Chelsea Jovanovich and Cheryl Urban were perfect strangers — but after an experimental surgery and the birth of a baby boy, they share an unbreakable bond.
Jovanovich was 15 years old when she was told that she would never be able to get pregnant because she was born with a rare condition called MRKH that meant her uterus never fully developed. She and her husband, Jake, looked at surrogates, but were unsuccessful. The two were close to giving up until Jovanovich decided to apply for a uterine transplant program at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.
"I kind of was devastated and almost wanted to throw in the towel because I was tired of crying," Jovanovich said. "For some reason, I had remembered that my primary care provider had given me a (copy of) TIME Magazine about uterine transplants."
Uterine transplants are still considered experimental, about 50 have been performed around the world. The procedure involves a uterus from a living or deceased donor being transplanted into another woman so that she can carry a baby. Dr. Kathleen O'Neill, a surgeon at Penn Medicine who specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, explained that these surgeries are an option in situations where only the uterus is affected. About 5% of reproductive age women fall into that category.
"These women have ovaries, they have eggs, they just don't have the uterus to gestate the pregnancy," said O'Neill. "Once we're able to give them that uterus, the vast majority get pregnant and have babies."
Jovanovich thought she would "never" be chosen for a uterine transplant after applying.
"I didn't think it could be an option for us," she said.
However, after undergoing a series of tests, O'Neill, who works at the Penn Medicine transplant program, was able to tell Jovanovich that she was selected for a transplant — and that the program already had a donor who was a match.
"I was in shock, because I wasn't actually believing that we were going to do this," Jovanovich said. "And then we got that call and it was 'This is really happening. I'm possibly going to have my own child. I'm going to be able to carry my own baby.'"
"There was a lot of crying, mostly on her side, but a little on my side," O'Neill recalled. "For it to happen so quickly, I think she was really taken aback, but at the same time, as Chelsea always is, she was determined."
Jovanovich and her husband moved from their home in Montana to Pennsylvania to be near the Philadelphia hospital, and in February 2020, she underwent the 12-hour transplant surgery. Six weeks later, doctors implanted one of the couple's three embryos. While the first attempt didn't work, the second did, and soon, Jovanovich had a positive pregnancy test.
"I went my whole life thinking I wasn't able to carry a child," Jovanovich said. "It was like something out of a dream."
While Jovanovich and her husband were thrilled with the pregnancy, they were also curious about the donor that they had matched with. The program kept her anonymous, and while Jovanovich knew she was "pretty selfless and amazing," she didn't know anything else about her until a few weeks later.
Urban, 42, a mother of two, said that she decided to become a donor after hearing about uterine transplants on the news.
"I was just mind blown that they could do this," Urban said. "I had two great pregnancies. I’ve enjoyed pregnancy. I enjoyed the feeling of my own kids. So I just wanted to be able to give that to somebody else. And I'm so glad I did."
Once Urban and Jovanovich were able to meet, they had an instant connection.
"Something brought us together," Urban said. "Even our personalities seem very similar."
That bond was only strengthened in May 2021, when Jovanovich gave birth to her son, Telden.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be able to carry my own child," Jovanovich said. "Science is miraculous."
Jovanovich said that she and her husband would try to use their final embryo to have one more baby. The program allows women who have had a uterine transplant to have a second baby if the first pregnancy goes well, though they remove the uterus after that so that the mother can stop taking anti-rejection medications, which can have negative side effects.
In June, Urban was able to meet Telden for the first time.
"I feel like I'm part of your family," Telden said. "I felt like I was pregnant with you."