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Surrogate sisters: Mother’s Day gives Erika Ellis a chance to celebrate two siblings who helped her create a family

UPDATED: Sun., May 10, 2020

Erika Ellis will celebrate Mother’s Day this year with four children at home. And, while celebrating motherhood, she’ll also honor sisterhood.

Because for Ellis, a Spokane pediatric physical therapist, her sisters played a big role in creating the family she has now. They supported her as she experienced miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy and the loss of her twins, born at 22 weeks gestation. They helped care for her older two – 3 1/2-year-old Kai and 2 1/2-year-old Evie, both adopted from foster care – as she was on bed rest or being rushed to an emergency room for pregnancy-related bleeding. And two of them helped her by doing the thing her body couldn’t: carrying a baby to term.

First, Krista Cumberland, of Spokane, gave birth to Arlo on Aug. 13. And on Feb. 29 – leap day – Andrea Ortiz, of Whittier, California, delivered Ada.

“I’m so excited to tell all of my kids how all of them got here,” Ellis said. “None of them came from my belly – that’s a cool connection they’ll all have.”

Fostering connections

Ellis and her sisters grew up in Shoreline, north of Seattle. She moved to Spokane to attend Whitworth University, where she met Scott Ellis when he was a TA for one of her classes. The two married in 2010.

For the first few years of their married life, they took advantage of not having kids, said Scott Ellis, 38, who works in digital advertising for Strategy Labs. They traveled internationally and had lots of adventures. The decision to start a family was a gradual one, but as they became more intentional about trying to have children, it wasn’t “as easy or automatic as we thought it would be,” he said.

The Ellises have friends who’ve fostered children, which inspired them to look into becoming foster parents themselves. Then they learned that one of Erika Ellis’ patients would need a home.

Kai has a heart defect, tricuspid atresia and spent his first eight months at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. Ellis had known him since birth, first working with him at the hospital, then as an outpatient. His defect means the right side of his heart doesn’t function, and his blood oxygen levels are low. Two or three decades ago, a child born with the same defect would have died after a week, Ellis said. Now there’s a series of three surgeries on the major vessels around the heart that will improve blood oxygen levels.

It was after Kai’s second surgery that Ellis learned he would be placed in foster care. His mother was a teenager with no support system, and the caseworkers decided it wasn’t safe to release him into her care. Ellis is sympathetic.

“It’s really stressful having a medically fragile kid,” she said. “It’s hard.”

She had already lost a few pregnancies, and she and her husband put a lot of thought into what it would mean to bring home a child with medical issues like Kai’s. They went to Europe, where they walked the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route in northern Spain, and hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps.

“We just did a lot of hiking and processed taking Kai and what that would mean,” she said.

In July 2017, Kai came home. Several weeks later, Evie arrived with much less discussion.

Ellis was taking a nap after work when she got the call. There was a 10-day-old baby in the NICU needing placement. Could they take her?

Ellis said her response was an immediate yes. She called Cumberland to take care of Kai and left for the hospital.

Evie was born with syphilis and had been exposed to drugs in utero, Ellis said. While some babies going through withdrawals are jittery, scream and can’t be consoled, Evie’s withdrawals were passive. She mostly slept for her first six months, Ellis said. “We had to do everything possible to get food in her because she just wouldn’t eat.”

Some of the therapists working with Evie worried she would have severe cognitive delays “because she just was not awake to the world,” Ellis said.

“She was such a dream baby, she was so easy, which, I mean, is sad because it was probably because she was so delayed.”

Graham and Violet

In late October 2017, Ellis learned she was pregnant, this time with twins. But there were complications.

“I was bleeding a ton, so much, so I’d go into the ER because of blood loss, but the babies were always fine,” Ellis said. The doctors couldn’t explain why she was bleeding so much and thought it might eventually stop. She’d get sent home only to end up back at the ER.

Ellis was put on bed rest at the end of December 2017 while Kai and Evie were both still in foster care.

“I wasn’t supposed to pick them up and hold them throughout the remainder of the pregnancy,” she said.

Ellis says her sisters and others stepped up to help.

“We had so much support from my family and friends,” she said. Cumberland was at the house regularly. And her oldest sister, who lives in Texas, flew up multiple times to help.

At 22 weeks, Ellis went into labor. Graham and Violet were born on March 18, 2018, too early to live outside the womb.

“It was excruciating and horrific and hard, and I think the shock was really impossible to navigate,” Ellis said. “But when it actually happened, Scott and I always remark on how peaceful the room was and the care we got in the hospital. That’s what brings me to tears sometimes.”

“We held them throughout the day and it was good and hard, and we took some pictures with our phones,” she said. Later that day, someone from the hospital’s Forget-Me-Not program bathed and dressed the babies and brought them back to Ellis’ room. She called in a professional photographer and helped make hand and footprints, which now hang on the wall in the family’s home.

“Scott and I firmly live by the fact that Graham and Violet made us better, we’re better people, we love people better, we’re better at being with other people when they’re grieving. I’m not afraid of grief.”

Graham and Violet also are the reason the Ellises pursued surrogacy.

“We got to hold our babies after I birthed them, and it just opened up this door,” she said.

“I couldn’t end it with them being gone because they were so important. I just needed to keep moving forward and finding another way.”

‘We’re doers’

A couple of weeks later, Ortiz traveled from California to be with Ellis.

Ortiz remembers telling Ellis she wanted to do something to help but wasn’t sure what.

When Ellis mentioned surrogacy, Ortiz said she immediately thought, “I would love to do that for them.” But Ortiz was already in her mid-40s, so she figured she was too old to be a gestational carrier.

Cumberland, who was 41 at the time, had similar thoughts.

“Our family, we’re doers,” Ellis said. “Now that I look back, it’s like, ‘Oh, of course, this was always going to happen.’ ”

But, it took Ellis a while to get there. For starters, pregnancy had been a horrible experience for her, and she didn’t want to put anyone she loved through that.

“She had said that she wanted it to be like a business transaction. She didn’t want to involve people that she knew because she didn’t want anyone to be hurt if something went wrong,” Cumberland said.

Ellis and her husband started working with an agency and used a fertility clinic in Salt Lake City to create embryos using her eggs and his sperm. They were matched with a potential carrier, but almost right away, things went wrong. The carrier, who they were told had been medically cleared, didn’t pass the health screenings. It happened a second time, and the Ellises lost faith in the agency.

Next, a friend offered to be a carrier. Hearing that, Cumberland felt disappointed – she wanted to do it. She talked to her husband, Matt, and he agreed. Still, she was hesitant, worried about her age, about not being physically fit enough, “not wanting to be a bad house for that embryo.”

While the families were on an Oregon coast vacation together that summer, Cumberland told Ellis and her husband she’d be willing to be a carrier for them.

“Living through so much of their loss with them, I just felt so connected to the whole process, and I just wanted to see it through to completion,” Cumberland said. “They were both right on board – they wanted me to go in that day.”

‘A huge gift’

While they were all still in Oregon, Cumberland put in a call to her doctor to start the process of getting her body ready to be a carrier. From there, it went like clockwork.

“All of my numbers were always the top of the range, it was really remarkable,” Cumberland said. On Nov. 29, 2018, Cumberland, Ellis and Ortiz were at the Salt Lake City clinic for the embryo transfer – and it was successful.

“It was just so smooth, and it was so fun going through it with her and watching her get bigger,” Ellis said.

But, in having her sister be the carrier, the Ellises lost the ability to feel like they could do something in return. “She wasn’t going to accept money, she wasn’t going to let us do anything,” Ellis said.

“She just kept saying in response, ‘You guys are doing something for me, this is a huge gift for me,’ ” Ellis said. “That’s something that we’ll just never understand. Because, to this day, I don’t understand how this is a gift to her. I trusted her, but she gave up so much to do this for us.”

A visit to a midwife helped. She made their situation feel amazing, Ellis said, telling her, “If your uterus can’t do the job, your sister’s uterus is probably the closest thing to yours.”

There was something in that that clicked for Ellis: How could she have ever considered doing this with anyone else? “Of course I want my babies to be growing somewhere that’s as close to me as they can. And my sisters and I are so close,” she said. “My sisters, we’re all part of each other.”

Growing bonds

“With Erika and the sisters, they are the closest family I’ve ever met,” Scott Ellis said. It’s always impressed him, he said, how no matter what was happening, they were all in it together.

“This was both above and beyond, but also, this is what they do,” he said. “This is them, this is who they are.”

Cumberland, a math enrichment specialist at Spokane Public Montessori, has two daughters, 9 and 11. “I loved being pregnant, and I loved that experience,” she said. Carrying her sister’s baby did feel different, but not too different, and she was very careful to make it known that the child she was carrying was not her own.

“I would quickly come out and say, ‘It’s not my baby, it’s my sister’s baby, I’m carrying this baby for my sister,’ ” she said. Cumberland feels like that helped create a separation for her, though she’d always have a bond with the baby.

“I think knowing the connection that I had with her other kids … I knew that I would be close to him and that I would be able to watch him grow up, and it wasn’t going to be this handoff and I would never see him again,” she said.

“It was so surreal,” Erika Ellis said. “It’s weird. It’s really a strange experience to have your child growing in someone else, and it’s weird for the other person, too.”

As the baby grew, the Ellises felt the need for more connection. At 25 weeks, they contacted the fertility clinic to find out whether the baby was a boy or a girl. Everyone had been so sure the baby was a girl – but they’d been wrong. The Ellises kept their secret for a few weeks – “we relished in knowing it was a boy; it was so special to us” – before surprising the rest of the family with a gender reveal at dinner one night.

In the meantime, Ortiz also had offered to carry a baby. When the three sisters were in Salt Lake for Cumberland’s embryo transfer, she went through her medical screening and started the process of getting her body ready.

Ortiz had her first embryo transfer in early spring. When it wasn’t successful, she went back in June. That time, it worked.

Smiling through tears

When Arlo arrived Aug. 13 via cesarean section, Ellis was able to be in the delivery room with her sister for the birth.

“I was torn between being so excited to see him and being horrified to see my sister get a c-section because it’s brutal,” Ellis said.

Getting to watch Ellis’ reactions was fun for Cumberland. “It was fun-slash-funny because she was very animated with her oohs and ahhs and shrieks,” Cumberland said.

He came out and, “I was crying because I was so happy to see him, but I was also crying because because I felt bad” and worried about her sister, Ellis said.

‘Choosing to be joyful’

With Ortiz, things were different, yet the same, Ellis said. Because Ortiz lives in California, Ellis wanted to share as many details as possible throughout the pregnancy to help build the connection. So, they all knew from the beginning that this baby would be a girl named Ada.

Ortiz, a hairstylist who has four children ages 12 to 21, thought being 46 would make this pregnancy more difficult. But, “Physically it didn’t feel different,” she said.

“Maybe because I was really prepared for it being really hard, it really was such an easy pregnancy. It really wasn’t hard at all,” she said. Plus, “I was volunteering to do it,” so she was “choosing to have a good attitude about it, choosing to be joyful” rather than thinking pregnancy discomforts.

Ortiz traveled to Spokane a few times during the pregnancy, then arrived on Feb. 12 to await Ada’s arrival. She was induced on Feb. 28, but it took a while for labor to progress.

“What was really crazy with Ada is the OB that delivered my twins delivered Ada,” Ellis said. “At first I was so freaked out about that,” but she ended up feeling like it brought their story full circle.

“It was just a really beautiful delivery for Ada,” she said.

Chaos and sibling love

With four kids younger than age 4 at home, life can be chaotic, but Ellis said she and her husband breathed a sigh of relief after Ada’s arrival.

“We did this, we don’t ever have to go through pregnancy again, the horrors of the fertility world are behind us,” she said.

The Ellises adopted Kai and Evie a couple of weeks after Arlo was born. After development delays in their first years, both are doing well. Kai will likely have his third heart surgery this summer. And Evie is a typical toddler, though more impulsive than average. She no longer needs any therapy and is physically caught up – only time will tell if she has attention span or behavioral issues, Ellis said.

“It’s really remarkable, she kind of leads the way for Kai in a lot of things,” Ellis said. “I don’t think he’d be doing as well if she wasn’t here to distract him and play hard with him.”

But for Ellis, who’s so close with her own sisters, watching the siblings together is a blessing.

“The coolest thing is seeing Arlo and Ada connect with Kai and Evie,” Ellis said.

“I hear Arlo cracking up at Kai all the time, hours of the night when they should be sleeping,” she said. And for Ada, tummy time lasts much longer when the older ones are around to entertain her.

“I really, really love that. I love that we have siblings for Kai and Evie.”

And, Ellis is thankful for the people who helped get them here, including Kai’s and Evie’s biological mothers, who did their own mothering in giving them up for adoption, and especially her sisters.

“Both of them, I was so amazed at their strength and what their bodies could do,” Ellis said.

“There’s something about sisters that’s really unique and beautiful. I didn’t see that making the decisions going into surrogacy, but this whole journey has totally brought that out,” Ellis said. “There’s no way I’d choose anybody other than my sisters to do this – it’s been so incredible.”

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