By Misti Crane
The Columbus Dispatch
Annie Johnston sat close to her sister, Chrissy Knott, and held her hand under the blue surgical draping as the medical team worked toward closing the incision low on Chrissy’s abdomen.
Annie’s gaze shifted between the teary eyes of the woman she has loved forever and the hollering babies she longed to hold.
“You can go look at your babies, Annie,” Chrissy said.
“But I don’t want to leave you,” Annie replied.
“It’s OK. Go,” Chrissy said. A tear slid down her cheek.
Annie had just become a mother of two boys that her sister had carried for her. Her own belly swelled with the promise of the boys’ sisters.
After years of wanting children and of disappointing efforts to make that happen, Annie and her husband, Joby, both 34, were welcoming quadruplets nobody expected in a manner that has astounded and delighted everyone from doctors to strangers in hospital hallways.
But on Oct. 24, in an OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital operating room, no amount of awe over the rarity of these births could compete with the joy.
Annie and Joby fell in love at Ohio University, where she had followed Chrissy. They married in 2005.
Three years later, they decided to start a family.
“When we were ready, we thought it would just happen,” Annie said.
What followed were five years of dashed hopes and no answers. There were drugs to boost fertility, artificial inseminations and a search for what might have impeded fertility in both would-be parents. Annie underwent exploratory surgery that found nothing.
Eventually, they tried in vitro fertilization. None of the four embryos that were implanted in pairs months apart resulted in a pregnancy. ‘“You just feel helpless,” Annie said.
Joby had surgery to remove a varicose vein, on the outside chance it was contributing. There were more tests and fertility shots and another try with artificial insemination.
And then there was Chrissy.
Chrissy is 37 and mom to Oliver, who is 2, and Wendel, who is 5. She’s married to James Knott, who also went to OU. They live seven houses from Annie and Joby in Lewis Center in southern Delaware County.
The couples are that easy kind of close where you exchange verbal jabs for a laugh and open each other’s fridge for a beer and some leftovers without a thought. Close enough that it occurs to you even as you carry your own second son that it makes all the sense in the world that the next and last child you deliver might be your sister’s.
Chrissy hurt for Annie. She thought she might be considered too old to be a surrogate, but she wanted to help if she could.
“We’ve always been so close, and I knew how badly she wanted to help,” Annie said.
Chrissy’s husband said the decision was likely harder for Annie and Joby than for him and his wife. Helping them was natural, James said, but it also meant for Annie that she would not carry her own child.
“We made beautiful embryos,” Joby said.
“We just needed someone else to carry them,” his wife said.
With no answers as to what might have stood in the way of Annie’s becoming pregnant, her fertility specialist hadn’t given up on the possibility, Annie said.
Doctors see it sometimes. A couple stops trying to get pregnant, and that’s when it happens. There’s much that scientists have come to understand about infertility, but much remains a mystery.
In what at that point felt like a medical Hail Mary to the family, Dr. Steven Williams of Ohio Reproductive Medicine implanted two embryos in Annie’s uterus in addition to the two in her sister’s.
“We wanted to increase our odds of getting at least one,” Joby said.
The chance of in vitro leading to a successful delivery for a woman Annie’s age is about 46 percent, based on national data from 2011, the most-recent available. For a woman Chrissy’s age, it is about 38 percent.
The chance of twins: about 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most-recent report.
Williams had made clear that there was a chance that they’d have twins and the added risks that come with that. It seemed so improbable to Annie and Joby after all they’d been through.
And yet, “We were ready for a new problem. If the worst problem he can give us was now there would be four babies, we were ready,” Joby said.
That night, the sisters, who’d been told to rest for a day, shared Annie’s bed and talked and hoped. Joby remembers admiring the selflessness of his in-laws.
Accustomed to being let down, Annie and Joby were ready for bad news.
“We didn’t want Chrissy to feel bad, especially, if it didn’t work,”Annie said.
Chrissy was excited, worried and steeling herself for how they’d get through as a family if the news wasn’t good.
The news came in a voice mail. They listened together.
“I’ve got double-great news ...”
They gasped and laughed and gasped some more.
“Really? So it’s official,” Annie said.
Now they both knew they were pregnant. They figured that meant each sister would deliver one baby. Ultrasounds in March showed otherwise. Quadruplets were on the way.
Later, they learned that Chrissy was carrying two boys; Annie, two girls.
As girls and young women, they’d imagined being pregnant at the same time, but neither expected this.
“Emotionally, mentally, in my heart I’m doing this for them,” Chrissy said about seven months into the pregnancies.
She wasn’t worried about heartache when she slept at home with the boys tucked away down the street.
“I think of them as my nephews, and I know I’ll be very involved in their lives. It would be harder if they lived far away.”
All four babies arrived Oct. 24.