Two little miracles: UI IVF clinic helps Iowa couple overcome barriers to starting a family

Mother and daughter

Life with an infant and toddler can be a bit hectic at times, but Alisha and Ross Stottmeister of Tiffin, Iowa, are grateful for every moment. They know their daughters Mila, 3, and Charlotte, who was born in May 2021, might not be here today if it weren’t for the in-vitro fertilization specialists, ob/gyn physicians, and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team at UI Health Care.

Early on in their family planning discussions, the Stottmeisters reached out to University of Iowa Center for Advanced Reproductive Care. They knew there was a chance that it would be challenging for Alisha to get pregnant; in her early 20s, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a uterus-lining disorder that can make becoming pregnant difficult and increases the chance of miscarriage.

The Stottmeisters felt confident they would be in good hands with the UI Center for Advanced Reproductive Care. Established in 1987, it was the first in-vitro fertilization (IVF) program in Iowa and has been a national leader for single-embryo transfers.

The first IVF attempt

In October 2017, the Stottmeisters started the preparation process for stimulating eggs and shortly after their UI doctors harvested 21 mature eggs. Within a day, 17 of those eggs had been successfully fertilized, 12 of which made it to the five-day blastocyst stage. A short time later – on Alisha’s birthday weekend – doctors transferred a single embryo to her womb and saved the remaining 11 embryos for possible future use. UI Hospitals & Clinics was one of the first centers to pioneer the use of single-embryo transfer to help reduce the possibility of high-risk multiple births. Multiple eggs are harvested and fertilized but only one is implanted at a time, reducing the chance of multiple-birth pregnancies, which can in turn create more risks for the mother and babies.

“Watching our little embryo be transferred was the coolest birthday present I could have asked for,” Alisha says.

Six days later, a home pregnancy test showed a positive result.

“We had never seen a positive pregnancy test before, so it was a small victory for us,” Alisha recalls.

They remained optimistic; the day for the clinical test came “and we were still positive,” she says. “We had our first ultrasound at six weeks to confirm the pregnancy, and we went back at seven weeks to confirm a heartbeat.”

That ultrasound, however, showed that growth had slowed. At a nine-week ultrasound in December 2017, the baby no longer had a heartbeat.

“We were devastated,” Alisha says. “Like salt in a wound, my body didn’t handle the miscarriage well, either.”

The couple planned to begin the IVF process again in February 2018, but before they could begin, Alisha became pregnant.

A rocky pregnancy

“This pregnancy started off rocky early on,” Alisha says. She had bleeding issues and doctors told her she had placenta previa – a condition in which the placenta lies low in the uterus and covers all or part of the cervix. More serious bleeding occurred when she was 22 weeks pregnant and she was admitted to the hospital for observation. She was released after a week but started bleeding again two days later. She was readmitted.

“This time it wasn’t for just a week, I was going to stay there until the baby came,” Alisha says.

Mila Stottmeister was born Aug. 15, 2018, just 28 weeks and four days into the pregnancy, after Alisha started hemorrhaging. Mila was taken to the NICU and doctors continued to work on Alisha. They discovered the placenta wasn’t detaching from the uterus. Though they tried, surgeons weren’t able to save Alisha’s uterus and she had a total hysterectomy.

Searching for a surrogate

When Mila was a little over a year old, the Stottmeisters decided they wanted another child to complete their family. They decided to use one of their 11 frozen embryos.

“Even though I wasn’t able to get pregnant after the hysterectomy, taking another chance at a biological child was the option we felt was best for our family,” Alisha says. “We decided to learn more about using a gestational carrier, or surrogate.”

The IVF clinic connected the Stottmeisters with a clinic in Chicago. In April 2020, they were matched with Olivia, a 26-year-old woman who lived in Kentucky.

“We were expecting to wait a year or so before being matched with someone,” Alisha says, “but instead it happened within three months. So we started our process in the early part of a pandemic.”

A video meeting was set up, and the couple thought Olivia was a good fit.

“We were a little nervous about the meeting, but we ended up clicking with her really well right away, so we set up the medical clearance appointment,” Alisha says.

Olivia came to UI Hospitals & Clinics for the clearance appointment, which made Alisha and Ross even more comfortable.

“If we were going to trust anyone to clear her to carry our baby, we trusted the university and our providers there in the office,” Alisha says. “They cleared her, and the nurse actually called us right afterward and said she really liked her, too. That made us feel even better about it.”

A successful embryo transfer

After everything was cleared, an embryo was transferred to Olivia in the fall of 2020. She went back to Kentucky and the Stottmeisters stayed in Iowa.

“It was hard sometimes to remember we had a baby on the way because it’s not like she was here in town where I could see her every couple days,” Alisha says. “And with COVID we didn’t want to be traveling a lot to go to every doctor’s appointment, so we went to the 20-week ultrasound and then for the delivery.”

With the family now together in their Tiffin home, the Stottmeisters are looking forward to watching their daughters grow, and are grateful to the medical team who made it possible.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to the IVF staff,” Alisha says, “thank you helping me build my family because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you. You honestly made my dreams come true.”

Tiffin, Iowa