted it weeks later in his column: “Early in the show, one of the models, still young, absent hair, stepped out to cheers. Not far down the runway, she turned, as if to exhibit her elaborate apparel. She kept turning. And turning. Then collapsed. The museum went silent. A dozen people surrounded the fallen model. Everyone else gaped in bewilderment.”
Sarah had collapsed on the runway in sudden cardiac arrest. Matt rushed onstage, as well as all of Sarah’s doctors, who were fortunately in attendance at the show. They were able to resuscitate her and get her to the hospital in critical but stable condition. Sarah stayed in the ICU for a couple of days, and to this day has no memory of what happened to her. She’s lucky to be alive, no doubt; the odds of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest of that severity are rare.
“No one is really sure why this happened,” she explains. “My heart is normal by all accounts. It just seems that there is something wrong with the electrical system that was perhaps set off by a bunch of factors that were going on that evening. But we will never know for sure why this happened, which is extremely frustrating.” Sarah’s doctors put in an internal cardiac defibrillator. “If my heart starts misbehaving, it will get a little shock to get to back to normal.”
By the time she left the hospital in late May, Sarah was not only a two-time breast cancer survivor; she had also, against all odds, survived sudden cardiac arrest. Now, she and Matt were going to try their luck again with Lisa’s surrogate pregnancy.
However, even once everyone was on board, the family still faced a series of hurdles and trials. First came the tests. Lisa and Steve had to meet with a psychologist, who discussed the consequences of the surrogacy with them—physical, emotional, psychological. Lisa also had to undergo medical tests to ensure that her body was healthy and strong enough to do well with the pregnancy. By the summer of 2010, the testing phase successfully completed, Lisa and Sarah began to move forward with the surrogate pregnancy.
There were a million things that could’ve gone wrong. First of all, the family had only one shot at it, and the odds had become even smaller; of the five embryos that had been created, only three survived the freezing process. On the day of the implantation in July, the doctor assisting the family explained that before the embryos were implanted, they needed to divide into at least eight cells each. Of the three surviving embryos, two weren’t dividing much and did not look promising. The third was dividing, but slowly; it seemed to be stalled at seven cells. The family waited, then decided to move forward with the implantation anyway; it was their only chance.
Then, moments before the procedure, the lab tech excitedly gave the news that the third embryo had divided once more. “We have eight cells!” she exclaimed. The family cheered, but kept their hopes in check. With only one promising embryo, the odds that the implantation would be a success were pretty slim. Even so, “I looked at it that if it was meant to be it would happen, and hoped and prayed for the rest to fall into place,” says Lisa.
After Lisa received the embryos, the road ahead was a long one, full of waiting and cautious optimism. “It’s different from a regular pregnancy,” Lisa explains. “Every day you’re taking blood tests, not sure whether you’re still pregnant. It’s like you’re sort of pregnant.”
As the days passed without incident, though, the family’s hopes strengthened. “Sort of pregnant” became “definitely pregnant,” with Lisa enduring the morning sickness and nausea typical of the first trimester. “We used to joke that Matt and Sarah were giving me a hard time,” she laughs. Steve videotaped the baby’s first ultrasound, which they passed along to the couple, who had the honor of proudly sharing it with family and friends. “The baby is the first grandchild on my mom’s side,” Sarah explains, “so it’s a really big deal for them too.”
Back in Austin,Sarah and Matt were getting mentally and emotionally prepared for the arrival of their new little one. They were visiting websites like babycenter.com and imagining the week-to-week growth of the baby—each weekly milestone, such as the point when the baby’s eyelashes formed, or when she opened and closed her hands, captivated their imaginations.
By the second trimester, the pregnancy seemed a little more secure and stable. Despite the distance between the families, Lisa and Steve were very vigilant about keeping Matt and Sarah involved in the baby’s growth and development, emailing the baby’s ultrasound images and keeping in frequent contact. In early December, Matt and Sarah came back to Georgia for the baby’s ultrasound so they could see the profile of the baby and find out the sex—a girl.
And they already had a name for her: Lily D.
Long before the recurrence of cancer, Sarah and Matt used to envision their lives as parents. Someday, they decided, they would have a baby girl, and they would name her Lillian, after Sarah’s mom, and Delores, after Matt’s mom. “We used to refer to our someday-baby as ‘Lily D’ all the time,” Sarah explains. Now, wanting to recognize Lisa’s gift, they decided (with Delores’s blessing) to give the baby Lisa’s middle name, DeAnne.
The remaining months of the pregnancy went smoothly, with excitement building up for the April due date. Matt and Sarah attended a comfort class so they could act as doulas for Lisa. For her part, Lisa was looking forward to the day when she could see her new niece in the arms of her brother and sister-in-law. “People would ask me about how I felt about giving my baby away,” she recalls. “But it was never mine to ‘give away.’ I never felt that way. Throughout the pregnancy, I always thought of the baby as her aunt. My role in her life would be to spoil her and go home.”
On April 8th, 2011, with Sarah, Matt, and Steve present, Lisa gave birth. Lily D. made her appearance at 1:02 p.m., weighing a healthy 9 lbs. With Lisa’s help, Sarah and Matt welcomed their new little daughter into the world.
For Lisa, life quickly returned to normal—that crazy day-to-day schedule that most moms have, balancing family, work, and a million other responsibilities. But she looks back on the past year as an amazing experience, both for herself and for the entire family. “It brought all of us closer together and we became a team, a true team.”
For Sarah and Matt, though, life will never be the same. In a good way, of course. Four days after Lily’s birth, they were already getting used to the sleep deprivation of infant nighttime feedings, the new world of diaper changes and daytime naps, baby burps and coos.
“It’s awesome,” says Matt, holding his sleeping, well-fed little girl in his arms. “I’ve always wanted to be a dad.”
And for Sarah, having Lily has given her a different perspective on her journey. “Even though cancer is something no one wishes for, so many wonderful blessings have come out of it for me and my family,” she remarks. “Never underestimate the power of family.”
Lisa nods in agreement. “It’s hard to explain to others not in this spot, but when you see two people who love each other so much and you can help give a gift like this, it’s an honor to turn her over to her loving parents.”
“It brought us closer together, like true sisters,” Sarah says.
“Yes,” Lisa responds. “We call it an ‘honorary sisterhood.’”
The two women exchange glances and smile.
Nearby, Lily sleeps contentedly in her father’s arms, oblivious to the world and all its miracles and blessings.
But someday, she’ll know.