By Karina Bland, The Republic | azcentral.com
The three men wearing white scrubs stand to one side, watching silently as people in blue and green scrubs burst through the oversize door into the operating room.
Nurses. Surgical assistants. An anesthesiologist. Ten total, so far.
The elevator pings, and someone else in scrubs backs out pulling a heavy portable incubator. Then, another, and another. One for each baby.
The woman in the operating room is carrying triplets, two girls and a boy. She had gone in for her weekly checkup the day before, the babies heavy in her belly, her legs so swollen she couldn't bend them. The doctor had admitted her as a precaution.
But now her red blood cells are deteriorating, and her liver is shutting down. Doctors suspect HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening form of preeclampsia. The only treatment is to deliver the babies, now.
It is six weeks too early.
It is just after 9:30 on a Friday morning. The incubators sit there now, plugged in and waiting, alongside the three men in white scrubs.
The doctor who is to deliver the babies, Winston Eddy, stops to talk to the men. He reminds the men that multiple births are almost always high risk, for both the woman and the babies. And he's here to explain another precaution.
Because there are so many people involved in the delivery by C-section, only one of the men can come in. The woman had wanted them all there, all three. "My guys," she called them.
The three men look at one another.
"You go," Aaron says. Sid nods.
Jeremy hesitates. He knows how much it means for the other two to see this.
Go, the men say again. "We'll be right here," Aaron says.
Jeremy disappears into the operating room to be with his wife. The other two — the fathers of the babies — wait outside.
Starting in 2010,whenever Aaron Bell and Sid Cuecha could, they would sign on to the website of Growing Generations, a California surrogacy agency.
To have a child, the 40-something businessmen in Phoenix would first need an egg donor and then a surrogate to carry the baby.
They would spend a few moments during lunch, then again in the evenings, and log on for hours on weekends. They scanned the profiles of the women, reading their statements, studying their pictures and videos. This one was pretty and articulate. That one athletic and intelligent. Her face was nice. Her eyes were playful.
"It is a lot like online dating," Aaron says, laughing.
When he and Sid met online 18 years ago, it seemed impossible that two gay men could ever become fathers. But that came to be what they wanted, more than anything. "Family is so important, to both of us," Sid says.
A state away, in Lincoln, Calif., a mother of two, sitting in her kitchen, was sifting through the same website, reading about the couples who desperately wanted to have a family.
Heidi Grosser probably first heard about surrogacy on an episode of "Oprah." It wasn't something to which she gave any thought. But then she met a woman at bunco night who was a gestational surrogate, pregnant for the third time, carrying a baby genetically unrelated to her.
"I got totally teary-eyed," Heidi says. "I thought it was amazing."
She talked to her husband, Jeremy, and he suggested she look into it. By the time he got home from work the next day, she had filled out an application online. They had been married for 11 years. He knew that once she set her mind to something, she would do it.
"I think everyone deserves a chance to have a family," Heidi says.
In their profile, the men wrote, "There is no doubt in our minds that our child will be the center of our lives." Looking at pictures, Heidi could practically feel how warm they were. In one, Aaron and his sister are sticking out their tongues.
Her own son is named Aaron, too.
The first time Sid and Aaron, Heidi and Jeremy met, on Aug. 13, 2010, was carefully planned.
Heidi and Jeremy flew in from Sacramento; Sid and Aaron drove from Phoenix to the Growing Generations office in Los Angeles.
They were told to arrive at specific times, staggered so they wouldn't run into each other before they could be properly introduced by a case manager.
Aaron and Sid were nervous, and scouring the neighborhood to buy flowers for Heidi.
Heidi and Jeremy were early and stopped at Starbucks.
As the appointment approached, Sid and Aaron rushed in the back door to the elevators, out of breath, and all four came face to face.
Awkwardly, they all shook hands, and then the doors to the elevator opened.
They squeezed in with the office workers and smiled nervously at each other each time the elevator stopped to let other people off. At the top, they realized the elevator went only as high as the 12th floor; they were supposed to be on 13. They searched for a stairwell in vain and then went back to the lobby and realized they needed to take a different elevator.
By the time the doors finally opened on 13,they all stepped off together, laughing.
The conversation to begin surrogacy, though, is a serious one.
Would Heidi be willing to carry multiples? the case manager asked. Were the men ready to parent and support more than one child?
Then, a tougher question: Would you be willing to reduce the number of embryos for medical reasons, to protect the health of Heidi or the babies?
There was silence. No one wants to think about the possibility. It's a terrible choice to have to make, but they have to know up front. The couples looked at each other, and then nodded.
"Absolutely," Aaron said, "if we had to."
"If we had to," Heidi repeated.
The couples went to lunch together afterward, and both left with the promise to see one another again. Even then, they felt a connection. But they had no idea just how much each one of them would mean to the other's family — and how soon the possibility of losing one another would bring them even closer.
The door to the operating room in the Sacramento hospital eases shut behind the doctor. Aaron and Sid hover outside, listening.
"This is making me crazy," Aaron whispers to Sid. The teams from the NICU mill about — 12 more people, for 23 in all to bring three babies into the world.
Then from inside the operating room, they hear a loud gasp, as if all the people inside have drawn in a single breath at once.
Someone pulls open the door. In that split second, Aaron thinks something must have gone wrong.
And then he sees the baby in the nurse's arms. Baby A, a girl, turning pink and crying softly.
The nurse rushes her to the incubator in the corner. Someone calls out, "4 pounds, 14 ounces."
Only a minute later, the door opens again. Baby B, also a girl but smaller. Someone calls out, "3 pounds, 11 ounces." And she's a shocking shade of violet.
She's not breathing.
Her face disappears under an oxygen mask. In the second incubator, gloved hands rub her chest, jostle her gently.
"Breathe," Sid says softly, over and over again. "Breathe."
A nurse from the lab had called with the results of Heidi's test for the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, better known as hCG, which is produced during pregnancy, on Jan. 30, 2011.
Any reading above 25 indicates pregnancy. Heidi's result was 797.
"Congratulations," the nurse said. "You are very pregnant!"
An ultrasound at four weeks showed that Heidi was carrying triplets. She called Aaron to tell him.
"Oh, my God. Wow," he thought, and in that same instant, he worried about Heidi and how a multiple pregnancy would affect her health, and that of the babies — would they be premature, or have birth defects?
And then Aaron realized Sid was boarding an airplane to visit family in Los Angeles. He told Heidi he would call her right back and called Sid.
Aaron could hear the flight attendant: "Sir, you have to shut off your phone." Quickly, he said, "I'll let you go, but we're having triplets" and hung up.
On the plane, Sid said aloud, "I just found out I'm having triplets." All around him, passengers started clapping.
Sid and Aaron flew back and forth for the ultrasounds and doctor's appointments often — for the ultrasounds especially, any chance to get a peek at their babies.
But when Heidi was eight weeks along, the ultrasound technician couldn't detect a third heartbeat. She had lost one of the babies. Aaron leaned his head against hers, and they cried together.
"We were in mourning," he says. "We had three babies, and now one was gone."
Two weeks later, at the next ultrasound, a technician counted again - one, two.
But at almost 16 weeks, Heidi went to the hospital with cramps and spotting. During an ultrasound, the technician counted baby heads out loud — one, two, three.
"Three?" Heidi asked. "Are you sure?"
Two bigger babies were down low, easy to see. The third was smaller and tucked high up under her ribs. The ultrasound technician moved the wand over the baby, a girl, and the baby opened her hand, like she was waving.
"Well, hello there," Heidi said, waving back. She nicknamed her "Houdini."
But one doctor would recommend they terminate the third baby. The fetus was likely undeveloped and could have birth defects.
Heidi wanted to keep all three. Jeremy agreed. Another doctor said reducing at 15 weeks into the pregnancy could put all three at risk.
"Are you sure?" Aaron asked. They were, and Sid, too. Sid said, "God obviously has a plan for us."
Finally, there's a cry from the second incubator outside the operating room.
A pink spot appears on the top of Baby B's head and fans out, creeping down her face, moving almost in a perfect line as if she is being scanned by a machine. The violent violet changes to pink, the line moves along her tummy, down her legs to her tiny toes.
It takes just minutes. It feels like hours. A nurse looks over at the men and tells them, "She's fine now."
The men wipe their eyes, and from inside the operating room, on the other side of the door, they clearly hear screaming. Baby C, the boy, breathing — apparently angry, but breathing.
The door opens, and Sid and Aaron hear and see just how angry. His scrunched-up face is red. He's waving his fists.
Someone calls out, "5 pounds, 4 ounces."
The babies are wrapped snugly in white blankets, the incubators unplugged from the walls, the wheels unlocked. The teams race for the elevators. The neonatal intensive care unit is one floor up.
A nurse turns back and calls, "Come on, Dads!"
In January 2011, Heidi and Jeremy, Sid and Aaron checked into two rooms in a hotel in West Hollywood, not far from the doctor who would transfer the embryos into Heidi's uterus.
There were three embryos, two good-size, one a little on the small side. The embryos came from donated eggs and Aaron's sperm. For Aaron, it was a legacy: They would pay for the surrogacy with an inheritance from his beloved grandmother.
The four of them ate French toast at Du-Par's and wandered the Universal City Walk. The next day, the eggs were transplanted, and the two couples went back to the hotel.
Heidi had to stay in bed for 48 hours to give even one embryo a better chance to take hold. The men connected Jeremy's Wii in the hotel suite and played Mario Kart.
"It's like three teenage boys hanging out, playing video games and eating junk food," Heidi thought to herself, chuckling. Already, the men were endearing themselves to her with their kindness and excitement.
"I hope this works," she thought.
It did. Throughout the pregnancy, as Heidi grew and the babies, too, Aaron and Sid would come for doctor's appointments. They would spend time with Heidi and Jeremy and their kids, Aaron and Tyler, just hanging out at home. On one visit, Sid made his carne asada with rice and beans.
Heidi, her belly big with babies, would watch the two families together, and think that she had made a perfect choice.
Inside the operating room, on the other side of the door, all the focus is on Heidi.
Heidi is still groggy; she complains of being nauseated. Tubes suction out blood, and Jeremy watches as one container fills and the blood flows into the next one.
"That's a lot of blood to be coming out of her," he thinks.
One floor up in the NICU, Aaron and Sid are torn. They want to be with the babies, but they are worried about Heidi. Aaron doesn't know why, but he feels like something is wrong.
"Is everyone OK?" Aaron asks. "Can we go downstairs and check on Heidi?"
Go, a nurse tells them. Go.
For Sid and Aaron, they were giving their families great news. They were going to be parents.
For Heidi and Jeremy, it was more complicated.
To explain it to their sons, who were 2 and 4 at the time, Heidi read aloud a children's book, "The Kangaroo Pouch" by Sarah Phillips Pellet, about a young kangaroo Oliver, whose mother decides to help another family have a baby, carrying it in her pouch for them.
Later, Heidi explained that a doctor put Aaron and Sid's babies in her belly. "I'm going to have the babies for them, and then the babies will live with Aaron and Sid," she told the boys.
"OK," said her oldest, Aaron. "Can we have a Popsicle?"
It wasn't as easy to tell their parents. Jeremy's family was hesitant but accepting. They asked a lot of questions.
Heidi's mother thought what her daughter was doing was generous, but she was worried that the pregnancy might be risky for her. She was sad to learn that Heidi and Jeremy were not planning to have any more children of their own. She also belongs to a church that does not approve of homosexual behavior.
Her mother had been so worried, she was wary of Sid and Aaron. The men met her when they came for an ultrasound at 20 weeks and Heidi and Jeremy invited friends and family over for a barbecue to meet them.
Heidi's sisters and Jeremy's mother all hugged the men. Their friends greeted Sid and Aaron warmly. But Heidi's mom left shortly after they were introduced.
Sid and Aaron find Heidi in a recovery room. There are a lot of people in the room still — Jeremy, her parents, a doctor and nurse. She is pale but she smiles and asks about the babies. A drape had prevented her from seeing them. She only heard their cries.
The men are there for just minutes when the doctor suddenly says, "Everybody out." Medical staff members suddenly fill the room. Heidi is hemorrhaging.
Aaron leans against the wall outside Heidi's room. Heidi's mom tells them shakily, "She'll be OK. The doctors are taking care of her. You guys can go."
"We're not going to go anywhere until we know Heidi is OK," Aaron tells her, choking out the words.
In that moment, her face softens. She nods. OK, stay.
It was a difficult pregnancy from the start. Because her uterus was expanding so quickly, she had cramping and spotting.
Heidi is 5-foot-6, a runner, and was in great shape. She gained 29 pounds with each of her boys. But when she first got pregnant with the triplets, she lost weight and then gained only 39 pounds. Her belly was big, but her arms and legs were skinny. The three babies were taking so much out of her.
It was summer and hot. She was tired all of the time.
For her little Aaron's birthday, on Aug. 24, they took the boys to see "The Smurfs" - Heidi had to use the bathroom four times during the 103-minute movie - and then for ice cream.
Her stomach hurt. "It feels like my belly button is ripping open," she said. (Later she would learn that the long muscles of her stomach had separated.)
That night, her feet were so swollen, she could barely wiggle her toes.
She had a doctor's appointment the next day. She felt so bad, she took her bag for the hospital with her.
On a Sunday afternoon, Heidi climbs into a wheelchair, wearing a soft green hospital gown with a thin white blanket folded over her shoulders. Jeremy pushes her down a hallway and into the NICU.
She comes to see the babies, but she finds herself more enamored with the dads. The way Aaron hovers, anxious. How easily Sid handles the babies, sure and natural. They both are so proud, beaming at her.
The boy was the biggest. He had been sprawled across the right side of Heidi's belly, forcing the girls to curl up in little balls on the left side. Her belly had even leaned to the left.
Heidi leans over the incubator to meet Baby C— Riley Connor — in person. She peeks into the next bed at Baby B, the tiniest — Kelsie Jeanne. Her Houdini.
She sits back down in the wheelchair, gingerly, and someone places a bundle of blanket in her arms, just a small face under an oxygen tube peeping out. It's Baby A. Caitlin Marie.
"The first time I saw them with their babies, it just made it all worth it," Heidi says.
Now that they're all in the same room, it feels right to Aaron.
Heidi is released from the hospital a few days later, on Tuesday; the babies stay, and their dads, too.
Aaron wonders what will happen next. "Are we just going to be done when she checks out of the hospital?"
Caitlin is the first one to be released from the hospital, then Kelsie, then Riley.
As soon as Riley is released, the family drives to Heidi and Jeremy's house. It is packed with Heidi and Jeremy's friends and family — including Heidi's mother.
She smiles at the men and coos over the babies, picking up the first one to cry.
Heidi makes dinner: spaghetti, vegetables, a salad and fresh crusty bread.
Everyone else is gone by 9. Heidi's mother hugs both men on her way out. Heidi tucks her boys into bed.
But the men stay. The four adults sit in the living room for another two hours, talking and cuddling the babies.
Aaron knows they have to go, back to their hotel and the next day, back home. "We knew we had to go not only for our own kids but for their family, so they could get back to their lives," Aaron says.
No one wants to say goodbye.
Aaron and Sid still are wearing the hospital bands on their wrists. It's been almost three weeks since the babies were born. "I guess we don't need these anymore," Aaron says.
Heidi gets a pair of scissors from a drawer in the kitchen. Each man holds out his arm, and she cuts through each band.
It feels like she's cutting them loose.
It's been three years since the babies were born.
Among the four adults, someone texts someone else almost every day. Aaron and Heidi talk on the phone a couple times a week, for more than an hour each time.
"What we went through together, it's not something you just say, 'Well, it was nice seeing you,' and you go your separate ways," Jeremy says. "We feel like we are their family, and I imagine they feel the same way."
Kelsie is still the smallest. The middle child, she wants everything to be fair. At breakfast, she looks at her brother's plate and then her sister's to make sure everyone got the same.
Sid brushes Caitlin's hair into a half-up, half-down and clips it with a bow.
"Riley, do you want a bow?" Sid asks, smiling. "Nope," Riley says. The boy has a toy car in one hand, an airplane in the other.
Caitlin gives Sid a kiss. The kids call him "Papa" and Aaron "Daddy."
"It's the best thing we've done our entire lives," Aaron says, smiling at Sid.
The men are happy about a recent ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Arizona, though their priority is potty training. Because while marriage would provide legal protections for the couple, after so many years together, it is less about getting married and more about being married. They have lived as if they were.
Because the children were born in California, where the laws are different, the men are the children's legal parents, both of their names on the birth certificates.
The men wear matching gold bands with three diamonds each, one for each child, and etched with the children's birth date in Roman numerals.
Framed pictures of the Grossers are interspersed with Sid and Aaron's family pictures in their Phoenix home. Caitlin points to Heidi, Jeremy, Aaron and Tyler, naming each of them.
"We're part of each other's families now," Sid says.
Sid and Aaron are Facebook friends with Jeremy's mom, Heidi's mom and her sisters. When Heidi's sister got married, she invited Sid and Aaron to the wedding. They visit back and forth and vacation together in San Diego.
In April, Heidi came alone to Phoenix to visit the dads and the triplets. The children have been waiting for her to arrive, watching out the big front window.
"It's almost like being an aunt," Heidi says. "I get to just have fun with them."
Aaron picks her up at the airport. She arrives with three big suckers, the triplets' first. The kids squeal when they see her.
"Heidi! Heidi! Heidi!" And Heidi laughs and squats down, her arms open wide to hug all three of them at once.