Ex-professional basketball player Jill Noe is used to life in the fast lane. But these days the athlete is slowing down to take on a challenge of a different sort: being pregnant with healthy twins. The genetics for twins actually run in Noe’s family, too, as she is a twin herself. Now, though, the star’s experiencing the joys of carrying babies first hand.
It might not have been too much of a surprise for Noe – who hails from Portland, Oregon – to fall pregnant with twins. After all, 34-year-old Noe and her twin sister, Whitney Bliesner, come from a big family. They in fact share a brother called Jordan, a stepsister called Cacey and two stepbrothers, Maison and Trever. Their ranks are about to get even larger with the addition of the future children as well.
For Bliesner’s part, however, giving birth isn’t an option. This is because she has a rare genetic disorder. To be more specific, physicians diagnosed Bliesner with a condition called neurofibromatosis when she was younger. And as a result of the illness, Bliesner and any theoretical babies could be put at risk by pregnancies or deliveries.
Neurofibromatosis is actually a condition that causes tumors to develop on tissue in the nervous system. Yet although these growths aren’t usually cancerous, they can sometimes turn malignant. There’s also three different forms of the disease, each with different symptoms. Doctors frequently identify the first type – neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1) – within ten years of a baby’s birth.
NF1 often causes harmless small brown spots or freckles to grow on a child’s, say, groin or armpits. But sometimes more severe symptoms can occur. For example, the condition can have a negative impact on bone growth – causing bowed legs or a curved spine. People with NF1 might also have learning difficulties, with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) occurring within one out of every two sufferers.
Schwannomatosis is perhaps the rarest type of neurofibromatosis, though, and curiously occurs mostly in adults between 20 and 30 years old. The tumor growths for those with schwannomatosis are largely concentrated on the outlying nerves of the spine and brain. Schwannomatosis can also cause sufferers extreme pain, body numbness and muscle loss.
The last type is neurofibromatosis 2 (NF2). This is the strain that Bliesner has. And sufferers of NF2 are typically afflicted with tumors that grow on the nerves around the brain and inner ear. These have a negative effect on vision, hearing and the sufferer’s limbs – but there are other consequences for Bliesner too.
Over the course of 11 years, starting in 2000, Bliesner experienced a severe loss of eyesight and hearing. Initially, in fact, she went blind in one eye. Then her hearing began to diminish. In 2004, for instance, Bliesner was deaf in only her right ear. But in 2011 she lost nearly half of her hearing in the left one too.
Bliesner then experienced another blow to her health when she had an operation to treat womb growths, or fibroids. The procedure in fact resulted in a partial hysterectomy, which naturally added complications to the prospect of any future pregnancies. So now not only would any offspring potentially inherit NF2, but bearing children would also risk Bliesner’s own health too.
Bliesner’s twin, Noe, obviously always admired her sister’s strength during these challenges, and she has even experienced some setbacks herself. In 2003, for instance, Noe was a star basketball player for the Sun Devils – Arizona State University’s (ASU) athletics team. Early in the season, though, the athlete sustained an injury to her left knee that temporarily put her career on hold.
In fact, Noe’s knee was so damaged that it required surgery to correct and prevented further basketball for two seasons. Yet although her speed subsequently suffered a slight hit as a result, Noe didn’t run into too much trouble afterwards. The star went on to participate in games across countries such as Turkey, Australia and Sweden, after all.
Then, after her pro ball career reached its conclusion, Noe kept herself busy with other sports-related jobs. She even worked as the head coach for Lake Oswego’s Lakeridge High School for three years, for example. And these days, Noe is touring as a high-school basketball field representative for sporting company Nike.
So after Noe’s own experiences, the athlete could probably imagine what Bliesner had been through. And if Noe could have taken her sister’s place, she would have. “I wish I could’ve gone in and stepped up to be the one who needed the surgery,” Noe reportedly said when Bliesner was hospitalized. “She’s stronger than me, and she’s proved it time and time again.”
But despite coming through her operation, Bliesner still had unresolved feelings about starting a family. She told Today as much in April 2019. “I was trying to convince myself that I was okay with not having kids,” she said. “Because there was no way I was going to afford adoption.”
Yet these issues occurred before she met her husband, Peter Bliesner. Bliesner continued, “I got married to a wonderful man almost three years ago. And once I got married, the feeling of wanting a family came back strong. So I decided to look at all my options and figure out how I could go about it.”
Her remaining options were limited, however – until physicians informed the Bliesners that there was another potential alternative to pregnancy. They said, in fact, that the couple could fertilize an egg with her husband’s sperm. Bliesner explained to CNN in April 2019, “We couldn’t use my eggs because there’s a 50/50 chance I could pass it on.”
“I just don’t think I would be able to live with myself if I knew I passed this condition to my kids,” Bliesner told Today. Yet even though finding a surrogate mother sounded like the best solution, the couple still deemed the process too costly. So Bliesner was right back to square one again… or so she thought.
In late 2017, you see, Noe reportedly made Bliesner an offer she couldn’t refuse. “I was talking to my sister while we did our annual stocking stuffers, and she told me she would carry for me,” Bliesner said. It was, of course, perhaps the best present that Noe could have given her.
For her part, Noe revealed that she couldn’t just sit and watch her twin sister suffer. “She’s always wanted to be a mom, and her disease has already taken so much from her,” she said of Bliesner. “I wasn’t going to allow [NF2] to take this opportunity from her too.”
Noe continued, “She’s my best friend, and I know she would have done the same for me. I really didn’t put much thought into becoming a surrogate at all. It just felt like the right thing to do. Our family is so strong and so supportive of one another, especially since [Bliesner]’s diagnosis in eighth grade.”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s just do it,’” Noe told CNN. “Let’s just see where this goes and let’s see if I can get my body to where it needs to be to have your kids.” Yet even Bliesner was as stunned as she was grateful, especially considering her twin’s fast-paced lifestyle.
“I was very happy and excited, but also shocked,” Bliesner recalled. “Because I know how active and fun and exciting her life is. And for her to want to actually stop that for me was just kind of like a shock.” But of course, finding an egg donor was only part of the battle.
For instance, the sisters encountered obstacles when Noe began IVF treatment to fertilize her eggs. Bliesner told news site azcentral in April 2019, “We both went into it blind.” And as a result, neither twin knew what to expect – and the first two fertilized eggs didn’t produce a baby.
The news naturally hit both twins hard. “It was kind of a morose day,” Noe said. But she wasn’t finished there. “Then we had to wait another month to try it again, so I went back on all the hormones.” Noe, it seems, was determined to keep trying for sister’s sake.
“I told her, ‘Whitney, I’m only going to do this once for you, so take as many eggs as you want, and let’s see what we can do,’” Noe recounted. And that’s exactly what they did. And Bliesner had such high hopes for their second try that she didn’t even want to wait for the hospital’s diagnosis.
In fact, Bliesner convinced Noe to take an off-the-shelf pregnancy test the second time around. “Her and my mom wanted to know if it was positive, but not if it was negative,” Bliesner said of her relatives. “So I kept it to myself, like [an] I-know-more-than-you-do kind of thing.”
Yet it turned out that the sisters’ second try had borne fruit – and that both eggs resulted in pregnancy. Yes, Noe is carrying twins, much to the delight of Bliesner. Having experienced life as a twin first hand, she couldn’t wait to raise some herself, as she told Today.
Bliesner said, “I am excited about having twins because I am a twin. And I know what kind of bond my sister and I have, so I wanted my kids to have that and go through life with a best friend they came into the world with. Just like me and Jill.”
Noe is actually carrying both a boy and a girl, both of whom Bliesner and Pete have already named. They’ve in fact called the girl twin Rhenley and the boy Rhett. As for Noe, she’s keeping out of the limelight as much as possible, despite being the surrogate mother. She’d actually much rather let Bliesner and Pete take center stage.
For this reason, when news of the pregnancy broke, Noe didn’t name herself as surrogate mother to the twins. Instead, she let the Bliesners experience all the celebrations for themselves. The family only revealed the truth later, in fact, by way of a pair of T-shirts that Bliesner and Noe wore.
To be more specific, Bliesner’s top read “momma in the making,” and Noe’s said “making for the momma.” It’s this kind of consideration that’s convinced Bliesner that her twin is the ideal surrogate mother. She told azcentral, “I couldn’t ask for a better surrogate. She’s treating this as a job, and [she’s] 110 percent committed. She’s been amazing.”
“I just tell people I’m the house,” Noe added. “They’re paying rent, but it’s free of charge.” The big-hearted twin attributes her selflessness in the face of pregnancy to her former ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne. “Charlie set the precedent for being a strong independent working woman and having three children,” Noe explained.
Noe continued, “She always blew my mind on how she was able to crank those kids out and the next day be at practice like nothing even happened. She’s definitely someone I aspire to be.” And Thorne thinks just as highly of Noe too, if her reaction to the surrogacy is any indication.
Thorne said, “It totally epitomizes who [Noe] is and the bond she shares with her sister. A few times it was touch and go with her sister’s health, and it tore her up. Jill’s a giver. It’s who she was before we got her and also who we teach them to be.”
The twins also learned some of their kindness from their mother, who is “the catalyst” to their bond. Noe told CNN, “It’s just instilled in me and Whitney, and obviously my other siblings, that no matter what adversities we faced, we’re always there together. And we’ll go through it as one big strong unit.”
So far, too, Noe’s been lucky with her pregnancy symptoms – or lack thereof. In fact, she still has decent energy levels and has yet to experience morning sickness. And if all goes according to plan, Noe will deliver the twins by cesarean section in June 2019. But has going though pregnancy put her off motherhood?
Actually, Noe hasn’t discounted the possibility of having babies of her own in the future. She’s therefore currently debating whether to freeze some of her own eggs. Then she would also have a fail-safe in case she suffers from her own genetic difficulties as she gets older.
Noe told the The Coloradoan, “I want to have children of my own and to have my kids grow up with my sister’s kids. It’s always a beautiful thing when families have cousins they can hang out with and are close. I tell people this wasn’t in my life plan, but everything takes a turn, and this one was obviously a turn for the better.”
“My ultimate goal is to have kids in two to three years,” Noe informed Today. “So that my children can grow up with Whit’s.” In the meantime, though, she’s sharing as much of the pregnancy experience with her twin sister as she can. And Bliesner says it’s the next best thing to going through it herself.
“Jill has been amazing during this whole process,” Bliesner said. “She lets me ask her all these weird questions, lets me touch her stomach. And it’s just amazing because this is the closest I could get to actually having the babies inside me.” So it’s wonderful to see that with these twins, family ties are the ones that bond.