sisters, one baby
By Hallie Levine, Ladies Home Journal, January
Weaver was twenty-seven when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Her sister saved her life-and gave her the family she’d
always dreamed of.
baby makes four: [from left] Gloria, Alicia and Eli,
Alicia Weaver was busy commuting from her home in
Rahway, New Jersey, to New York City to complete her
master’s degree in counseling at New York University,
she still managed to stay close with her sisters,
Kara, then thirty, and Gloria, thirty-one.
on June 24, 1993, Alicia had sudden chest pains and
went to the emergency room.
hospital visit triggered a chain of events that brought
the tree sisters closer together than ever.
The doctors at the hospital could find nothing wrong with
me, and attributed my chest pains to a heart murmur. But
the results from routine blood work revealed that my white-blood-cell
count was high. I stayed in the hospital for more testing,
and three days later, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid
leukemia (CML), a cancer of the blood. In just a second,
my whole life changed: My husband, Philip, and I wanted
to buy a house and have kids-something I had dreamed about
since I was a little girl-but now we worried about whether
I would survive.
specialists recommended chemotherapy, but after doing lot
of research, I knew it could destroy my chances of having
a baby. The doctors were baffled hat I would put this concern
over my recovery. Finally, Gregory Berk, M.D., an oncologist
at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, In New York
City, told me that I could freeze my embryos in case the
therapy made me infertile. Philip and I did that in August
1993, and then I started treatment that combined interferon,
an immune-boosting therapy, and chemo.
the treatment stopped the progression of my cancer, it didn’t
bring a full remission. So in September 1994, I decided
to take the one chance that could save my life. At the tome,
the only known cure for CML was a bone-marrow transplant,
in which the marrow and the cancer cells it contains are
destroyed by chemotherapy and replaced with healthy marrow
from a donor. The procedure can have fatal complications,
but now it was my only hope. My entire family was tested
to see if anyone was a match, but Kara and I both had a
gut feeling that she would be the one. The tests revealed
that our instincts were right. Dr. Berk referred me to Seattle’s
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the country’s
top transplant center.
I flew to Seattle for preliminary tests on September 20,
1994. I was so excited. Here’s something beautiful
in knowing you have the ability to save your sister. But
I was also fearful: If the transplant didn’t work,
would that mean I’d failed her?
When I checked in on October 9, I couldn’t help worrying
about Kara, who was in another part of the hospital having
surgery to remove her bone marrow.
Alicia worried, but I wasn’t even nervous; the anesthesiologist
told me I was the calmest person he’d even seen. Then,
bam, I was out. The next thing I knew, my niece, Rachel,
was hugging me.
After what seemed like an eternity, a nurse wheeled Kara
into my room. Although she was groggy, she managed to flash
me a grin. Then the doctor started the transplant, which
is somewhat like a blood transfusion. It was painful, but
as I watched Kara’s bone marrow drip into my body,
I felt a healing energy. My family even sang “Happy
Birthday” to me – they viewed the transplant
as a rebirth.
next three weeks were a blur. I started experiencing acute
graft-versus-host disease, in which immune cells from the
donated tissue start rejecting the patient’s own organs.
I was constantly nauseated and was given extra fluids to
prevent dehydration. Meanwhile, Philip’s father was
dying of cancer. Philip was always by my side, but I felt
guilty that I was another problem for my husband to worry
about. Finally, the hospital’s chaplain gave me valuable
advice. “You can’t fight this alone,”
he said. “Relax and let everybody around you love
you.” Once I started accepting help from my family
and friends, my health gradually began to improve.
We visited Alicia regularly after the transplant, but I’ll
always remember November 4. My mother was reading my sister’s
medical chart. She started clapping and said,”Alicia,
your blood count is improving!” “What does that
mean?” Alicia asked groggily. Mom said, “You
don’t have leukemia anymore.” Alicia turned
to me and murmured, “Thank you.” “For
what?” I asked. For saving my life,” she answered.
Alicia and I weren’t totally healthy yet. The left
side of my back, where they’d removed the bone marrow,
became infected and I developed a low-grade fever. Although
it’s a common complication, I had to stay away from
the hospital because the doctors worried that I could pass
a virus to Alicia. I understood, but was upset; I felt a
little left out while everyone focused on my sister.
was released from the hospital on November 9, and made outpatient
visits until January 10, 1995. She needed immuno suppressive
drugs for another year.
I developed another case of chronic graft-versus-host disease
and often experienced rashes. I was still battling fatigue
from the transplant, but by March of the following year,
I was strong enough to begin working as a career counselor.
When Alicia went back to work, I knew she’d turned
a corner. I was so grateful that I had a chance to help
my sister. If I found out I were a match for someone else,
I’d donate again in a heartbeat.
At my five-year remission checkup, doctors pronounced me
cancer-free, but they also had devastating news: the chemo
had made me infertile. I could be artificially inseminated
with my embryos I had frozen before chemotherapy, but Dr.
Berk strongly recommended against it. Experts don’t
know why, but pregnancy can cause a relapse of CML. For
years, the dream of having children had helped me through
the pain of treatment and now that hope was gone.
and I started looking into adoption. Then Gloria said, “I’ll
carry your child for you.” She was willing to be artificially
inseminated with one of my frozen embryos (which had been
fertilized by Philip’s sperm), so that we could have
Kara and I hoped Alicia would be able to carry her own baby,
but we suspected that it might be too dangerous for her.
I knew Alicia and Philip would be great parents, which made
my decision that much easier.
My first instinct was to refuse-it was too much to ask.
But Gloria persisted. I’ll never forget the day she
came to me crying and said, “Let me give you this
gift, please.” She was so sincere that my reservations
vanished. We decided to try it once. If it didn’t
work, Philip and I would adopt.
I knew I’d made the right choice, but I still had
some anxious moments. My daughter, Rachel, then ten, had
just had surgery to reconstruct her chest cavity (A follow-up
operation to her open-heart surgery years ago, and as a
divorced single mom, I wondered if I was taking on too much.
But I never go back on my word.
implanted three embryos into Gloria’s uterus. Two
weeks later, Gloria, Alicia and Philip found out the procedure
was a success.
The implantation was the only part of the pregnancy that
went smoothly. I had morning sickness for months! While
I was moaning, Alicia kept saying, “I wish it were
me!” The baby also decided to site on my sciatic nerve
the last two months of the pregnancy, causing excruciating
I have to admit, I worried that the baby would be more attached
to Gloria than to me. But I was also constantly amazed as
her belly grew.
I could tell how badly Alicia wanted to carry Eli. When
I called her to tell her about his first kicks, I heard
her choke up over the phone.
We had one other hurdle during the pregnancy. The State
of New Jersey gave legal rights to the birth mother. So,
although I was the biological mother, I would have to adopt
my own child. But Gloria and I hired Melissa Brisman, a
lawyer in Montvale, New Jersey, and we fought the law and
won. We set a precedent in New Jersey: My name would be
on the baby’s birth certificate.
that, I couldn’t wait for the baby to come. Gloria
decided to induce birth on April 13, 2000. I grew more nervous
as that day approached. Although the chance of complications
was small, what if something happened to my sister? As it
turned out, it was a difficult birth. Gloria was in labor
for twelve hours and eventually had a cesarean section.
I held her hand the entire time.
I looked up and saw the doctor holding my son, Eli. When
I held him, it was like no other feeling in the world. I’d
been around other babies, so I thought I would know what
it felt like, but this was incredible. I knew right away
that he was my child. I felt a warm rush of love that was
almost painful. Any worries I had about us bonding vanished.
After the birth, I had no regrets. I liked holding Eli,
but I took more pleasure in seeing the love on my sister’s
face. She’d waited her whole life for this moment,
and I was thrilled to be able to give it to her.
ask me if I feel a special bond with Eli. Surprisingly,
I don’t. I do want to cuddle him, but I feel that
way about every baby I see. I thought Eli would recognize
my voice, but he doesn’t respond to me the way he
does to Alicia.
Eli’s birth as a new beginning for our family. Rachel
is health, Eli is healthy, Alicia is healthy. I believe
God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and
we’ve had enough. Now we can just focus on being a
healthy, happy family.
I still look at Eli and marvel that he’s mine. Every
day I think of how lucky I am to have such a miracle in
my life. I’m also thankful to have had such a wonderful
support network-my family and my husband. Kara and Gloria
gave me my life and my child. Every sister should be so
For more information on cancer treatments, call the National
Cancer Institute at 800-422-6237. To volunteer to be a bone-marrow
donor, call the National Marrow Donor Program at 800-627-7692
Levine is a reporter for The New York Post.