Hollie Hepler is now 31 but vividly remembers the day, at age 16, she was told she would never be able to carry a child or give birth.
"I was sitting in the room with my mom and a nurse came in, and she was shaking and said, 'Honey, I'm so sorry,'" recalled Hepler, who was diagnosed with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a disorder that causes the vagina and uterus to be underdeveloped or absent.
In Hepler's case, though she was born without a uterus, she was told by doctors she was otherwise fine medically, including having fully-functioning ovaries.
"The diagnosis spiraled me into a decade, probably, of fear and insecurity and just having to let go and have faith," she said. "I wasn't even thinking about being a mom at that time, but I always knew I wanted children."
When Hepler met her husband, Joe, in her 20s, she told him early on in their relationship about her inability to carry a child.
View this post on Instagram
When I was 16 years old I was diagnosed with a syndrome that would not allow me to carry my own baby. The news was devastating to say the least. Over the past 14 years I have walked through seasons of bitterness, anger, frustration and deep sorrow. Looking back at it now I can truthfully share that God had been shaping and molding my integrity, developing within me an endurance to stand firm in my faith and teaching me a trust that would be the bedrock of my faith. He never promised me that the journey would be easy (and trust me it has not been easy) but He did promise me that He would never leave me nor forsake me. And with that promise I knew it would all be okay somehow...someway. ▪️ So where am I today? I am standing in a miracle and an answered prayer. We started the process of IVF w/ a Gestational Carrier in January and on Friday, myself, my SIL (gestational carrier) and my husband will be having our TRANSFER (the implantation of an embryo). We are full of faith, walking in authentic joy, and holding onto hope that no matter what God is with us! Thank you for your love, support, generosity, your faith and your prayers. There have been hundreds of people who have come along side us in very practical ways to ensure that we got to this point of the process. We are forever grateful for you and so excited to share this journey with you! Continue to pray that this Friday everything goes well and BABY HEP will begin to grow! ▪️ Shoutout to all my IVF mommas out there. If you have ever done IVF, in the midst of it now or are planning on going through it in a near season...I honor you, I applaud you, and I am proud of you. Thank you for being brave, courageous and willing to endure for your baby! You are the real heroes of this world! ▪️ TEAM BABY HEP...LETS DO THIS!!!!!!!!!👶🏼 *we will keep you all posted weeks after the transfer. Our family is going to enjoy this moment together! Just hold tight, pray and get ready!
"His exact words were, 'You're going to have to do and say a lot more to get rid of me,'" Hepler recalled.
The couple wed in 2014, and it was Joe who proved to be her link to motherhood in an unlikely way.
Just one year after they wed, Joe Hepler's younger sister, PJ Willis, drove to the couple's South Florida home and told her brother and sister-in-law that she wanted to carry their child.
"Before I had children, when I found out that Hollie couldn't have children, in my mind, I thought, 'Oh I could do that for her,'" said Willis, now 28. "When it came to be a real possibility, I was in a season of my life of trying to figure out my future."
"I had just gotten married and had time to self-reflect, and I thought it was time to start having our children so we could have theirs later," she said.
Willis, an emergency room nurse in Gainesville, Florida, and her husband had two daughters, who are now 3 and 2 years old.
While Willis was having her own children, Hollie Hepler began researching what it would take to use a gestational carrier, a woman who carries a pregnancy and gives birth to a child for another person or couple.
"For three years, I just did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions to figure out what it would look like," she said. "I didn't even know if a sister-in-law could do that."
After feeling discouraged by other doctors, Hollie Hepler, now living in Lakeland, Florida, turned to Dr. William Schoolcraft, a pioneer in fertility medicine and founder of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, a leading global fertility center. She had a phone consultation with the doctor in early 2018.
"This [was] the first time in three years that I felt like someone was telling me that it was possible and not making me feel insecure about my syndrome," she said. "I got off the phone and said, 'Joe, we're going to have a baby,' and we just cried. It felt like the picture became clear for us."
View this post on Instagram
It was all PART OF THE PLAN | our miracle baby BOY will be here June 2019 | through our IVF/Gestational Surrogacy story God has taught me that HIS ways are better than mine. I love OUR story and I love that you have been a part of it too! Thank you for your love, your support and your encouragement. ADDING A NEW PLAYER TO OUR TEAM!! #TEAMBABYHEP 👶🏼💙
Soon, the Heplers began traveling back and forth between Florida and Colorado for appointments and testing. Hollie had to have her eggs retrieved and Joe his sperm, so the baby Willis would carry would be biologically their own.
"Hollie understood this was just an anomaly she was born with, but together, they could create their own genetic baby, and after it was born it would just be their baby like any other," said Schoolcraft. "Their family's life was going to be normal, but there was just this nine-month detour to get there."
Willis also had to travel to Colorado near the end of the Heplers' in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process and underwent injections to prepare her body for pregnancy. Last September, the embryo of Hollie and Joe Hepler's baby was transferred to Willis's uterus.
"We sat in the hotel room in Colorado and cried and laughed while [Willis] was on bed rest," recalled Hollie Hepler. "Nine days later, we found out we were pregnant."
The two couples nicknamed themselves "Team Baby Hep" as they underwent Willis' pregnancy together.
"That was one of my biggest goals, keeping Hollie part of the pregnancy. I never wanted her to feel disconnected," Willis said. "I would send her pictures constantly, play her voice memos for the baby and always made sure she was the one making decisions."
View this post on Instagram
One month until we meet baby cousin! We don’t take one bit of this miracle from heaven for granted. I feel like I haven’t said it enough but we are incredibly thankful for the team @ccrmfertility. They are the best and more than worth the flight across the country (some people fly across the world to see them!). They follow the gold standard every step of the way. They help navigate through every obstacle and make you feel like you are their only patient. They’re just SO good at what they do and we’re beyond grateful. #TeamBabyHep #growingbabycousin #ccrmfertility 📷 @boquet.burke
The couples also relied on the support of family and friends, both financially and emotionally. A GoFundMe page set up by the Heplers' friends in Lakeland raised more than $14,000 to help them cover the costs of treatment, according to Hollie Hepler.
"Our story has involved family and friends from across the country and everyone has rallied," she said. "I think that's the miracle of it, that it has taken the support of this team to bring this miracle to pass."
Last week, Willis gave birth to the Heplers' son, an 8 pound, 9 ounce, healthy baby they named Jarrell Clayton Hepler, known as JC.
"My mom was there in the delivery room, and it was a real redeeming moment for both of us," said Hollie Hepler. "I kept thinking, this was a part of the plan, this was God's plan the entire time."
Hollie Hepler said in the week that she's been at home with her son, she's had flashbacks of the 15 years she spent thinking she would never have a child of her own.
"I see now how it all just worked out," she said, describing feelings of "relief and great joy and hope."
Willis, who is recovering well from the delivery at home in Gainesville, said she is reflecting on the miracle of what happened and enjoying watching her brother as a dad.
"He's doing amazing as a dad. He's super calm and just loves to snuggle him," she said. "The biggest thing that I learned is when you feel that nudge, even if you're scared and don't know how it's going to work out, just go for it."
"You learn so much and you grow and you realize that you're stronger than you think and you get to see a miracle," Willis said.