When Nicole Barattini was 16 years old, her eyes became jaundiced and she noticed little bumps all over her body. She went to her pediatrician, and her blood work came back abnormal: She had only 8,000 platelets per microliter, compared to an an average, healthy person’s 140,000 to 150,000. At one scary point, her count dropped to a dangerous 3,000 platelets per microliter.
After being shuffled around to multiple hospitals, a doctor at a children’s hospital in New Hyde Park diagnosed her with an autoimmune disease called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (or TTP). TTP causes tiny, potentially dangerous blood clots to form throughout the body. Whenever she has an episode, Narattini feels extremely tired and may need to be hospitalized for as long as 10 days to receive a plasma exchange. She requires regular immunotherapy, a medication which can make her feel even more tired, too.
Now 29, Nicole has been dealing with her TTP for over a decade. But it was until a year after her 2010 wedding to her now-husband Kevin Barattini that she learned to carry a baby could be damaging to her health – the medication could potentially harm a baby, and to avoid any possible risk, she would likely have to stop treating the TTP, leaving her at risk. While some women do have successful pregnancies while dealing with this illness, Nicole says that she had been informed that many ends up ill or never reach full-term.
The couple considered adopting a baby, but she found the process to be too expensive. She did, however, have another option: to freeze her eggs. Luckily, there was nothing wrong her embryos and she had been informed that her autoimmune disorder was not genetic. Eventually, she’d have someone carry her eggs. But the question was: whom?
“We had heard stories that sisters carried and mothers carried [eggs for women who could not carry], but I don’t have a sister and my mother is over the age [to be able to be a carrier],” she says. “We just did it [froze my eggs] for precautionary reasons and hoped for the best.”
Though paid surrogacy is illegal in New York, Nicole and Kevin looked into finding a surrogate by going outside of New York. It’s also very expensive, though; an attorney informed her that it would cost around $150,000 (Conceive Abilities says the average costs for paying for surrogacy is between $98,000 and $140,000.)
In New York, you can use a gestational carrier – the difference being that a gestational carrier doesn’t involve pay, whereas a surrogate does. You’d think that would make it easier on behalf of the parents, but it can make it even more challenging to find someone: It’s a big ask to approach someone about using their body to carry your child. And Nicole understood that. “I have never been pregnant, but have heard that there is a major bond that takes place over 9 months [of gestation],” she says. “That after 9 months to hand off the babies – even if they are not biologically yours – is too difficult for some people.”
Nicole and her husband were pleasantly surprised, though, to see that many of her friends offered to help out and be a carrier, saying how it was “crazy how many people stepped up to the plate.”
But all of them were deemed to be “unfit” by doctors as a measure of precaution – they had to be the pinnacle of health in order to be a gestational carrier.
In late 2015, the Barattinis finally found their carrier: Nicole and Kevin’s friend Lianna Fives.
Fives’ husband, Shawn, had been friends with Kevin for about 15 years, and the family had long known about the Barattini’s struggles. Lianna, though capable of being a carrier, had always been a supportive friend but offered to help. She was trying to grow her own family.
“Lianna always knew she wanted to have more kids, so she never mentioned anything to us,” Nicole says, also adding that Lianna has said that she always knew she would help out despite not having offered early on. But after the Fives had their 5 children, they decided they were ready to help their longtime friends.
Lianna first tried with two of Nicole’s embryos in June 2016 and was unsuccessful. She tried again in July, and it worked – soon enough, Lianna was certifiably pregnant.
During Lianna’s pregnancy, Nicole, Kevin, and Shawn all joined her at doctors’ appointments. Nicole says it wasn’t weird for her to see someone else carrying her baby and receiving the care from the ob/gyn. “We had been through so much that I had been OK with the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to carry, so at that point, it wasn’t hard at all,” she says. “It was actually a relief that they were going to be healthy, and there was less stress for me knowing that a really good person was carrying them.”
Lianna gave birth to two healthy twins, Dominic and Luciana, on February 10. She’s now Luciana’s godmother.
Nicole says her babies are healthy, and she’s been in remission from having any serious TTP episodes for two and a half years, though she still gets immunotherapy every 12 weeks, mostly to keep any potential symptoms at bay.
Nicole hopes her story gives other women who can’t carry hope. “It’s never the end of the road. I do wish it was legal to have a surrogate [in New York], because I do think more people would do it if they were paid, unfortunately,” she says. “But there are people out there like Liana that will do it out of kindness – and it’s easier to find them than it seems.”