A Stranger Donated Her Uterus to a Woman Who Couldn't Get Pregnant — Now They Are 'Soul Sisters'
"She is my angel," says Chelsea Jovanovich, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy using Cheryl Urban's transplanted uterus
Chelsea Jovanovich invited a special guest to her maternity shoot in June 2021.
Along with Jovanovich, her husband Jake and her baby-to-be, a woman the couple had never met in-person was also there. Her name was Cheryl Urban, and she had donated her uterus to Jovanovich 18 months earlier.
For a long time, the two women's identities were unknown to each other. But one year after the transplant, they were allowed to connect. After emailing and talking on the phone, they felt an instant connection. Jovanovich is a registered nurse, and Urban, 42, was once a nursing major. They call each other "soul sisters."
"She is my angel on earth. Without her, I would not have my family," says Jovanovich, a 33-year-old registered nurse from Billings, Montana. "I'm so very grateful."
Jovanovich learned early in life that she would face fertility struggles. At 15, she still hadn't gotten her period, and doctors discovered her uterus wasn't fully developed. She was diagnosed with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome.
After getting married in 2018, Jovanovich got an offer from her best friend to be a gestational surrogate.
"I definitely always knew I wanted to be a mom," Jovanovich says. "That's all I ever really wanted."
Jovanovich and her husband created three embryos. In August 2019 they were at their lawyer's office signing surrogacy paperwork — the embryo transfer was planned for three days later — when Jovanovich received a call saying there was fluid in her friend's uterus. The implantation had to be postponed.
"That was devastating," says Jovanovich. "I was ready to throw in the towel."
But then she remembered reading a magazine article about a uterus transplant. She went online and applied for PennMedicine's Uterus Transplantation for Uterine Factor Infertility (UNTIL) trial. In November, Jovanovich flew to Philadelphia for tests to see if she qualified.
On Christmas Eve, she received a phone call that not only she was accepted into the program – but there was a living donor who was a match. The surgery was scheduled for February.
She and Jake, a 39-year-old CPA, rented out the home they had just built in Billings and moved 2,000 miles across the country — in the middle of her husband's busy tax season.
On Feb. 21, 2020 the transplant was performed. Urban's donor surgery was about 14 hours, while the transplant part of the surgery was about 9 hours, according to Dr. Nawar Latif, surgical oncologist and Surgical Director of the Living Donor Uterus Transplant Program at Penn.
"We are a step closer to start offering another choice for women who cannot get pregnant because they don't have a uterus," he says. "It's a big accomplishment to feel that we are, as a team, able to give women another choice."
As for Urban, who lives in Langhorne, Penn., and works in the financial industry, she knew she wanted to make a difference in someone's life.
Married with an 11-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Urban first learned about Penn's uterus transplant program watching the news in June 2019. When she heard there was a need for living donors, she felt compelled to apply to the program the next day.
Jovanovich says she had thought about Urban from the very beginning.
"Who in their right mind would want to undergo a 14-hour operation for a stranger?" she says. "I knew she had to be someone special."
Six months after the transplant, in August, Jovanovich's first embryo transfer didn't take. But in October, the second embryo transfer was successful and Jovanovich became pregnant.
"My pregnancy was the most magical thing," Jovanovich says. "It was amazing. I never thought I would ever, ever, ever be able to have a baby. They say you go to the ends of the earth for your children. But I went to the ends of the earth to get my child."
Because of pre-eclampsia, a c-section was scheduled when Jovanovich was 33.5 weeks pregnant. Telden Walker Jovanovich was born on May 18, 2021 weighing 4 lbs., 2 oz.
This is the first baby born via a living uterus donor in Penn's uterus transplant program. (The first baby in the U.S. was born in 2017 following a living donor uterus transplant at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas).
RELATED VIDEO: Doctors Who Delivered First U.S. Baby After Uterus Transplant Speak Out: It Was 'Beautiful
On June 30, Urban got to hold the baby she helped bring into the world.
"I can't believe it worked," Urban says. "He's perfect. A true, true miracle."
She says she didn't want to stop holding him.
"She cried. I cried. We all cried," Jovanovich says. "She risked her life to give me this beautiful gift – we did it together. I'm just so very grateful."
On July 20, the Jovanovich family travelled home to Montana for the first time since the pre-pandemic transplant – but it's only a short visit. The family plans to return to Philadelphia in three weeks. The couple bought a home in Lumberton, NJ. Doctors determined that Jovanovich could keep the uterus, and she could start trying to get pregnant again around Thanksgiving.
She's hoping for a girl.
"I felt like I was a good mom, but everything that she has done just to be where she's at, she is like supermom," Urban says. "She is a warrior."
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