The Philadelphia-area mom, 33, had a baby boy in November, making her the second woman in the U.S. to have a baby after having a uterus transplant from a deceased donor

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
February 14, 2020 12:46 PM
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Credit: Rachel Gregory

Most moms don’t make history when they deliver a baby — but Jennifer Gobrecht did. The Philadelphia-area mom, 33, had a baby boy in November, making her the second woman in the U.S. to have a baby after having a uterus transplant from a deceased donor as part of a research study at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

The first birth after a uterus transplant from a living donor was in Sweden in 2014. The first transplant from a deceased donor was in Brazil in 2017.

In Dallas, the Baylor University Medical Center has had six babies born after living donor uterus transplants.

PEOPLE spoke to the two principle investigators of the Uterine Transplant Trial at Penn Hospital to learn more about historic transplant trial.

Q: Jennifer said she found about this trial on a Facebook group for women with MRKH, she said it sounded like you like you were looking for someone exactly like her.

Dr. Kathleen O’Neill, The medical director of the Uterus Transplant Program at Penn: That’s very true.

Q: What made her a great candidate for this?

Dr. O’Neill: We’re looking for somebody who is, from a medial perspective and a surgical perspective, a good candidate. Also, somebody who has considered and been educated on all of the ways to expand their family. Jennifer, before the trial had even started, had gone through the process of creating embryos through IVF. She had really thought about the options, and had been educated about the options. She said, ‘I understand this might not benefit me directly, but if you can learn from it, and it can potentially benefit me, or somebody in the future, I’m 100 percent in.’ Which, really, you can’t ask for any better than that.

Q: How did the transplant go?

Dr. Paige Porrett, Jennifer’s Transplant surgeon and Assistant professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania: It went well. It was a long surgery. It was about 10 hours.

This is a unique procedure and a new procedure. The core components of operation are: One, we have to sew the blood vessels of the donor organ, to blood vessels in Jennifer’s body. This is a key moment in all organ transplants. Prior to this moment, the organ has come from the deceased donor packed on ice in a special, organ preservation solution, and then doctors proceeded with the connection between Jennifer’s vagina and the vagina of the donor that comes with the donor organ itself. We need to have access to the uterus, so Dr. O’Neill can place the embryo.

Q: So you connected the donor’s vagina to her vagina?

Dr. Porrett: Correct

Q: How?

Dr. O’Neill: The vagina is like a cul de sac, the very top is the cervix, and the cervix has a canal that you go through the cervix to the endometrial canal, the inside part of the uterus, where the embryo implants and the baby grows. Women with MRKH have a blind vagina — it’s a cul de sac with nothing at the top of it. We make a hole at the top of the vagina, and we connect the top of the vagina from the donor, and the rim of the vagina — and right past it, is the cervix and goes up into the uterus.

Dr. Porrett: Six months after the transplant, Dr. O’Neill transferred an embryo and she got pregnant.

Q: On the first try?

Dr. O’Neill: She did. It was very exciting. I do a lot of mental preparation so I don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time. But then she went and got pregnant off of the first transfer. I was happy to be wrong.

Q: The delivery went well?

Dr. O’Neill: Very well. We wanted to make sure we had all of the staff we needed — and more in the operating room. I was there, Dr. Porrett was there. We were more emotional support than anything else.

Q: Jennifer said that since a uterus is not an essential organ, she didn’t want to keep taking the anti-rejection medications, so she decided to be a super mom to her one baby, and not try for a second baby.

Dr. O’Neill: I always say with fertility treatment in general, the goal is one healthy baby. Anything beyond that is gravy. With Jennifer, being on those immunosuppressant mediations can have long-term risk. She said, ‘I have one. I’m grateful to have one. If all I have is one I’m happy.’ We had a discussion with all of the doctors involved and the pediatrician and made the decision together that that would be the best course of action.

Q: Why do think this is important for people to know about this baby?

Dr. O’Neill: We still have a long way to go. We are the third baby in the world. We had 500 babies born from IVF before people thought it was something that wasn’t going to destroy humanity. We have a lot more work to do before we can say it’s clinical care. But this shows it’s making steps in that direction.

Dr. Porrett: Collectively, between Baylor University Medical Center, The Cleveland Clinic and Penn Hospital, we’ve been working together for some time to advance this treatment. We have learned about 1,500 women in the U.S. have come forward to volunteer to participate in the three trials at these three institutions. And 1,500 women who came forward and volunteered for 35 transplants. That speaks to the value of this transplant more than anything else in terms of how much people want it. There’s really great interest in this procedure.

Dr. O’Neill: After our announcement over 100 people applied in less than 24 hours to be recipients. And over 25 applied to be living donors. It’s amazing speaking to these women. They’re like, ‘I have a family, I’m grateful I have my family. I know how much it meant to me. If I can help someone else.’

Q: What else do you think is important for people to know?

Dr. O’Neill: You think about the 17 year old that gets the diagnosis that she doesn’t have a uterus, and she’s not going to have regular periods like her friends, and she’s not going to be able to carry children. She can use a gestational carrier or adopt, but it is a loss. They feel a complete loss of control when they are told their ability to expand their family will most certainly rely on someone else. Even if they don’t decide they would like to pursue a uterus transplant, maybe they want a carrier, maybe they want to adopt, maybe they want to be child-free. But knowing the possibility that it may be in your control, that is beneficial to the 17-year-old girl. The vast majority of people with MRKH are not going to have a uterus transplant. But knowing it’s possible and understanding the option is beneficial to the entire community.

Q: What else is important?

Dr. O’Neill: Uterine factor infertility has been a little bit forgotten as a condition and a medical diagnosis. But we need to explore ways in which to treat it.

Dr. Perrott: We hope it will transition from a research trial to a widely available treatment for this disease that’s afflicted so many.

Q: How many does it afflict, do you know?

Dr. Perrott: We estimate in the U.S. there are approximately 500,000 women who have uterine factor infertility.

Q: Any other thoughts on the Gobrechts?

Dr. Perrott: We wish them the best. We’re so happy for them. Jennifer, she’s an inspiration, not just to women who will hopefully benefit from her courage, but also for us as providers. I just can’t say enough great things about her and her resilience, and her courage. Good things happen to those who wait is the best cliché I can happen to offer.

Dr. O’Neill: It’s so wonderful when good things happen to good people. They are just wonderful people. I’m grateful we were able to help them, and they helped us a lot too.

For more on about Jennifer Gobrecht’s Uterus Transplant, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.