Growing up as twins in Oregon, Whitney Bliesner and Jill Noe didn't look much alike and they had different interests. But they were fiercely loyal and close.
Their bond was built on day-to-day interactions like helping each other with homework and confiding their secret high school crushes. When they lived in separate states during college, they spoke almost every day.
But last year, at age 34, their twin bond was taken to a new level. Bliesner, who had fought a rare genetic disease since childhood, was struggling because her health prevented her from having children. So Noe, a former star shooting guard for the Arizona State University basketball team, stepped up with the ultimate assist:
"You know what? I'll be your surrogate," Noe told Bliesner shortly before Christmas in 2017, as they were wrapping stocking stuffers for a family party.
Bliesner was stunned. They'd always been close, but carrying someone else's baby - even your sister's - was an enormous commitment. Pregnancy isn't easy for most women.
"I was overwhelmingly grateful that she wanted to put her life on hold and do this for me," Bliesner said. "It's hard for me to find words to express how I felt."
Noe was implanted using in vitro fertilization, and quickly became pregnant - with twins.
At their baby shower in the spring, the sisters cracked up their guests when they showed up in T-shirts reading "Mama in the Making" and "Making for the Mama." The Arizona Republic and other media outlets reported on it.
And earlier this month, Noe - after somehow avoiding morning sickness and having an otherwise uneventful pregnancy - delivered two healthy babies, a boy and a girl. Her twin was by her side during her C-section.
Rhett was delivered first, weighing 7 pounds, 11 ounces, while his sister, Rhenley, was born two minutes later at a much smaller 4 pounds, 13 ounces. They were delivered at Portland's Providence St. Vincent Medical Center on June 7.
"It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed in my life," said Noe, who is on maternity leave from her sports marketing job at Nike.
Whitney Bliesner and her husband, Pete, an engineer, are now sharing feeding and diaper duties at their home in Oregon City, about 20 miles from Noe's place in Portland.
"I couldn't ask for a better sister," said Bliesner, who is taking time off from her job documenting medical billing codes as she happily adjusts to life with two newborns. "And I know that Jill will be the world's greatest aunt."
Noe called herself a "house" for the babies to grow in for nine months, rent-free. Though she admits it was a house with a lot of love, and also that it was an emotional experience for her.
In fact, Noe hopes to go through in vitro fertilization again at some point with her partner, Maya Gross, 31, a firefighter.
The experience was profoundly emotional for Bliesner as well, who wondered if she'd be able to have a family after years of struggling with health issues brought on by Neurofibromatosis Type 2, a disorder that causes the growth of noncancerous tumors in the nervous system.
Over the years, she had six brain surgeries to remove tumors, and Bliesner lost the vision in her left eye and much of her hearing. She also opted to have a partial hysterectomy when doctors told her that pregnancy could worsen her condition, she said.
"My first symptom of a problem was a lazy eye when I was about 13," Bliesner said. "Because there's a 50% chance of passing this on, my husband and I decided to explore other ways of having a family."
She added: "I always wanted to be a mum, but I didn't want to put my child through what I went through."
After each surgery, her twin sister was there to support her, just as Bliesner comforted Noe when she had to miss two seasons of college basketball because of a couple major knee operations.
"When Jill went away to college in Arizona and I stayed in Oregon to go to Oregon State, it was tough," Bliesner said. "We each had to go find our own identities, but we missed each other, even though we talked almost every day."
Before her sister moved, Bliesner made her a stuffed bear at Build-A-Bear, adding a sound chip with the "Go, Jill Noe!" chant she'd shouted from the stands at high school basketball games.
Noe was Bliesner's maid of honor when she got married in 2016.
Knowing that her sister wanted to become a mother, Noe didn't hesitate to offer her body as a "house" when it became apparent that adoption or paying for a surrogate wasn't affordable for Bliesner and her husband, she said.
"I was ready, willing and healthy, so why not?" Noe said.
Although the first IVF attempt using donor eggs fertilized with sperm from Pete Bliesner in September 2018 wasn't successful, Whitney Bliesner called her sister one month later with happy news from the clinic after the second try: "You're pregnant with twins!"
Bliesner said she felt guilty her sister was doing all the work, so she pampered her with massages.
"And I probably irritated her by asking every day how she was doing," Bliesner said.
Their mother, Lynn Stradley, said the sisters' strength comes from their devotion to each other.
"The love my twin girls share for each other is remarkable," said Stradley, 64, of Wilsonville. "Watching them plan, prepare and deliver twin children for Whitney has been a joy I cannot adequately express in words."
On Noe's delivery date, other family members waited in the wings while Bliesner accompanied her sister to the operating room for her C-section.
Even after her sister gave her the gift of motherhood, Bliesner is still astounded that Noe insists on giving more.
"I had planned to feed the babies formula, but Jill insists on pumping breast milk for them," she said. "She's more than my sister - she's my best friend. My hope for my children is that they grow up to become as close as me and my twin sister."
The Washington Post