Our Angel of Kyiv

Greetings! It’s been a while. Life sort of took over for a few months, but we’re back at it and things are going to progress once again. I’m going to start with a story I’ve been hoping to have time to tell for quite awhile now, as it’s about a person who may have been more responsible for all of this working out with our boys than anyone else. It seems relatively common that crazy, intense stories with even temporary diabolical possibilities involve a random, unforeseen person coming along and making all the difference. Her name is Dr. Irina, and we consider her our Angel of Kyiv.

As I’ve mentioned before, there was a time during all of this when it started to seem possible that all could be lost with Mickey. He was fighting for his life, and we didn’t understand why or how. We had no idea what was going to happen or what we could do to help. We had help from people we already knew, as we’ve covered.

We needed help on an ongoing basis at the hospital after we got our initial diagnosis, and we weren’t getting it. No one spoke English, no one had time to try to communicate with us and no one seemed to be overly concerned about keeping us informed. It was torturous. Was he getting better? What was happening? Were there any setbacks? How soon until we could hold him?

As my psychological dyke was about to spring too many leaks to plug with fingers, as my countenance became evermore dour and as my tone became increasingly confrontational with the unresponsive staff, I felt a light tap on my shoulder one afternoon and turned around to see a soft, friendly face, wearing a polite, slight smile.

It was Dr. Irina. She spoke no English, but she made sure to have a translator with her every time we spoke, as she did that time. She was the head of NICU, and she came in before she was scheduled to help us out. It seemed, according to her, that word of my rantings had gotten around.

Dr. Irina proceeded to meet with me and my wife and to tell us exactly what was happening with Mickey. She listened to my wife’s explanations of how she had been poorly treated by the nurses. As soon as my wife finished, she called the head nurse over to her, spoke to her in a seemingly stern tone in Ukrainian, and then calmly turned to us and assured us that not only would Tiffany be treated with the proper respect going forward, but that I would be welcome in the unit to see my sons, as that had been hit-or-miss to that point. About half the time, they had kicked me out for unknown reasons.

She wasn’t kidding. The way they treated us changed not only immediately, but dramatically, and we made sure to respond in-kind. We smiled at them, we tried to sign our way through polite conversations and we even bought some booties and hats that one of the nurses had knitted. Our entire experience there turned on its ear.

We also really needed to figure out how we were going to get Mickey to the US Embassy for his DNA test, as there was no way the American government would allow that test to be administered at the hospital, despite my pleas. She assured us that we could make our appointment with the embassy, and that barring any setbacks she’d make sure we kept it.

We made the appointment. There weren’t any setbacks. She made sure we kept it. You know how? She came with us. She told us a couple of days ahead of time that she would be accompanying us to the embassy in order to meet the care protocols of the hospital. This was the head of the department, going herself - we couldn’t believe it.

Not our exact ambulance, but this is the same thing we used.

Not our exact ambulance, but this is the same thing we used.

What was funny was that we couldn’t even understand her full name, which we obviously had to provide to the embassy so they’d let her in with us. Finally, we asked her to write it down, and I took a photo of it and emailed it to the embassy. That was good enough for them.

Ready to head to the embassy with Dr. Irina. There are two babies in there, even though they both look like Kenny from South Park.

Ready to head to the embassy with Dr. Irina. There are two babies in there, even though they both look like Kenny from South Park.

Finally, after all was said and done, and we were ready to leave the hospital, she sat with us and walked us through the final billing and paperwork process. That eliminated any sort of holdups that we had heard were somewhat common there.

Even after we left the hospital, she made sure to come in for our required follow-up checkup that we needed to pass in order to be able to officially be discharged. She oversaw the exams and made sure that every word she said was properly explained.

She didn’t have to do any of this. To this day, we’re not sure why she took all of this on. All we know is that of all the people we encountered over there, interesting and otherwise, she was easily the kindest, gentlest and most genuinely caring person with whom we crossed paths. Without her, I have no idea how things would’ve played out.

She was our Angel of Kyiv. Thank you, Dr. Irina.

Photo courtesy of Kyiv Maternity Hospital No. 1 Web site ( link ).

Photo courtesy of Kyiv Maternity Hospital No. 1 Web site (link).

That Time a Ballistic Warhead Was Parked Outside Our Window

Anytime you bring a newborn child home from the hospital, it’s a whirlwind.  It certainly was for us in 2012 when we brought our little girl home from the hospital where she was born.  We were fortunate that we only had about a 2-minute drive.  It was even more of a whirlwind when we brought our twin sons “home” to our Airbnb apartment in Kyiv. 

We were euphoric because Mickey had overcome a potentially life-threatening condition and we had taken a big, tangible step towards getting back to our actual home.  I wondered if where we were had something to do with it, but the proverbial whirlwind was a million times more intense when our sons were released from the hospital than it was five years earlier. 

Another reason was that, as my wife and I liked to joke about when we had a few nanoseconds to talk, there were two of them.  That’s really not the same thing as double the work or energy of one newborn, but rather more of a level of intensity that’s multiplied by around 10.  In addition, the boys were incredibly colicky, unfortunately, so they quickly earned the nickname of “Scream Team” from their bedraggled parents.  Trust me when I say that they earned it. 

It was uncanny how the Scream Team would work in shifts.  It was nothing short of remarkable when I think about it now.  One of the boys would scream and scream and SCREAM for hours.  It would take both of us, working in shifts of our own, to finally get him calmed down and off to sleep. 

I don’t think there was ever a time when we were afforded even a minute to enjoy the quiet, because every single time that happened, the other baby would immediately – and I mean IMMEDIATELY – start up with his screaming for hours.  We’d have to go through the process all over again.

We literally never slept for more than a few minutes at a time for months, so this extended well beyond our time in Kyiv.  Our time in Kyiv was our first exposure to this, though, so we were also grappling with dealing with no sleep and the difficulty that comes with 23.999 hours of screaming from at least one of them out of every 24-hour period. 

I’m telling you this to provide some context of what we saw one night about a week before we were able to come home.  It was the absolute first time since we left the hospital that both boys were sleeping simultaneously for more than an hour.  All the so-called “experts” out there tell you to sleep when they sleep.  That’s a nice idea, but totally impractical most of the time because there’s a lot to do when you actually have the time.  That night, though, I allowed myself to enjoy the quiet.

Suddenly, a hellacious thunderstorm swept into Kyiv.  The power was going in and out, which wasn’t all that uncommon anyway, but even through thick curtains in the living room window, you could see the lightning dancing across the sky and coming within what seemed like inches of the buildings around us.  The thunder was of a volume that I don’t think I’ve ever heard.  I could not believe that the boys slept through this.

I decided to peek out the window, but boy, I didn’t expect to see what I did.  I looked down and saw this:

Um… yeah…

Um… yeah…

Nothing like opening the drapes and seeing a ballistic warhead parked outside your window.  I immediately felt that internal cold rush of anxiety, wondering what was happening.  To my absolute amazement, people just walked past this thing like it was an abandoned car.  No one gave it a second look. 

I closed the drapes quickly after taking the photo, hoping to un-see what I just saw.  I waited about 15 minutes, but the storm continued to howl and growl.  After a particularly close lightning bolt and deafening boom of thunder, I opened the drapes again, wondering what would happen to a ballistic missile if lighting hit it. 

This time, I didn’t see lightning.  I saw this:

This was just one of an entire caravan of tanks. There were at least 20 of them.

This was just one of an entire caravan of tanks. There were at least 20 of them.

I can’t believe I’d ever say this, but I actually felt better.  It’s just a battalion of tanks – not a ballistic warhead – so what could possibly go wrong there?  Not long afterward, the tanks rolled out of sight as well. 

I have no idea what was happening, but I wondered if I had hallucinated all of this given my extreme sleep deprivation.  That’s why I took the photos.  Given the unique set of circumstances, there was almost nothing that could have even come close to shocking me out of my mental state at the time, but a giant missile parked outside my window definitely did the trick.  Once again, this seemed to be normal life for the folks who live there.  Can you imagine what would happen if the military parked a warhead in the middle of your city?  I’m pretty sure there’d be a big reaction.  Not there – just another day in Ukraine.

The Ever-Present Military in Kyiv – Our More Lighthearted Interactions

As news of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia gets more and more troubling, it’s led to quite a few folks I know asking me questions about the summer we spent there having our sons.  The fact is that this has been going on for years now, beginning in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.  Since then, skirmishes and open fighting have been taking place in eastern portion of the country, generally in the Donbass region.  It’s strange to see something like this called a war by some, a disagreement by others and to have it totally ignored by otherwise trusted sources. 

I should start by saying that while we were there, we really didn’t have any idea what was going on.  It was clear that there was no love lost between these countries, as we saw a lot of propaganda posters around Kyiv.  We couldn’t read them, but they’d have photos of Vladimir Putin with horns on his head, a circle-slash sign through the Russian flag or other clear signs that things were not calm and peaceful between these two combatants.  We even saw this confusing “monument” that we had to look up and read about to understand:

H/T:  Kyiv Post

Kyiv is situated in the middle of Ukraine, and the actual fighting was taking place at least a couple of hundred miles from where we were.  In terms of the answer to folks’ questions, our answer was usually along the lines of, “Well, we didn’t see any fighting and we didn’t feel any actual threat of military combat, but the military presence was ubiquitous.”  That’s about the best encapsulation of what it was like.

The military vibe was vastly different than what we experience in the United States, and we live in San Diego, which has its own heavy military presence.  Still, you’d never see marches down the street in our little community and you’d never see tanks and the like rolling down the road.  That shocked us to no end, but what stunned us even more was that the locals didn’t appear to be phased by any of this whatsoever.  A tank would roll by and they wouldn’t even give it a second look.

The apartment where we stayed had a balcony that overlooked the main drag in town, known as Khreschatyk Street.  One night after the boys were born, I came back to the apartment to do laundry for my wife and to organize a few things.  I heard this almost rhythmic, “BANG! BANG! BANG!” as though there was some sort of enormous marching band approaching. 

As it turns out, that was part of what ultimately walked by:

Now, as it turns out, these particular marches took place because Ukraine was celebrating its independence around that time, and the military were practicing for a major parade.  While that explained that specific situation, it didn’t explain how you’d walk down the street and see a lot of soldiers, walking around fully armed and ready to roll, it seemed.  One night, when I was particularly exhausted, I decided to go mingle for a minute. 

So uh… How’s it going down here, fellas?

So uh… How’s it going down here, fellas?

It wasn’t necessarily the best idea to walk up to soldiers and ask for photos, I was told by a soldier who surprisingly spoke a small amount of broken English, but at that point I really didn’t care anymore.  I was tired beyond belief, confused beyond belief and, to the point of all of this, so used to the military being ever-present at that point that it didn’t even phase me anymore to walk up to them and take photos.

This is just another basic tenet of life in Ukraine that’s wildly different than anything we’d ever consider “customary” in the United States.  I guess when you’re at “war” or “involved in a conflict” or whatever it is that’s happening, the military is going to be visible.  There were also a couple of different experiences with the military there that were much more intense.  I’ll get into those soon.

Here, My Phone Will Explain EVERYTHING!

I’ve been looking back at my Google Translate app as I try to clean up and organize my phone.  I haven’t used it since we were in Ukraine, so it still has all, or at least most, of the entries from when we were over there.  Here are some of the things I had to enter on my phone, wait for the translation and then show the person I was talking to, hoping they’d understand.  The “Ukrainian” the recipient saw appears next to it.  Many times, the person had no idea what I was talking about.  It’s an interesting way to look at our time there.

Yes (так) – I just started saying, “Da,” as even though I think that’s Russian, they understood it.  When I tried to pronounce it “tack,” I got blank stares.

No (ні) – Just like with yes, I went with “Nyet,” as I knew they’d understand the Russian word.  Shaking my head also did the job.  “Hi” accomplished nothing.

Large coffee with milk, please (Велика кава з молоком, будь ласка) – I’m pretty sure I could live to 1,000 years old and never be able to pronounce that.  After a few days, I found a coffee stand with an English speaker working there.  It was a lot farther than the vendors closer to our apartment, but it was worth it just to be able to spit out a basic order.

aromakava.jpeg

Double cheeseburger meal with Coca Cola (подвійний чизбургер з кока-колою, будь ласка) – McDonald’s was not only wildly popular there, but it was actually good.  The meat tasted like meat and the buns were fresh.  It also cost about 4 cents for a meal.  Thanks to Pulp Fiction, I knew they wouldn’t have a quarter-pounder, which is why I went with the double cheeseburger.  Thanks, TV!

H/T:  Giphy

H/T: Giphy

Fish sandwich meal with Coca Cola (рибний сендвіч з Кока-Колою) – What was frustrating at McDonald’s, though – aside from the fact that these translations didn’t earn me a knowing nod – was that trying to point at the picture of the thing you wanted didn’t work.  By the time the worker turned around, another food picture was shown.  I wound up having to pull up photos of the McFish and everything else to show them.  That worked out OK.

KyivMCD.jpg

Food is take-away (їжа – винос) – I was worried that they’d misunderstand this and think I was trying to rob the restaurant.  I started pointing at the door and making the walking sign with my fingers, hoping they’d understand.  One time, I even stood up and pretended to walk with a make-believe satchel of food under my arm.  Yeesh.  I was helpless.

Take away order beer while I wait (забрати пиво, поки я чекаю) – Some of the places where we had take-out took a while, so I decided to order a beer while I waited.  I had nothing better to do than waste Ukrainian restaurant workers’ time.  It took about 345 attempts at this, but I finally figured out some sign language that got it done.  As soon as I saw a backwards number on the translation, I knew not to even try.

Do you have parmesan cheese? (у вас є пармезоновий сир?) – My wife adores parmesan cheese, and I always hesitated to ask for anything “extra” with our food.  I was just happy to get the food, and learning how to idiotically order a beer while I waited seemed like enough of an accomplishment.  Ultimately, I tried this one out and it seemed to work, thankfully.

Is there meat in this? (чи є тут м'ясо?) – Finding food and ordering it in Kyiv is difficult for a goofball American who speaks absolutely zero Ukrainian. Finding food for a vegetarian in Kyiv? To this day, I have no idea if my lovely wife ever had a meal without meat in it, or if she never had meat. I do know that everyone I showed this one to looked at me like I had nine heads.

May we have a cup and some towels in room 212? (Чи можемо ми в часі і рушниках в кімнаті 212?) – We didn’t know this until we got there, but the hospital didn’t give us any living supplies, such as linens.  We had to handle that ourselves.  I wound up using some things from our AirBnB apartment, running them back and forth to launder them. 

Is he going to be OK? (Чи він буде ОК?) – This one wasn’t funny at all.  I typed this to find out how bad a situation Mickey was in after he aspirated.  Thankfully, they understood this one and nodded a yes to me immediately. 

MexicanEmbassy.jpg

Are you familiar with the Mexican restaurant near here?  It has a big flag out front. (Ви знайомі з мексиканським рестораном біля тут? Вона має великий прапор з фронту.) – We kept driving by a building near the hospital with a Mexican flag out front.  Me: “Honey, I think that’s a Mexican restaurant.” Tiffany: “How do you know?” Me: “I know the Mexican flag.” Tiffany: “Well, find out.”  Long story somewhat shorter, it turns out that this was not a Mexican restaurant.  It was their embassy.  See?  I was a total idiot in Ukraine.

How do we pay the bill? (Як ми платимо рахунок?) – Everyone caught this one right away.  No one ever had any problem understanding when we were trying to offer payment for something. 

After we got home and had some time to read more about all of this with some perspective, we learned that because Ukrainian is not a Romance language, a lot of our words and phrases don’t have a direct translation.  That’s why I kept getting bizarre or even bemused looks from people when I’d wave them down and show them my phone screen.  That’s also why I stopped doing that on the street altogether after a few days.  I didn’t want to insult someone’s mother and have no idea what I just said. 

Language barriers are not easy to overcome.

H/T:  Yarn Memes

Kyiv Hamburgers: A Burger, Fries and… Rubber Gloves?

In different places I’ve traveled to around the world, I’ve always found it interesting to stop in restaurants that are trying to promote some sort of “American” theme.  It provides a good look at what other countries and cultures think of us.  Kyiv was no different, as there were some culinary influences from different parts of the world present in their food options.  Sushi and pizza were two examples, and these are often offered in the same restaurant. 

One day after our sons were born, my wife and I decided to hit one of these “American” joints.  She doesn’t eat meat, but I do, and I felt like a big, greasy cheeseburger for some reason.  Given the wide variance of food in just about every restaurant we visited in Kyiv, we were pretty sure she’d be able to find something for lunch as well. 

We walked into the place and sat down at our underground booth, as a lot of restaurants, along with entire sects of society, existed under the streets of Kyiv.  The host handed us a pile of menus, which had also become commonplace in Kyiv.  It wasn’t unusual to have three or four menus in front of you.  I pushed the pizza and sushi menus aside and started looking at the choices for burgers.  Of course, I couldn’t read anything, but picked a photo out of a burger that had a lot of cheese on it and what looked like bacon.

Burger protection.

Burger protection.

I pointed to this photo for our server and she nodded.  My wife had some sort of seafood sandwich thing, or at least that was our best guess.  Soon afterward, the server came back with our drinks, a big bowl of those puffy Asian “chips” things that have the texture of Styrofoam but that are actually pretty tasty, and this weird black thing, neatly tied into a bundle —->

I picked the thing up and examined it carefully.  What the bejesus was this now?  My wife saw me investigating my mystery item, and she started wondering what was going on as well.  Since neither of us had any idea what was happening, I opened it carefully.  Turns out that it was a pair of pretty heavy-duty rubber gloves. 

Why would I need a pair of rubber gloves?  Was there a medical exam or surgery involved with my burger?  We looked around at other patrons for the first time, and that’s when we noticed that a few other people were wearing their gloves while they ate their burgers.  This was so odd to both of us, but just another thing that was natural in Kyiv but totally unfamiliar to us.

When my burger came, I eschewed the gloves, peeled off the obligatory layer of cucumber that came on every hamburger everywhere in Kyiv, and enjoyed my meal, latex-free.  The cheeseburgers I had while there weren’t bad.  Nothing was grilled, but nothing was terrible, either.  I don’t know why everyone insists on cucumbers on their hamburgers, but those were easy enough to remove, even without the help of gloves.

The longer we lived in Kyiv as more-or-less regular people, the more we experienced things like this, that were not even given a second thought by natives but that were completely bizarre to newcomers.  Rubber gloves for hamburgers was added to the list that included confusing/stressful bathroom choices, underground malls, parking on sidewalks and many other things.  These were all little things that we learned to laugh at while there, considering we had a lot of stressful things already happening.

Surrogacy Birth Parents – There Will Be More of Us

I’ve been getting some emails from people lately asking me how I ever even figured out that gestational surrogacy was a possibility for us.  My response to them and everyone else is that my wife is indefatigable in her efforts regarding our family, and she found an agency that helped us get the proverbial ball rolling in Ukraine.  What’s implicit in those questions, though, is the notion that surrogacy births are still relatively unknown and under-reported.  That’s changing quickly around the world.

The Foundation of What’s Happening

4e5daa_428afff74cb543a5897459608e2604df-mv2_d_2533_3800_s_4_2.jpg

The underlying reason for this growth in surrogacy births is that people are waiting longer to have children.  According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, the mean age of a first-time mother in the United States in 1970 was 21.4 years old. By the year 2000, that number had risen to 24.9, an increase of nearly four years.  In 2014, the mean age for first-time mothers in the United States was 26.3.  This is a massive jump when one considers that nearly 4 million children were born across the country that year.

Another study from the CDC reveals that since 1990, the birth rates for women in the United States between the ages of 35 and 44 has risen markedly.  Clearly, more people are trying to have children later in life, despite the fact that the older we get, the more challenges we face.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that after age 44, aspiring mothers who undergo in vitro fertilization with their own eggs have a success rate – meaning a successful pregnancy and live birth – of approximately one percent.

Turning to Alternatives

Society and nature are on a slow-moving collision course when it comes to childbirth in the United States.  Mother Nature remains undefeated in all battles, so many who want to have children later in life must choose between several different alternative approaches.  My wife and I chose surrogacy for several reasons based on aspects such as timing, cost and others.

A quick look at relative statistics reveals that we are not alone in pursuing surrogacy.  Even though we went through the process in Ukraine, the CDC reports that 727 gestational surrogacy cycles occurred in the United States in 1999.  That number nearly quintupled to 3,432 in 2013.  The trend continues to this day, and given the presence of several factors, people’s perspectives are widening in terms of where these surrogacy births are occurring.

Those trends appear to be playing out across the world, although in terms of surrogacy specifically, it’s difficult to tell.  There are few official statistics kept relating to gestational surrogacy in countries other than the United States.  A Ukrainian official recently stated in a German publication that approximately 380 children were born in 2016 and 2017 combined as a result of gestational surrogacy.  Our boys were two of them.

The-Boys.jpg

Thinking Behind Becoming Older Parents

My wife and I are older parents.  Our six-year-old daughter was born in 2012, when Mommy and Daddy were 40.  I remember my parents coming to see her in the hospital the day after she was born, and we got to talking.  I realized then that when my parents were 40, I was finishing high school.  They were 22 when I was born.  When our boys were born, my wife and I were 45.  When I was born, my maternal grandmother was 43.  I’m a living case study on older parents these days.

We thought quite a bit about what we were actually doing having multiple children in our 40’s, and we came to several conclusions that led us to proceed with our efforts.  Yes, we’re older, but we’re also wiser.  Yes, we lack the energy levels of parents who may be in their 20’s, but I am definitely more even-keeled than I was 20 years ago.  We’re more affluent and financially stable than we were in our 20’s, and finally, another statistic relating to life expectancy made a difference.  In 1960, the average American lived for 69.77 years.  In 2015, life expectancy had risen to 78.69.  Assuming good health, we’ll be around for a while.

Here We Come

The bottom line?  As people wait longer to have children, more of them are going to need help bringing those children into the world.  Surrogacy will become more common.  Our story about our boys’ births in Kyiv may be relatively rare now, but 10 years from now there will be many more of us.  People who are struggling with having children should never forget that they are far from alone, and the number of people facing this challenge is going to get bigger by the day.

The Ukrainian Healthcare System As Seen Through Childbirth

The more time we spent in Ukraine having our boys, the more we came to realize that the differences between our two respective countries ran deep in just about every context.  It wasn’t a situation where our system, our approach or our norms were better, but we were used to the way we did things in our part of the world, which made it difficult to adjust to the way things are generally done in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

One of the aspects of life in which our two societies are vastly different involves the world of healthcare. When you have twin sons in Ukraine, you’re obviously going to be dealing with the healthcare system in that country.  The bottom line is that the care we received was good.  Our boys came home healthy, and that was after one of them encountered a serious medical issue the day after he was born.

The back entrance to the hospital.

The back entrance to the hospital.

That makes sense when looking at outside data.  According to the World Bank, Ukraine’s infant mortality rate is only slightly higher than that in the United States.  We knew from our initial fertilization process that those clinics were extremely modern, clean, efficient and professional.  I have to admit, though, that I got a little trepidatious when I looked at our maternity hospital online.

The hospital looked clean but old.  It’s a state-run hospital, which is a form of healthcare that I have never experienced.  Tiffany was more familiar with it having grown up in Canada. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect to be living in the lap of luxury.  There are private hospitals in Ukraine, but the costs for them were astronomical, so that wasn’t really an option.

Supplies

One of the first things we noticed about the hospital was that it was definitely a ‘no-frills’ operation.  The first night we were there, Tiffany wanted to get some sleep.  She was looking around for quite awhile and eventually realized that there were no linens in the room.  I flagged down a nurse and pointed at the bed before making a motion as though I was drying myself off.  She responded by shaking her head and pointing at us, as if to tell us we needed to supply those things.  OK – that was unexpected.

The ambulance driver was also on the gate repair crew.  The gate was not working all day.

The ambulance driver was also on the gate repair crew. The gate was not working all day.

In addition, we found out when we went to have our DNA test at the US Embassy to prove paternity that the hospital only had one ambulance.  That made sense to a degree, as this was not a trauma hospital, but we had to wait for the ambulance to finish its previous run before we could head to the embassy.

Operational Approach

After the boys were born, we spent quite a bit of time with the nurses, which is typical of any NICU ward in the world, I would guess.  We started wondering what was happening when those same nurses were there the next day.  Did we miss a shift change?  It turns out that we didn’t, as the doctors and nurses there work 24-hour shifts.  That seemed pretty wild to us, but I guess after a while you get used to that routine.

There was also a definite hierarchy in place.  Nursing is a very good job in Ukraine, although we found out the average salary there is between $800 and $1,200 per month, depending on specialty and experience.  There was also a definite hierarchy there.  Doctors were treated almost as demigods, but the nurses were very hardcore in their dealings with patients.  You didn’t mess with the nurses, and the nurses didn’t mess with the doctors. 

Treatment Approach

It seemed that many of the approaches to treatment of the newborns was from a bygone era in the Western world.  For instance, when Mickey was intubated, one of the staples they fed him through the IV was glucose.  That was bizarre for us, as that wasn’t typically something used to treat pneumonia, and it wasn’t like Mickey was diabetic.  Although, given the language barrier, it was difficult to determine what substances they were using sometimes.

Breastfeeding is also not the preferred method of nourishment in Ukraine.  Tiffany heroically took hormones and pumped every three hours for months before the boys were born, as she was hellbent on giving them breastmilk.  She did quite well with it, but the nurses were very frustrated when she tried to latch them.  It was obvious that they weren’t used to dealing with breastfeeding, and they kept pushing us to use formula, which is still the norm there.

I was waiting for a squirrel to jump out of this thing.

I was waiting for a squirrel to jump out of this thing.

After Mickey recovered from his pneumonia, he had to undergo regular blood tests.  The nurse who did the tests was very nice, but we were quietly horrified at the test kit she used.  She walked in the first time with this old, huge briefcase thing that looked like it was out of the 1930’s.  It apparently worked, but it looked like something from the 19th Century.

Billing

Paying the bill was quite something.  When they told us we were going to be released, we tried to ask for a bill.  The head doctor didn’t speak English, so I pulled out some money and made a motion with my hand as though I was signing something.  She seemed to understand, and a little while later she came to our room with a hand-written invoice.  Of course, we couldn’t read a word of it, but she pointed to the bottom line.  It was a bill for around $16,000 hryvnia, which was about $600.

$600 in Ukrainian cash.

$600 in Ukrainian cash.

That amazed us.  $600 for two weeks in the hospital, two weeks in the NICU, two C-section deliveries and all the care that was required.  We would’ve burned through $600 in about .000004 nanoseconds in any American hospital.  I piled up the multicolored cash on a table, bundled it, handed it to the doctor and that was that.

Overall, we have to say our experience was positive at the hospital.  The nurses were gruff, but we eventually figured out that this was the norm.  The language barrier was really stressful, and running linens back and forth between our apartment was a pain.  Otherwise, the bottom line is that we came home with two healthy babies, and that’s all you can ask for in that situation.

The Power of Good People

There were times in Kyiv when my wife and I were nervous.  There were times when we were anxious, confused, happy, excited and just about anything else one could imagine.  We were there for several weeks, and a lot of life-changing events occurred, so it’s natural that we experienced the veritable gamut of emotions.  When you travel to a foreign country and have two children while there, it’s going to be a rollercoaster ride regardless. 

There was only one time, however, when we felt legitimately scared.  It was a couple of days after one of our sons, Mickey, was intubated.  The day after he was born, the nurses allowed both boys to spend a bit of time out of NICU and in our room.  Not long after they brought them in, we fed them, held them, talked to them and enjoyed them.  We were euphoric, as all of our struggles had finally led to these special moments – the first ones with your new babies.  Every parent remembers that.

Moments after this photo, Mickey (left) started the fight for his life.

Moments after this photo, Mickey (left) started the fight for his life.

Suddenly, after we put them down for their post-feed and post-diaper-change naps, Mickey started aspirating.  It began with a lot of hiccups, developed into nonstop coughing and finally devolved into both of those things mixed with screams.  The nurses came and whisked him away, not telling us what was happening.

The next thing we knew, Mickey was back in his incubator in NICU with more tubes sticking out of him than we could count.  We worked through an international fertility agency, so we tried tracking our contacts down so they could come to the hospital and translate what the medical personnel were saying. We did not know what was happening, and it was terrifying.  No one at the hospital spoke English, and we spoke no Ukrainian or Russian.

After about a day of trying to get these folks to help us, we heard that they were ‘busy’ with another client whose healthy child had encountered some gas.  These other new parents freaked out and demanded full attention from the agency people, which they apparently got.

Needless to say, my wife and I were far from happy about this, but we didn’t feel like we could rattle their cages too much.  If we alienated them, we’d have almost nowhere to turn for any sort of help.  We’d be completely cut off from any form of communication, even the periodic type we were receiving at the time.

We talked about all of this with my father-in-law, Mickey.  Mickey is one of those people who knows seemingly everyone, but even he couldn’t possibly have contacts in Kyiv.  Next thing we know, we got an email from Mickey’s lifelong friend, Kelly Heed.  Kelly works at Collier’s International, and one of the many ways that Mickey describes his friend is as someone who “knows more people around the world than anyone I’ve ever met.”  That’s a mouthful coming from my father-in-law, who’s about as outgoing as any human ever created.

Apparently, Mickey had told Kelly about what was happening to us.  Kelly emailed us, letting us know that he had reached out to his Collier’s contact in Kyiv, Alex.  Yes, Kelly had contacts in Kyiv. Kelly had attached a transcript of his correspondence with Alex.  Alex was not in Kyiv at the time, as he was on vacation.  Alex told Kelly that he’d have his assistant, Oksana, get in touch with us by way of the contact information for each of us that Kelly had provided in that transcript.

Literally within minutes of reading that email and before I could even respond to Kelly, I got both a text and an email from Oksana, telling us that she was available to help us in any way she could.  Oksana spoke very good English, so if needed she’d be able to help us communicate with the doctors and nurses to find out what was wrong with our son.

Words cannot describe what a relief it was to know that we had another option for help.  Now, I could get after our agency with my hair on fire and light them up the way they unfortunately needed to be lit up.  I called them and told them to leave the burper alone for a bit so we could find out how our son was doing with the fight for his life.  I made it clear that we would make it our never-ending mission to come down on that agency as hard as possible and in every way imaginable if they didn’t come help us immediately.

We had leverage.  It was what we needed.  Later that day, our agency people showed up and we got word that Mickey had been born with pneumonia.  Things were uncertain, but he was trending in a positive direction and barring setbacks, he was going to make a recovery at some point before too long.  We finally knew what we were fighting.  Eventually, Mickey beat pneumonia and the boys were reunited. 

Their first moments back together after more than a week of separation.

Their first moments back together after more than a week of separation.

We never actually met Alex or Oksana.  Both of them offered to have coffee, lunch or dinner with us, but we were too swamped with everything that was happening.  Regardless, we will never forget what Kelly Heed did for us in one of the darkest and scariest moments my wife and I have experienced together.  Imagine being in a foreign country, where you’re totally illiterate and unable to communicate, where your newborn son is in serious medical trouble and you can’t even find out what’s happening.

What Kelly Heed did for us is something I’m never going to forget.  What he did for us also reinforced a lesson for me:  There is nothing more powerful than having good people in your life.  Good people transcend geographic distance.  They transcend cultural differences and language barriers.  They’re there for you when you need them most, and most of the time you need them when you least expect it.

Having good people in your life is a gift that never stops giving.  My father-in-law and Kelly Heed reminded me of that last summer in an unforgettable way.

The Kyiv Kitten – Friend? Spirit Guide? Who Knows?

For as long as I remember, I’ve always had a way with animals.  I don’t know why, but for some reason animals have always picked me out of a crowd. That’s not always a good thing, either.  Just ask my wife and daughter about the particular human the monkeys in Costa Rica chose as an aiming point for their poo.  Yep, they chose me out of approximately 20 people.  My daughter said it was because my bald head gave them a shiny target. 

One of the culprits… Pretty good arm.

One of the culprits… Pretty good arm.

Regardless of why this happens, it seems that nearly every important period of my life involved some type of animal.  When Tiffany was pregnant with Téa, we lost our beloved yellow lab, Emma, to cancer.

Our girl Emma.

Our girl Emma.

A few weeks later, we rescued Kimo from our neighborhood shelter because our other dog, Hula, was totally brokenhearted and needed a companion. While we call Kimo the cat-dog because he acts more like a cat than a dog, he’s been a loyal and loving companion for Hula and a kind and gentle pet for our kids.  He’s also a fierce defender of his pack.  Not bad for a cat-dog.

That’s Hula on the left and Kimo the Cat-Dog on the right.

That’s Hula on the left and Kimo the Cat-Dog on the right.

Speaking of cats, that species played a role in everything that was happening in Kyiv last summer when we were over there having our twins. There are a lot of stray animals in Kyiv, and I’ve written already about the wild dogs. Cats are no exception, and you’ll see feral cats and kittens just about anywhere at any time.

This includes the maternity hospital where our boys were born. Feral cats are scattered about there, hiding under buildings and cars and even in trees when things get dicey from their perspective.  I noticed them right away, but didn’t really bother with them because I assumed they’d want nothing to do with me.

For the most part, I was right about that, except for one little guy who seemed to be peering at me with particular interest the first couple of times I walked in and out of the hospital. On my third walk past him, he decided to stroll out from under the car, sit down a safe distance from me and meow.  I gave him a gentle “hello” in return and put my hand near the ground for him to come and sniff.  Surprisingly, he did so, and the next thing I knew, he was rubbing my ankles and purring away.

I didn’t know what to make of that.  I wasn’t sure if I should touch him any more than I had, as he might have had fleas and I didn’t want any germs to spread to our preemie newborns.  After a few seconds, I did pet him, and he went wild. He corkscrewed himself into the ground and demanded a belly rub.  I obliged, and he grabbed my hands and instead of biting me, as most cats do in that situation, he started licking me.

Lousy photo, but I could never get the little whirling dervish to sit still.

Lousy photo, but I could never get the little whirling dervish to sit still.

I was hooked.  I had a new friend, and the whole time we were there I never saw another cat approach another person, including my new buddy.  I started bringing him scraps of food, and within a couple of days the little bugger would see me and come running to greet me, rubbing my legs and purring away. It was strange, but also kind of neat.

I actually appreciated his presence a few times when things were really hairy inside the hospital.  He provided an unexpected comfort when he’d let me pet him while I waited for my Uber, wondering how we were ever going to navigate our way through that insane situation.  It’s seemingly a very small detail of all that happened over there, but it’s something that’s always stuck in my mind.  Why was that cat there?  Why did he choose me as his human?  What ever happened to him?

Wherever he is, I hope he’s OK.  He was a good boy and one of the many small but memorable things that took place in Ukraine. 

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today, I embarked on a journey that would change the lives of everyone I love.  Many of those lives have since changed dramatically, and two of those lives hadn’t even started 365 days ago.  At this time in August of 2017, I was somewhere in the air over Europe.  I had flown from San Diego to Houston, and I was on my way from Houston into Munich.  From there I was looking at a relatively short flight into Kyiv.  This was actually happening.

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27 hours of traveling alone gives you a lot of time to think and to evaluate things.  I remember a lot of those emotions and thoughts, as I wrote many of them down.  After all, I didn’t have a lot to do and I had quite a bit of time on my hands.  I remember being excited.  Our family was having twin boys.  After years of pain and struggle, we were creating – in an unorthodox manner – siblings for our beautiful little girl, which was the biggest source of motivation for all that we went through to get our sons to the planet. 

I was nervous.  I had been to Kyiv before and knew that despite having traveled all over the globe, this was perhaps the most foreign place I had ever experienced.  I had no idea what to expect.  Would the birth go smoothly?  Would everything be OK?  How does one manage the birth of two children without the ability to read or communicate?

I was a bit harried.  We had planned on me leaving ahead of my wife to get things settled with our living arrangements and to get the legal ball rolling with the US Embassy.  The boys were coming early, even earlier than expected.  I was on the plane 2 weeks before I thought I’d be leaving, which meant that I’d be missing my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. 

That was part of the reason that, strangely, I was also filled with sadness.  I had never been away from Téa for more than a few days, but I knew that this would take at least a few weeks.  I wept like someone had died at least once on my flight over there. 

No one had died, but the little family of 3 that I had come to love so much was no more the second I jumped into my Uber at my house to head to the San Diego airport.  Yes, it was quite possible that we’d be even happier with a family of 5 instead of 3, but what we knew was what all of us loved.  It was as hard to say goodbye to that as it was to my little girl. 

I wrote down what I thought life would be like one year from that day while I was in the air.  Today is that day.  I just looked at it.  My list could not have been more wrong.  I thought that we would have the parenting of 3 kids, including twin boys, down to a science.  We do not.  We still in many ways make it up as we go along. 

I thought the amazement of having these boys and how they got here would be somewhat worn off and that I’d just be focused on raising them.  I was wrong.  Even now, not a day goes by without me reflecting on the insanity that unfolded before, during and immediately after their birth. 

I thought that having two young boys would make me feel young as well.  That’s not completely accurate.  Having twins my 40’s has made me feel young and old at the same time.  That’s a bizarre dichotomy, but one that I’m strangely used to now.

I thought the “newness” of having babies would wear off by now.  It has not.  When they learn something new – this week it was how to wave at people – that thrill of newness washes over me.  Wrong again.

Those are just a few examples of what turned out to be a list of things that proved that I had no idea what I was in for over these previous 365 days.  That’s not a bad thing, but it’s interesting because it taught me that when you’re about to embark on a life-changing event or era, your life is probably going to change in ways you never foresaw. 

What a year it’s been.  Today, I think I’ll make another list of what my life will be like one year from now.  Based on track record, I’ll expect that to be completely wrong as well.

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