When Jodi Wegge gave birth to her daughter Lindsay in 1999, the baby was three and a half weeks early and a breech birth. The placenta erupted and she had an emergency cesarean section, losing so much blood that she died on the table for 32 seconds as her organs shut down.
"The baby was fine, and I had a two percent chance," said Wegge, now 47 and from Sturgeon Lake, Minn. She lost her uterus in a hysterectomy, but luckily retained her ovaries.
Today, Wegge's daughter is 16, but she also has 13-year-old biological triplets who were conceived through in vitro fertilization with her husband Dan's sperm and her own eggs.
She owes it all to gestational carrier Meredith Olafson, who at the age of 47 has just "retired" her uterus after giving birth to 15 children, four of them her own.
The Wegge triplets were the first of 11 surrogate children that she delivered over the last 16 years. And on March 29, Olafson gave birth to her 11th and last surrogate child, a girl.
"I am stopping because of my age and six C-sections," said Olafson, a private nurse from Fargo, N.D., and a grandmother. "It's kind of a lot, and it's time to say we're done."
The Wegge triplets were the first children born from a gestational carrier in the state. The families hired a private attorney who eventually helped write the laws of surrogacy in North Dakota.
"I love her," Wegge said of Olafson. "I call her every year on their birthday at 7 in the morning. When the phone rings on April 29th, she knows it's me and I simply say, 'Thank you.'"
Olafson, who has four children of her own aged 16 to 24, has given birth to two sets of triplets and a set of twins, as well as three singletons. None of them are her biological children, because the parents supplied the embryos.
"We never went into it to make money," said Olafson, who has a sense of humor and the full support of husband Jay. "Our intention was for people who are unable to have their own children to go through the same torment as we went through with our children."
"It is easier on families, too, knowing they are their kids -- and for my family, knowing they are not related to them," she said.
Olafson is, perhaps, the most prolific surrogate mother in the United States, only outdone by Carole Horlock, a British woman who has given birth to 12 babies for other women and now lives in France.
Jill Hawkins, also British, is pregnant with twins, her ninth and 10th surrogate babies. Both women have been criticized for risking their health and being "addicted" to pregnancy and media attention.
In the largely unregulated world of surrogacy, Olafson seemingly stands out as a role model who chooses to help others for all the right reasons.
"What Meredith has done is to unselfishly help people become parents," said Karen Synesiou, director of the Center for Surrogate Parenting in California, which did not work with Olafson. "How can anyone criticize her?"
Synesious's agency, the largest one in the country, helped David Furnish and Elton John become parents.
"What is remarkable is the two sets of triplets and a set of twins," she said. "Usually there are complications after multiples and that combined with premature delivery excludes a person from being a surrogate mother again."
Typically, agencies won't use a surrogate mother who has had more than six surrogates, delivered twins prematurely or has had multiple cesarean sections, according to Synesiou. All of Olafson's six pregnancies as a surrogate were C-sections.
Even three pregnancies is considered a lot for a surrogate mother, she said.
Meredith Olafson's Children Support Her
Olafson's 22-year-old biological daughter Jessica said she is "grateful" for her mother's generous nature.
"I have grown up with it," said Jessica, who works as a housekeeper. "It has always been there and I'm very glad for what she has done for other families. We have met all of them."
Olafson sat her children down and explained that she had decided to help another couple. "I knew coming out of it that none of them would be my brothers and sisters."
Jessica Olafson, the second born, was 7 when her mother gave birth to the Wegge triplets. Her other siblings, two girls and a boy, were 9, 3 and 2. "Basically it was a family decision," said Olafson.
Many gestational carriers are paid upward of $250,000 per pregnancy in the United States.
As for Olafson, she received payment for medical treatment during her pregnancy. "We also basically sat down and figured out if I had to stop working because of the pregnancy, what it would take to pay the bills."
She has worked throughout all her pregnancies.
Olafson said all were easy and her deliveries were short. The longest labor was with her oldest daughter -- only one hour and 15 minutes. Her other deliveries were 30 minutes and 20 minutes.
"I had a couple of little bumps with the second set of triplets -- three days before my scheduled C-section my blood pressure jumped up," she said. "But fortunately each doctor said, your uterus has done very well."
After each C-section, Olafson was up and walking around, and two weeks out she was back at work.
And she keeps in touch with every one of the families, especially the Wegges, who at the time of the triplets pregnancy lived in North Dakota. Olafson visited the family in Minnesota on the triplets' first birthday after they moved.
Jodi and Dan Wegge had always wanted a large family but had given up on adoption because she was approaching 35 and the wait for a baby might be years.
Because she still had her ovaries, the couple researched IVF and using a gestational carrier. They consulted an agency but were shocked to learn it didn't do much in the way of screening, not even home visits.
"I didn't want to be in North Dakota with a woman in California carrying my baby," said Wegge. "They could be gangsters or there could be drugs, and they could be shot on the street. Bad things ran through my head."
They were ready to cancel their contract when the agency mentioned they had received a call from a potential surrogate who lived only 40 minutes from the Wegges' home. She was a nurse with four children and her husband worked as a produce manager.
The Wegges decided to seek out the woman they only knew as "Meredith" on their own. "We called every hospital and nursing home but they wouldn't give information on their employees," she said. "So we started calling grocery stores."
Eventually, they found Jay Olafson and the families agreed to call a lawyer and do the surrogacy contract privately.
Both women took hormones -- Wegge, to produce enough eggs for retrieval, and Olafson, to prepare for implantation of her embryos.
The first try failed because Wegge came down with meningitis and blood poisoning. The second time, three good eggs were fertilized, but their contract stipulated that only two embryos would be implanted.
"The doctor said, 'Here's the deal,' said Wegge. "You have a 50 percent chance if we put in two -- but if we put in three, there's a 70 percent chance."
Even though the risk of having triplets was low -- about 5 percent -- Wegge knew Olafson was taking a greater risk to her health by implanting three embryos.
Someone had to make a decision as the two women lay side by side on the tables. "I am all stressed and emotional and my husband is standing there," said Wegge. So her husband and Olafson "grabbed hands and looked at each other and said, 'Load 'em up.'"
Three weeks later doctors saw three beating hearts. Nicholas, Brooke and Megan were all born healthy. [Megan has since developed undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma, but it is in remission. The cancer has no relation to the birth.]
The way their parents have explained their birth is: "We rented an apartment for you to grow in."
Olafson looks back fondly on their birth and on those of eight other children who came into the world because of her big heart.
She said she feels a tinge of sadness that surrogacy has now come to an end.
"It makes so many people happy," said Olafson. "When I see that heartbeat or hear the heartbeat for the first time and hand the child literally over to the parents -- the expression on their faces is priceless."