Growing up as twins in Oregon, Whitney Bliesner and Jill Noe didn’t look much alike and they had different interests. But they were fiercely loyal and close.
But last year, at age 34, their bond was taken to a new level. Bliesner, who had fought a rare genetic disease since childhood, was struggling because her health prevented her from having children. So the former star shooting guard for the Arizona State University basketball team, stepped up with the ultimate assist: “I’ll be your surrogate,” Noe told her sister.
Bliesner was stunned. They’d always been close, but carrying someone else’s baby — even your sister’s — was an enormous commitment.
“I was overwhelmingly grateful that she wanted to put her life on hold and do this for me,” Bliesner said. “It’s hard for me to find words to express how I felt.”
Noe was implanted using in vitro fertilization, and became pregnant — with twins. And when Noe delivered two healthy babies, her twin was by her side during her C-section.
Rhett was delivered first, weighing 7 pounds, 11 ounces, while his sister, Rhenley, was born two minutes later at 4 pounds, 13 ounces.
“It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” said Noe, who is on maternity leave from her sports marketing job at Nike.
Whitney Bliesner and her husband, Pete, an engineer, are now sharing feeding and diaper duties at their home in Oregon City, about 20 miles from Noe’s place in Portland.
“I couldn’t ask for a better sister,” said Bliesner, who is taking time off from her job documenting medical billing codes as she adjusts to life with two newborns. “And I know that Jill will be the world’s greatest aunt.”
Noe called herself a “house” for the babies to grow in for nine months, rent-free. Though she admits it was a house with a lot of love, and also that it was an emotional experience for her.
Noe hopes to go through in vitro fertilization again at some point with her partner, Maya Gross, 31, a firefighter.
The experience was emotional for Bliesner, who wondered whether she’d be able to have a family after years of struggling with health issues brought on by Neurofibromatosis Type 2, a disorder that causes the growth of tumors in the nervous system.
Over the years, she had six brain surgeries to remove tumors, and Bliesner lost the vision in her left eye and much of her hearing.
“My first symptom of a problem was a lazy eye when I was about 13,” Bliesner said. “Because there’s a 50% chance of passing this on, my husband and I decided to explore other ways of having a family.”
She added: “I always wanted to be a mom, but I didn’t want to put my child through what I went through.”
After each surgery, her sister was there to support her, just as Bliesner comforted Noe when she had to miss two seasons of college basketball because of major knee operations.
Their mother, Lynn Stradley, said the sisters’ strength comes from their devotion to each other. “The love my twin girls share for each other is remarkable,” she said. “Watching them plan, prepare and deliver twin children for Whitney has been a joy I cannot adequately express in words.”
Bliesner said of Noe, “She’s more than my sister — she’s my best friend. My hope for my children is that they grow up to become as close as me and my twin sister.”