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Bringing Alba home: The Australian baby born as war began in Ukraine.

Listen to this story being read by Rebecca Davis, here.


This article deals with an account of miscarriage that could be triggering for some readers.

It’s 7am London time when Jess van Nooten and I first speak.

Her words are hushed through the phone. Her voice is friendly, but strained. Tired.

And then I hear Alba’s cry; the little baby that made headlines, born 11 weeks premature via a surrogate in Ukraine - two days before Russia declared war. 

“How is she going?” I ask. 

“Not great actually,” tells Jess, a 38-year-old chef from Melbourne. 

Alba is about to undergo surgery, she explains. Today. At London’s GOSH Hospital. 

It’s her fifth surgery. And this one is to correct a knotted shunt - a small tube placed in the brain which drains fluid into her stomach.

I listen and reassure her it’s more than okay for us to talk another time. She apologises sincerely, and we say our goodbyes. 

Alba's surgery is just the latest challenge in a long line of things that didn't exactly go to plan since she came into this world on 22.02.22.

But then, Jess' past near-decade hasn't exactly gone to plan either.

A Melbourne couple's race to save their newborn from the Ukraine war zone. Article continues after video.


Video via 7 News.

The journey to surrogacy.

It took eight years - and 15 rounds of IVF - before Jess van Nooten and Kevin Middleton considered surrogacy. 

“Every time we did an egg transfer [for IVF] we would fail or miscarry. It was really horrible,” shares Jess when we speak a week later.

And then a new doctor intervened. He suggested they did embryo banking (freezing embryos) - and surrogacy. 

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The laws around surrogacy are complex in Australia, and the process is difficult - but Jess and Kevin were determined to pursue it. 

And soon, they thought they found a surrogate - a friend of a friend. But the husband got cold feet and pulled out. 

"We realised we could be waiting years in Australia,” says Jess. 

So, they looked into surrogacy options overseas. They landed on Ukraine at the start of last year.

Despite being together for 20 years, marriage wasn’t on their radar. "But one of the things we had to do first, in order to qualify for surrogacy in Ukraine was get married." 

Kevin Middleton and Jess van Nooten on their wedding day. 

Jess and Kevin wed in May last year in a "small but rushed" ceremony just with immediate family. And shortly after, they shipped their embryos to Ukraine, where they matched with a surrogate. 

“We are forever grateful to our surrogate. She is our guardian angel,” Jess tells.

The embryo transfer took place, and then another gruelling wait began.

“That was really hard. We were in limbo.”

Clouded by years of loss and struggle, Jess did everything to elevate herself into a positive mindset. Therapy was pivotal and visualisation and meditation became daily rituals. And every morning she wrote a letter to the surrogate mother, and to the baby she was determined to have.

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“There was no other option. This was going to work. It was my turn to hear ‘yes’. ‘Yes, you are pregnant.’.”

And she did. 

The news came at 2.30am via WhatsApp. 

An exhilarated Jess woke Kevin. “It worked! She’s pregnant!,” she recounts.

The couple immediately got on a group call with Jess' mum and sisters.

"I was beside myself. I didn’t sleep that night. And I don’t think I stopped smiling that whole day."

But the months that followed were marred by crippling anxiety. Updates and communication from Ukraine were brief, and if delayed, Jess convinced herself the worst had happened.

“At every milestone, I had a panic attack… and not hearing her heartbeat was really getting to me. It was a sound we were wanting to hear for the past seven-and-a-half years. We just really wanted to hear that heartbeat.”

Then came the communication they weren't expecting. 

“It was just awful,” tells Jess, her tone deepening as she recalls the message she missed on the afternoon of February 23. 

At the time, Jess was listening to a podcast while cleaning her cat’s litter box when she received a call from Kevin. 

“‘Didn’t you see the WhatsApp message?," he said. "The baby has been born!’’.”

“Which baby?,” Jess replied in disbelief. 

“Ours. Our baby.” It was 11 weeks sooner than expected. 

Jess quickly opened her Whatsapp, and there was the message, words against a stark screen from the surrogacy agency:

“Hello, your baby’s been born unexpectedly."  

It continued, "She is alive for the moment”.

Jess' thumbs hurriedly tapped out a message, asking for someone to urgently call her.

The response came back: “Hello. We will call as soon as we know anything. At the moment, all we know is that baby is okay.”

“Promise me she is okay,” Jess wrote back in desperation. 

Her phone beeped with a final response: 

“I’m not God. I can’t promise anything.”

Jess doesn’t remember what happened next. By the time Kevin arrived home from work, she was crying on the floor of their baby’s nursery. 

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The following day, they boarded a plane to Ukraine to see their baby. 

'Russia has invaded Ukraine.'

It was during Jess and Kevin’s stopover in Dubai that they received a phone call from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

"'Russia has invaded Ukraine', they told us. All flights into Ukraine were cancelled - including the one we were waiting to board to Odessa."

"We were just in shock and disbelief.”

After years of trying to fall pregnant, their miracle baby - whose condition was still unclear - had been born. In a hospital that was in a war zone. Jess and Kevin had flown halfway around the world to get to their baby - and now, they didn't know how or when they'd get to her.

They hurried to the check-in counter to reroute their tickets. Warsaw, Poland seemed the next best option. 

“And I don’t know how I did it, but somehow in the midst of it all, I just pulled my laptop out at Dubai Airport, and booked accommodation and transfers.”

When they arrived in Warsaw, they went straight to the hotel. By that time, the news coming out of Ukraine had deteriorated.

“And then it got worse again. We received a video message from the doctor. I couldn’t watch,” says Jess.

The doctor listed the many grave health problems their baby was facing. 

“I told Kevin to turn it off.”

Now, from the bleak room of an airport hotel in Warsaw, the couple were confronted with the idea they may not make it to their daughter in time.

They tried to put plans in place to cross the border into Ukraine, but it was too dangerous.

Instead, they left Poland for Austria, and then went on to Bucharest, Romania. 

“There, we were waiting and watching as to what was happening with the war. We were obsessed. We didn’t leave the hotel there, we just watched the news on the TV.”

Meanwhile, the updates on Alba's condition were few and vague.

“Every second day, the message would come through: ‘Hello. Your baby is difficult but stable’.”

After two days in Bucharest, Jess and Kevin took the eight-hour bus ride to Moldova, hoping they'd be able to cross the border into Ukraine and meet their daughter the next day. 

But the surrogacy agency deemed it too dangerous for them to enter. 

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And again, the couple was suspended in wait - this time, for 12 days. 

The Moldovan-Ukraine border crossing. Image: Supplied. 

“It was awful. I don’t know how we got through it. All we did was watch the news and wait for updates. We just had no control and no idea.”

Finally, Jess and Kevin were informed that the surrogacy agency had booked a driver who would take them on the four-hour journey from Moldova, all the way through to Odessa, Ukraine. 

Tomorrow.

'You're going the wrong way! Turn around!'

Jess and Kevin were warned to prepare themselves for what they would see at the border of Moldova and Ukraine. 

“I didn’t give it much thought - and I really wasn’t prepared,” tells Jess.

As they neared the crossing, Jess describes the thousands of tents lined up on the Moldovan side - for Ukrainian refugees. She recalls the groups of women and children waving to men on the other side of the border. And the traffic; cars, banked up for kilometres. 

Their driver got them just over the border, but refused to drive any further. 

And so there, on the side of a Ukrainian road, Jess and Kevin stood in front of a closed cafe with their three stuffed suitcases. Again, waiting. This time, for a Ukrainian driver who was sent from the agency to collect them.

Jess and Kevin waited for their driver on the roadside after crossing into Ukraine. Image: Supplied. 

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“There was so much rubbish, and just thousands of people around us,” tells Jess.

Then it started to snow. Because, of course.

For an hour-and-a-half, Jess and Kevin waited, before the Ukrainian driver reached them - by foot. With the traffic gridlocked, he had abandoned his car, and walked to them.

Suitcases in tow, the three of them made the five kilometre walk back to the car in icy temperatures, against hoards of desperate Ukrainians in escape. Jess remembers their warnings as she and Kevin passed them: 

“You’re going the wrong way! You’re going the wrong way! Turn around!”

As Jess and Kevin walked into Ukraine, thousands of Ukrainians were walking out. Image: Supplied. 

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Jess was overwhelmed by all that was unfolding around her: the tow trucks collecting neglected cars, and the faces of the people - young and old; rich and poor - clutching babies, or their animals; chickens or cats. And without any toilets, those fleeing were forced to relieve themselves on the side of the road, alongside the littered belongings that people could no longer carry. Remnants of lives left behind.

“It was absolutely horrible. And we were scared.”

Once they reached the car and neared Odessa, the reality really began to sink in for Jess: They were in a war zone.

Ukrainian tanks passed them, and they were stopped at around 20 roadblocks where their identification was checked. 

On the road to Odessa, Jess and Kevin went through around 20 roadblocks and military checkpoints. Image: Supplied. 

Finally, they arrived in Odessa. Jess and Kevin insisted on being taken to the hospital immediately. 

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“We were so nervous. I was crying before I even got to the hospital door,” recalls Jess. 

They arrived on the floor, and went room to room before finding her; their baby Alba, now two weeks old. A little mound amidst blankets and tubes. 

“It was really, really emotional. We were both crying. She was so tiny - only 1300 grams then,” tells Jess.

Baby Alba. Image: Supplied. 

“That’s also when we realised how sick she was.”

Alba’s lungs had collapsed when she was born, and her sides had been bandaged from them being drained. Jess and Kevin were also told she had experienced a bleed on the brain too.

Jess' sobs deepened.

And no sooner that they arrived at their daughter's crib, were the couple ushered out of the hospital as the city’s nightly curfew approached.

The evacuation from Ukraine.

For three weeks, Jess and Kevin stayed in an apartment by Odessa's Black Sea, visiting Alba as much as permitted.

All the while, the sound of air raid sirens increasingly pierced the air. When at the apartment, Jess and Kevin fled to their laundry for shelter - except the one time they didn’t, and exhausted, they stayed in their bed.

That missile hit close. Their building shook, “and then we heard the biggest crash ever”.

This was the morning that Russian forces ferociously shelled Odessa. “It was terrifying," relives Jess.

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While initially slightly reassured by the humanitarian protection status of the hospital, Jess then saw the reports of the Russian bombing of the Mariupol Maternity Hospital. 

Frightened, Jess and Kevin pleaded with the hospital to release Alba, so they could get care outside of Ukraine. But the doctors were blunt: If they did that, “she would die”.

Meanwhile, various doctors from Australia and around the world had reached out to Jess and were attempting to assist and advise from afar, forming a makeshift medical support team. 

After continued conversations, the head doctor agreed that Jess and Kevin could leave with Alba - but reiterated the hazards. With the war worsening around them, Jess and Kevin decided it was a risk worth taking.

Alba was put back onto a hand ventilator, and was bundled into the arms of a nurse. Together, they, alongside a doctor, Jess and Kevin made their run to the Moldovan border via ambulance - “really fast” - again, through 20 checkpoints. At each stop, Ukrainian soldiers flung open the back doors of the truck, checking to make sure no one was fleeing with them - particularly Ukrainian men evading mandatory military service.

Alba leaves Ukraine in the ambulance. Image: Supplied. 

In the longest hour and a half, they made it to the Moldovan crossing, where they swapped ambulances. While Jess was relieved to see a humidicrib - “Alba wasn’t buckled in”, she tells.

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“And so as they were driving, I could see she was being shaken up and down.”

It wasn’t until they reached the Mother and Child Institute Hospital in Chisinau that doctors assessed Alba may have suffered a seizure in the ambulance. 

Her stomach was distended - "like she had swallowed a bowling ball" - and she remained on the ventilator.

“Alba is very unwell. You’d better go home and rest,” the doctors told Jess and Kevin. 

“It was a horrible feeling,” reflects Jess, “Because we were like, oh my gosh, what have we done? Should we have stayed in Ukraine? We felt so guilty.”

A nurse turned to Jess and told her, “You need to pray.”

“Just pray.”

London.

Communication was more difficult in Moldova - the head doctor didn’t speak English.

But Jess and Kevin understood that Alba needed more specialist care than Moldova was able to offer.

It took two weeks until Alba stabilised. Meanwhile, Jess’ makeshift support team of doctors discussed the best course of action for Alba. They organised for her to be medevacked to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

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Back home in Australia, friends of Jess and Kevin set up a crowdfunding page to help gather much-needed donations for ever-mounting medical costs. 

Incredibly, almost $80k was raised - and saved Jess and Kevin from needing to re-mortgage their house.

The generosity of people has flawed the couple, and they are "deeply grateful". 

Once arriving in London, Alba had a further four surgeries. It was also here that Jess and Kevin were finally able to hold their daughter in their arms for the first time.

Six weeks into their stay in the UK - and 11 weeks since having left Australia - Kevin had to return home to work. And so, he swapped positions with Jess' mum who came to support her daughter - and meet her new granddaughter.

They nursed her through recovery and saw a rapid improvement in her condition.

Jess and Kevin give Alba her first bath in London. Image: Supplied. 

Still they had to wait for Alba to reach four kilograms, and for her breathing to improve further before contemplating a return to Australia - to prepare for the lower oxygen levels on the long flight.

“She’s 3.7 kilos now,” Jess explained from her AirBnB apartment an hour from London, two weeks ago. 

She explained about the ongoing physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and the chance of Alba having acquired brain injuries - “but we will only see the extent of the damage as she grows”.

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“Right now, the physios are really happy with her. They call her feisty! Her lungs are good - and she can definitely scream!,” says Jess with a laugh, and on cue, I hear Alba let out a gutsy shriek. 

“Even though she’s 16 weeks old, she’s really only a five week old - and she’s doing all the things she should be,” enthuses Jess.

“I just can’t wait to be at home, in our house, with my husband and our animals, and going for a walk around our local block. I can’t wait to see her in the beautiful nursery I created for her. Putting her in her car seat. Letting her sleep in her cot.”

“I can’t wait to have a normal life again”.

'An absolute miracle'

Last Tuesday night, that long awaited dream arrived for Jess.

After four months, Jess, her mother and an accompanying nurse flew back to Melbourne with Alba.

Following a short stay at the Royal Children’s Hospital, they spent their first night at home last Thursday. 

One week later, Jess and I speak again - from her home. Her voice is lighter. Joyful. But still tired too. 

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She recalls the elation of touching down in Australia, and of being reunited with Kevin. Her tears, and relief. 

"I couldn't believe it. We did it. We actually brought Alba home!" 

Alba, home in Melbourne. Image: Instagram. 

The doctors are "really happy" with her progress too. 

“It’s an absolute miracle that she’s here,” says Jess, as Alba coos in the background.

"Now I just want her to live a life with no more medical procedures. For us to enjoy being a normal, everyday family."

"I just want her to live the best life."

If this article has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the SANDS Australia 24 hour support line on 1300 072 637.

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Join the community of women, men and families who have lost a child in our private Facebook group.

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on  Instagram.

Feature image: Supplied.

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