Monday, March 05, 2001

Born of a sister's love

Alaina always took care of her little sister Gina. When cancer made it impossible for Gina to have a baby, Alaina took her place.

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Alaina Bracher (right) was surrogate mother for her sister, Gina Vonderhaar.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        A spotlight heats up the crowded birthing room at Christ Hospital, and Alaina Bracher sees wisps of the baby's black hair in the mirror above her bed.

        “Push, two, three, four,” nurse Julie Studt counts. Thump-thump. The baby's heartbeat drums from a monitor. Alaina's knees are at her ears. Her sister, Gina Vonderhaar, holds her breath each time Alaina pushes. Gina's bottom lip trembles as Dr. Brian Miller wipes blood from the top of the baby's head.

        One more good push, and the head emerges. Then, the left shoulder, and at 1:55 a.m. Wednesday, a baby pours from Alaina's body. Dr. Miller places the infant on Alaina's belly. The baby's toes and fingers stretch, but arms and legs fold tightly against the body.

        A nurse cleans and weighs the baby. Nine pounds, 10 ounces. A healthy girl. Alaina cuddles her in the crook of her arm, nestling the baby's head to her neck.

  See 22 photos from the baby shower, preparations and the birth - including nine that did not appear in the print edition.
        “I can see how my back hurt, you big girl,” says Alaina, 32 of Mason. “You're very pretty. Yes, you are.” She rubs a finger over the baby's cheeks and across her tiny lips.

        “You want to go see your mama?” Alaina asks. She kisses the baby's forehead, lingers for a moment, then hands over the child she carried for more than nine months to Gina, her sister.

        And the baby's mother.

Big sister acts like little mom

        When Don and Carol Benbow brought Gina home from the hospital 26 years ago, Alaina wouldn't let anyone else hold her. She was the little mother, and she was going to take care of her baby sister.

        As they grew up, Alaina and Gina were sisters like so many others. They loved each other. And got on each other's nerves.

        Along with their middle sister, Donna, the three girls played the games of kids, Mother May I, Red Light-Green Light. They took orange plastic newspaper bags and made waterbeds for their Barbies. They staged roller skating shows in their Reading subdivision, charging neighbors 25 cents to watch.

        Gina was the baby of the family who clung to her mother's legs, the one who never got a spanking and liked to spy on Alaina kissing her boyfriend goodnight. Alaina was sometimes the bossy big sister, but she always shared her toys. She broke in their parents, testing their rules, experimenting with her independence, and once — only once — getting caught sneaking out of the house.

        By the fall of 1990, Alaina had moved out and married her high school sweatheart. She juggled two toddlers and nursing school. Gina still lived at home with her parents and grandmother and shared a bedroom with Donna. She was a junior at Reading High School who liked English class and worked part-time at a dry cleaners.

        Life was ordered, normal for Gina and Alaina on the September day doctors diagnosed their mother with pancreatic cancer. Gina had practiced volleyball and stopped at Frisch's for hot fudge cake on her way home. Alaina went to class and took care of her two young daughters.

        Normal shifted that day. It came to include black marks on their mother's stomach where doctors shot in the radiation and crawling into the hospital bed next to her frail body to watch Wheel of Fortune.

        Normal was replaced with the knowledge that life is a gift, not a promise, and that at any time they could lose someone they loved.

        Their mother, Carol, was the one the girls turned to when they had a problem. She earned a nursing degree at 37 while raising three daughters and still had energy to garden and to iron her husband's shirts. Carol was the talkative, bubbly parent.

        But she wouldn't talk about the cancer. “She wanted to be the one who beat it,” Gina said.

        During the seven months from diagnosis to the day their mother died, the two sisters didn't talk much about the cancer either. It was as if they silently agreed, “If we don't talk about it, it might not happen,” Gina said.

        Still, they both knew there was little hope for their mother. Alaina looked up pancreatic cancer in one of her medical books and saw there was almost no chance of survival.

        Gina sensed her mother was dying by Valentine's Day, 1991, when a last-ditch surgery failed to remove the tumor and left her mother frail and weak.

        Five days before Gina turned 17, Carol died. She was 42.

        The family splintered after Carol's death. They didn't know how to handle their grief together so they mourned apart. Their father buried himself in work. Donna was in college and stayed away from the house.

        Alaina lived in Mount Healthy with her husband and children, slogging through the rest of nursing school. Gina still lived at home with her father, maternal grandmother and Donna. She took over the laundry and some of the cooking, but her mother's death left gaps she could never fill.

        Alaina and Gina stayed in touch but their visits grew farther apart. Their mother wasn't there to gather the family for after-church dinners. They drifted in and out of each other's lives, and the bond of sisterhood languished.

        It would take another cancer diagnosis to bring them close again.

Gina's cancer tragedy draws sisters closer

        Three years after her mother's death, Gina married Don Vonderhaar, also a Reading High School grad, and the couple settled about a mile from Gina's childhood home.

        They weren't even officially trying when Gina took a pregnancy test in November 1995, and a pink line appeared. They were thrilled. They both wanted two or three children, and the timing of the pregnancy was perfect.

        Both her sisters were pregnant, and the three spent hours talking about how they would have children the same age, how the cousins would grow up together, be friends and share secrets.

        Twenty-four weeks through her pregnancy, Gina found spots of blood on her underwear. The doctor discovered a grape-sized polyp on her cervix and clipped it off. It didn't look suspicious, and Gina went home without worrying.

        Three days later, the receptionist called. The doctor wanted to see Gina immediately. And, she said, “Don't come alone.”

        Gina knew. Before even hearing the diagnosis, Gina had a feeling she had cancer. Just like her mother.

        The doctor wasn't sure whether the cervical cancer would spread, and they couldn't do exploratory surgery without risking the baby.

        That was the night Alaina and Gina remembered the lessons from their mother's death, to love each other the best they could right now, because there's no promise of tomorrow.

        “It was just devastating,” said Alaina. “I thought, this can't be happening to another family member.”

        Gina wept on the couch. She talked about how this would be the only child she could ever have.

        Alaina reached over to Gina and said, “I'll carry one for you.”

        Alaina didn't know anything about surrogacy. She didn't know what it would cost or if it was even possible. She didn't know if Gina would keep her ovaries and be able to produce eggs. Alaina didn't even know if her sister would survive the cancer.

        All she knew that evening was that Gina was her baby sister and she would do anything to help her.

        Waiting eight weeks for the baby to develop, Don and Gina prayed in the nursery every night. Kneeling before the baby's changing table, they dipped their fingers in holy water and made the sign of the cross. Then Don marked the cross on Gina's pregnant belly.

        Don and Gina arrived at the hospital before dawn on June 26, 1996, eight weeks before their baby's original due date. In the waiting room were Alaina, Donna and the rest of their family. No one talked. They were worried about the health of the baby and afraid of losing Gina to cancer.

        At 8:14 a.m., a doctor held up Don and Gina's baby. She was 4 pounds, 8 ounces and healthy for a premie. She was a fighter, the doctor said, and was going to be just fine. They named her Allison Carol, after Gina's mother.

        In the operating room, Don kissed Gina goodbye.

        “I told her I love her. That we had a beautiful little girl, and everything was OK,” Don said.

        A nurse taped a Polaroid of Allison to the curtain. Under medication, Gina drifted into unconsiousness, and doctors removed her uterus and cervix.

        That night Gina struggled into a wheelchair and rolled down to the hospital nursery. She scrubbed in and put her hand on Allison's back. She felt the rise and fall of her daughter's breathing. Her baby was safe. Gina fell asleep with her hand on the soft, warm back of her newborn child.

Alaina wants to help little sister again

        By the time Allison was nearly 2-years-old, Gina felt she could plan again for the future. There was no sign of cancer. And more than anything, she wanted Allison to grow up with a brother or sister like she had.

        Alaina renewed her offer to carry a baby for Gina, but the couple decided to try to adopt. They didn't anticipate more heartbreak.

        In November, 1999, an adoption fell through. By January, the agency had given them a baby boy. Don and Gina named him Andrew. Three days later, they had to return the baby because of legal complications at the agency.

        After the two failed attempts, neither Gina nor Don had the heart to try for another adoption. For the first time, they seriously considered Alaina's offer.

        Alaina talked with her husband, Kevin.

        “Are you nuts?” he asked.

        Kevin remembered their own three pregnancies, the mood swings, the fatigue, the morning sickness. He didn't like the idea of Alaina carrying another baby, even for her own sister.

        But he told Alaina he would support whatever decision she made. He recognized something.

        “Her mom was the same way,” Kevin said. “She would do anything for anybody. Alaina's a lot like her mom.”

        The sisters called Dr. Michael Thomas, a reproductive specialist at the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Thomas screens surrogacy requests, approving some, rejecting others.

        More than the willingness, Dr. Thomas said, a surrogate mother has to be someone “who truly cares about the couple, who is blind for the love of the couple.”

        Many early surrogacies around the country became media targets because women were paid high sums to carry babies or because the surrogate mothers decided to keep the babies. In Cincinnati, a handful of surrogacies occur each year. Dr. Thomas only accepts women who are relatives or close friends, acting out of love.

        After meeting Gina and Alaina, Dr. Thomas said they met his standard; the bond between them was inseparable.

        “I feel if my mom were still alive, she'd be offering to carry this baby,” Alaina said. “She's supporting me. I think she's happy with what I'm doing.”

        Alaina carried the baby, but Gina and Don are the biological parents. A doctor used Don's sperm to fertilize harvested eggs from Gina. Three embryos were implanted in Alaina's uterus in June. One survived.

        In a procedure that is usually only 40-50 percent effective, it worked the first time.

        During the pregnancy, Gina gained a bit of “sympathy weight” and gave up alcohol. “I thought it was only fair,” Gina said. “If she had to do it, so would I.” The sisters shared the details of pregnancy, talking almost every day. Gina came to the doctor's visits, even when she felt like second fiddle.

        Don and Gina paid all Alaina's pregnancy expenses, from medical bills to maternity clothes. Gina cooked dinner for Alaina's family, and sometimes cleaned the house or watched the kids.

        Still, Gina said, “There's no amount of gifts I could ever give her. I never could repay her. I'll never be able to do enough.”

        Alaina's reply: “You don't have to give me anything.”

Gina carries guilt; Alaina carries a baby

               In late December, 10 weeks before the baby is due, the weather has turned bitter cold, and Alaina's running late.

        Gina already is in the doctor's waiting room as Alaina pulls up in a maroon Ford Expedition. Alaina slides one leg out, swivels her hips and stomach around and lowers herself to the ground. She walks slowly and deliberately into the doctor's office.

        In a closet-sized ultrasound room, Alaina slides her pants down over her belly. It's twice the size of a basketball. Light purple stretch marks wiggle down the front of her abdomen.

        A technician squirts clear gel on Alaina's stomach and moves the wand around.

        Gina stands beside the exam bed, watching her baby cross its legs at the ankles and blood pump in and out of the heart valves. The baby is big. Alaina is not surprised.

        Dr. Miller recommends a Caesarean if the baby is 10 pounds. Alaina hopes for a vaginal birth, like her first three pregnancies. Everything else looks good, Dr. Miller says. The baby seems healthy.

        The sisters make their next appointment together.

        Gina hands Alaina the wrong purse and fusses over her coat.

        “I'm sorry she's so big,” Gina says. “I just can't believe it ... If you have to have a C-section, will you be mad?”

        Throughout the pregnancy, Gina battles guilt. She feels guilty when Alaina has morning sickness. She feels bad when Alaina's back hurts and when Alaina has to use the bathroom every 30 minutes.

        As much as she knows her sister's act of love has no strings attached, Gina cannot stop the worry and the guilt.

        Eight weeks later, doctors attempt to induce labor because the baby is so big. For 11 hours, Alaina and Gina wait out the contractions at Christ Hospital.

        “Pinch me,” Gina asks, when a nurse tries to get the IV in Alaina's arm, “so I can feel the pain, too.”

Sister's gift of love has a name: Kamryn

               Alaina and Gina arrive at Christ Hospital at 8 a.m. Tuesday. It's two days after the official due date — and two weeks after the first induction failed because Alaina's cervix didn't dilate enough.

        Alaina says she's not going home pregnant this time. She's ready to have this baby and plans to be drinking a margarita by Saturday.

        It's a long day. Alaina's body is reacting slowly to the medicineto induce labor. She's frustrated and tired.

        “I'm sorry you have to wait so long for your baby,” she whispers to Gina. She's rolled on her side, a pillow propped against her back, wires running from her arm and stomach to IV bags and monitors.

        “I don't care about the wait,” Gina says. “I just feel bad for you.”

        Gina stands by the bed, the tips of her fingers turn red when Alaina squeezes her hand to get through another contraction.

        Family members filter in. Alaina's husband, Kevin, and their two older daughters, Amanda and Megan. Gina's husband, Don, and later, his parents. Alaina and Gina's dad. They try to get comfortable in hospital chairs, and play cards or read to pass the time.

        By 9 p.m., Gina takes a pencil and pad of paper and collects guesses for the baby's weight and length, time of birth and hair or no hair. Don will pay $10 to the winner.

        The earliest guess of 11:23 — by Alaina — comes and goes.

        Alaina lays uncomfortable in the bed. The blue striped hospital gown is a circus tent over her stomach. Gina, in jeans and a sweater, watches the monitors and stifles a yawn.

        At 12:55 a.m., the nurse tells Alaina it is time to push. Gina holds one leg, and Alaina's husband, Kevin, holds the other. The nurse counts: “Push, two, three, four.”

        The top of the baby's head appears, and Gina starts to cry. The door she thought closed forever — having another biological child — is about to open.

        At 1:55 a.m. Dr. Miller cups a hand under the baby's head and guides Kamryn Grace Alaina Vonderhaar out of the birth canal and up onto Alaina's belly.

        Everyone in the room starts crying, but Gina's sobs are the loudest, rising from deep within. Don wraps his arm around her trembling body, wiping away his own tears.

        Dr. Miller puts an off-white clamp on the baby's umbilical cord and nods to Don. Standing next to the bed, with Kamryn still covered in blood and fluid, he reaches out with surgical scissors and cuts the cord.

        Around the room, exhausted family members weep and hug each other. Their shoulders slump in relief. Swept up in the moment, they talk and cry and laugh. All at once.

        Still sobbing but also smiling, Gina gently slides her hand along the baby's side. Then she leans across the bed and kisses Alaina.


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