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After 10 years of trying to be parents, MN couple finds peace of mind through surrogacy

After Rachel (right) and Russ Elliott spent years trying to have a child, Amber Johnson (left), a family friend, volunteered to be their surrogate. In December, Remie was born two months early and stayed 23 days at the neonatal intensive care unit in St. Cloud before coming home in January. Beth Leipholtz / Forum News Service1 / 2
Amber Johnson of Miltona (left) was a surrogate for Rachel (center) and Russ (right) Elliott, and gave birth to baby Remie on Dec. 11, 2016. Beth Leipholtz / Forum News Service2 / 2

Rachel Elliott sits next to her husband, Russ, on the couch in their Evansville home. Russ holds their 1-month-old daughter Remie, dressed in a pink onesie, as Rachel looks on with a combination of love, awe and a little bewilderment.

Simple moments like this one were a long time in the making for the Elliotts, who spent nearly 10 years trying to have a child.

Along the way, the couple went through natural family planning, in vitro fertilization and adoption. When none of those worked, a family friend offered to serve as a surrogate for the couple. On Dec. 11, the Elliotts' daughter was born.

Attempting in vitro

After getting married in 2007, Russ and Rachel decided they would try to have children, but were eventually told their chances of conceiving naturally were "slim to none."

"All of a sudden it was like, 'Oh, things aren't really working out,'" Russ recalled. "We talked to a doctor, who said, 'Well, give it a year.' A year goes past and everybody starts getting checked out. Both of us were not really able to have kids."

After giving it some thought, the couple decided to try in vitro fertilization in 2009. In vitro fertilization is a procedure where an egg is fertilized by sperm outside of the body and then implanted in the woman's uterus.

"At that time, our mind was really narrow about this," Russ said. "I think in this journey, your opinion of having a child opens up a lot more. You think, 'I'm not going to do that,' but as years go by you're like, 'OK, I'm comfortable with that now.'"

Rachel was put on a medication to help with producing eggs and 22 eggs were taken from her body. Of those 22, only seven were viable and were fertilized during three different rounds of in vitro.

"The chances got slimmer and slimmer," Rachel said. "In between, I'd have to drive to Fargo once a week to have the blood tests, and see when my body was ready for the implant. Toward the week of implantation, it was every three days. Unfortunately, that just didn't work."

A shot at adoption

After their attempt at in vitro, the couple waited another year before pursuing a different route in 2011: adoption.

Since they wanted to adopt an infant from the U.S., Russ and Rachel were told the process could take about two and a half years.

The couple spent about one year completing the necessary paperwork and taking classes on adoption. Then, in August 2014, they received the call they'd been waiting for. They were told that a woman, eight months pregnant, was having a little boy. She would be placing him for adoption and would like to meet with them.

After meeting them, she chose Russ and Rachel to adopt her son. They brought him home shortly after he was born.

"We were there when he was born, we took him home, we named him," Russ said.

Though the father did not wish to be involved, Russ and Rachel asked the mother to contact him about his medical history so they would have more information about their son. That was when things took a turn for the worse.

"Four days into it she got a form from a lawyer saying he's not going to give up his parental rights," Russ said.

The Elliotts and the baby's birth mother did what they could in terms of fighting for the Elliotts to keep the baby, but in the end, the father had parental rights. Russ and Rachel had the baby boy for six weeks before being forced by the law to part with him.

"We knew he was going to have to go," Rachel said. "It was probably one of the hardest things we've ever done in our entire lives. You bury yourself in what you can (after that)."

Russ and Rachel say they've never resented the birth mother for the situation, and know that it was beyond her control as well.

"It was just as much a shock for her as it was for us," Rachel said. "She's like, 'What do I do?' She apologized up and down. We said, 'All you can do is love him and everyone has to start somewhere.'"

After that, the Elliotts remained in the adoption system, but the situation had taken a toll on them.

Six months later, a different opportunity presented itself.

Amber Johnson was a surrogate for Rachel and Russ Elliott, and gave birth to baby Remie on Remie on Dec. 11, 2016.

Turning to surrogacy

Surrogacy — allowing someone else to carry their child — was something that had crossed the Elliotts' minds, but never too seriously. Then, a family friend offered to be their surrogate. Amber Johnson of Miltona had considered being a surrogate before, and felt that the chance to help the Elliotts was what she'd been waiting for.

"I just couldn't even imagine what they'd went through and they're just the sweetest people," Johnson said. "They deserve to be parents. I thought, 'If I can help, I will.'"

At first the Elliotts were hesitant, but as Johnson insisted she really was OK with being their surrogate, they agreed. In the next few months, they figured out the legal details and went through the necessary education and appointments.

Johnson is a single mother, so she made sure to talk to her 8-year-old son, Wyatt, about what being a surrogate meant.

"We just kind of talked about having a baby, but the baby is going to live with someone else," Johnson said. "He was OK with it."

In May 2016, after the third and final try, Johnson found out she was pregnant. The pregnancy went well, but Johnson went into labor two months early, and was airlifted to St. Cloud as a precaution.

Through her whole pregnancy, Johnson says she never struggled with knowing she would have to part with the baby.

"I think it's a mindset," she said. "If you're going into it, you know what the outcome is going to be."

Russ and Rachel were present for Remie's birth on Dec. 11, which they say was emotional.

"There's not words for it," Rachel said. "It's the most amazing feeling in the entire world. ... I think the biggest thing for us and even Amber was that she (Remie) would cry. Her first cry, everybody lost it."

Due to being early, Remie had to spend 23 days in the St. Cloud Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

In early January, the Elliotts brought their baby girl home. In the time since, Johnson and her son have visited. The Elliotts say they plan to always be honest with Remie about who Johnson is.

"We told Amber that she (Remie) needs to know her," Russ said. "They say when (children are) old enough to start asking questions, you should tell them. That's the nice thing about the journey that we had, I think we learned a lot about how we should teach her."

The Elliotts say the gift Johnson gave them is one for which they'll never feel like they can repay her.

"There's really no way to thank somebody for that," Rachel said. "I can say 'thank you' a hundred million times and it's still not enough."

But for Johnson, simply knowing how thankful the Elliotts are is enough.

"They are the most deserving people and they are going to be such great parents for her," she said.