In Kyiv, their surrogate was carrying twins for the couple, and she and the babies had endured weeks of terrifying health complications. There were seven more weeks until the due date, and now Russian forces were bearing down on the capital city.
“I get a video call from this beautiful young woman, who appears a little bit drunk, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, who are you?’” Spektor recalled. “And she says, ‘You have two beautiful sons.’”
Born premature but weighing more than four pounds each, and with full heads of hair, twins Lenny and Moishe brought new life during wartime.
“It feels like a schizophrenic experience,” Spektor told The Washington Post late Saturday. Nuñez agreed: “This has been the longest weeks of our lives.”
As preemies, Lenny and Moishe require intensive care and need a special medical transport. Doctors in Kyiv told the parents the babies need to stay in the hospital for at least another four days before they can be transferred to another regional clinic farther from the most intense fighting, Nuñez said.
“They don’t want them to make the journey now without IV solution, proper care, whatever they need to have if a situation comes up,” Nuñez said. The ultimate goal is to get the twins to Poland or a more stable city in western Ukraine, like Lviv — a trip that will also require medical transport.
Thus far, the couple say the State Department has been unable to help and they’ve reached out to their representatives in Congress, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). The Ukraine-based staff for the international surrogacy agency that was part of the coordinating plan have fled. If the fighting intensifies, Nuñez and Spektor understand that time is against them.
Under protocols set by the surrogacy agency, Adonis Fertility International, the surrogate mother is not supposed to contact the intended parents or get attached to the babies, the couple said. But now that the protocols have eroded, their surrogate Katya — whose last name they withheld for privacy reasons — is their only point of contact for their sons. Her video call to Spektor was the only time the couple had seen her face, without a mask, outside of a photo.
“In our mind, the surrogate, she gave birth to our children, but she’s not beholden to them,” Nuñez said. “What if she decides she needs to be with her family and save herself? We need to find someone who can take care of the babies.”
Representatives for Adonis did not respond to request for comment Sunday.
The couple is searching for anyone who can help bring their children to safety, and is looking for transport for not only Lenny and Moishe, but Katya, her 6-year-old son Nikita, and two other babies born to American families via surrogate.
“We’re in a position where we need to help not only our babies, but other babies,” Nuñez said.
While the couple has received supportive offers from individuals in Poland and Ukraine who have learned of their plight — far-flung connections and even strangers offering a room to stay, or a ride — the specialized medical transport to move the twins from Kyiv to western Ukraine or the Polish border remains elusive.
As of Sunday, the babies and Katya were sheltering in the basement in the hospital in Kyiv. The parents have seen glimpses of the conditions there: Katya in a paper gown, the twins in a makeshift newborn intensive care unit. Spektor described it as looking like a scene from a horror film.
Martha Bayne, one of Nuñez’s longtime friends, said she has been struck by how the new parents have managed to stay calm.
“This is a truly remarkable and mind-boggling situation to find themselves in. It’s something that’s so happy — Irma keeps sending me videos of the babies that they’re getting from the surrogate — and she’s saying, ‘This is what’s keeping us going.’”
The intensity of the past week with the war in Ukraine is part of a longer, difficult road to parenthood for the couple, particularly Nuñez.
“I had a really painful experience trying to have babies in the past. And sharing the news, where it didn’t work out? It was hard to deal with the grief,” Nuñez said. “And this time I didn’t want to do that. I felt incredibly private about the situation. I didn’t want to share it with anybody until it felt safe, until it felt like it was going to be good.”
Up until the birth of the twins, the couple had kept news of their babies intensely private, even from close friends, until their premature birth and outbreak of war prompted them to suddenly go public.
“Irma — who has a ton of friends — the first time they heard about it was, ‘We want to share this great news: We just had twins … and they’re in Kyiv,’” Spektor said.
Nuñez admitted that even plans for the nursery in their Chicago apartment were incomplete; the couple didn’t want to jinx what felt like it could finally be their stroke of good luck. Much of the baby clothing they acquired has been cautiously stashed in their storage unit until the twins make it home.
“We didn’t think we’d need any for two more months,” Nuñez said. “We wanted to wait until we crossed this hurdle and we know the babies are fine.”
For many couples who pursue surrogacy, Ukraine is an attractive option for its relative affordability. U.S.-based surrogacy can cost upward of $100,000, while surrogacy in Ukraine is often less than half that.
For Nuñez and Spektor, Ukraine offered a powerful personal connection.
“There was this notion that, we can’t have our own kids, but there’s something symbolic in having our kids born where I was born,” said Spektor, who was born in Kyiv.
The twins’ journey into the world has been fraught, even before Russian forces began shelling eastern parts of Ukraine. Roughly halfway through the pregnancy, Katya developed an Rh-incompatibility with the twins, meaning her blood was Rh-negative while theirs was positive. The doctors suggested they may have to induce labor at 27 weeks.
“Her body began to attack the babies,” Spektor said. “We were losing our minds on what to do, but then two days later things would stabilize. Then they’d get another bad ultrasound and it would go into a logistical nightmare.”
When Katya went into labor last week, she was transferred by ambulance to a clinic outside of Kyiv. When an ultrasound showed one of the twins had a severe oxygen deficiency, Katya was transferred back to Kyiv, where the hospital options were better, Spektor said.
Instead of the ambulance ride taking 20 minutes, it took three hours because of traffic from military vehicles, Katya later told the couple.
“For those three hours, it was agony. We’re thinking, ‘Is this three hours going to be the end of our babies?’” Spektor said.
But the babies survived their tumultuous birth. Katya later sent a video where she is heard saying of the twins, “These are Ukrainian heroes.”
The babies were named for Jewish and Mexican relatives of the couple: Lenny and Moishe are Jewish names derived from Leonid and Misha from Spektor’s side, and the middle names Carlos and Rosario from Nuñez’s.
Spektor joked he picked the name “Moishe” to saddle his family with “a very provincial Jewish name” (“They think they’re so sophisticated,” he said, smiling) and they settled on “Lenny” because of composer Leonard Bernstein, who was born to Ukrainian-Jewish parents — and comedian Lenny Bruce.
The couple plans to travel to Poland, but have yet to come to an agreement on whether Spektor will attempt to travel into Ukraine. In the meantime, they continue to replay the videos they have of their sons — their “heroes of Ukraine.”
“We have these two lives born,” Spektor said. “And their own journey into this world was so difficult, and all of a sudden to have them born in a war zone — among all this devastation — feels incredibly hopeful.”