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My Ukrainian surrogate saved my life by giving me a baby – now it was my turn to save hers

My Ukrainian surrogate saved my life by giving me a baby - now it was my turn to save hers

The scene is familiar and heartwarming. A proud, protective big brother marvels at his newborn sister, whispering to her softly as he strokes her head. 

Yet this pair are anything but typical. Three-year-old Nazar and baby Sophie are not actually related, yet they share an extraordinary bond. 

It is a bond that has united two families, spanned 2,300 miles and defied the most terrifying war machine the world has seen in generations. And this week, it culminated in a moving reunion. 

For little Sophie was carried by Nazar’s mother Vita Lysenko, a surrogate from Ukraine, who two months ago gave Heather and Mark Easton the ‘miracle baby’ they had always longed for. 

Pictured: Vita, left, and Heather with baby Sophie. Vita Lysenko, a surrogate from Ukraine, gave Heather and Mark Easton the ‘miracle baby’ they had always longed for

Pictured: Vita, left, and Heather with baby Sophie. Vita Lysenko, a surrogate from Ukraine, gave Heather and Mark Easton the ‘miracle baby’ they had always longed for

When the two women last saw each other, they thought it could be their final meeting. Using patchy Google Translate, they had promised to keep in touch. 

Heather, 32, and HGV driver Mark, 39, were to return to Rugby, Warwickshire, with the child they had spent eight excruciating years and £80,000 to get. 

Meanwhile, in Cherkasy, a city more than two hours south of Kyiv, Vita, 35, and her husband Andrii were planning a new start of their own, hoping to buy their own apartment with the money they had carefully saved from surrogacy. 

But when Russian troops invaded their country two weeks after Heather and Mark returned to the UK, everything changed. 

‘Vita saved my life and now it was my turn to save her,’ says Heather. ‘I had to get them out.’ Finally, after a 17-day journey across Europe by car and ferry, Vita, Andrii and Nazar arrived in the UK on Friday, April1. Despite hardly knowing one another and relying on Google Translate for the most basic of interactions, they all blend together with the ease of one big family. 

Vita takes Sophie in her arms without hesitation if Heather needs a break and Andrii, 62, makes faces at the baby like a besotted uncle. Meanwhile, a smiley Nazar races up to Mark and gives him a high-five — the universal language of boyhood. 

In a few weeks, the six of them will enjoy their first family holiday with a trip to Center Parcs — somewhere Heather always dreamt of taking a child and Vita would probably never have visited. 

No one could argue that this is not a family and, what’s more, a happy and united one. Heather and Mark met when she was 19 and he was 26, and married in September 2014. When babies didn’t arrive, they worried that a childhood operation Mark had on his testicles might have been the problem and went for tests, which revealed that he had a very low sperm count. 

Pictured: Vita and her son Nazar. Vita, 35, and her husband Andrii were planning a new start of their own, hoping to buy their own apartment with the money they had saved from surrogacy

Pictured: Vita and her son Nazar. Vita, 35, and her husband Andrii were planning a new start of their own, hoping to buy their own apartment with the money they had saved from surrogacy

They were referred for IVF, which revealed yet more heartbreaking news: Heather had a ‘low ovarian reserve’ and ‘would be in menopause by the age of 38’. 

The couple endured five rounds of IVF at four different clinics, including two rounds with donor eggs, but Heather didn’t get pregnant. Worse still, she learnt that she was ‘riddled’ with endometriosis. 

‘We joked that I was like Swiss cheese because I had so many holes from the hundreds of injections. I had all the scars but no baby to show for it,’ Heather says softly. 

Her job as a nanny, while a welcome distraction, crystallised the void in their life. ‘Every Friday night I’d go home to Mark, leaving the family I worked for looking forward to a weekend with their children… wishing that was me.’ 

The couple looked into adoption but were put off by the red tape and cold attitude from social workers. Finally, at the start of 2021, Heather made the difficult decision to have a hysterectomy to ease the chronic pain from her endometriosis, but on one condition — that they found a surrogate. 

 She messaged me at 1am to say: Vita, the war is starting

Although surrogacy is legal in the UK, no money except ‘reasonable expenses’ is allowed to change hands. Ukraine, though, is one of the few places in the world where commercial surrogacy is still allowed. Before the war, about 2,000 surrogate babies were thought to be born there each year. 

There are many agencies cashing in on the booming baby business — some good, some bad; some exploitative and morally questionable, yet all offering poor Ukrainian women a life-changing amount of money. A woman prepared to carry a baby for a foreign couple is paid over £10,000 — more than twice the average annual salary. 

One of them was Vita, a hairdresser, and Andrii, a tiler. Living in rented accommodation with Vita’s 15-yearold son from her first marriage and a baby boy of their own, they dreamt of buying a home. 

But with limited earnings, they just didn’t know how. 

‘Andrii came home one day and asked me “what is surrogacy?”,’ Vita says. ‘He said he saw an advert on the bus, so we Googled it. At first we couldn’t understand how people did it. Then I thought about it. We didn’t want any more children and Andrii would never make the money we needed to buy a flat so quickly, so we decided to do it.’ 

Pictured: Heather and Mark with baby Sophie. Heather and Mark flew out to Ukraine with a suitcase full of toys for Nazar in December 2021

Pictured: Heather and Mark with baby Sophie. Heather and Mark flew out to Ukraine with a suitcase full of toys for Nazar in December 2021

Vita approached the surrogacy agency Adonis in 2018 and 18 months later, in January 2020, she gave birth to twins for a Chinese couple, for which she received £14,000. 

Even though it had been a difficult pregnancy, a year later, with the dream of their own home inching closer, she put herself forward again Meanwhile, Heather had been lurking in the background of Facebook pages for surrogacy in Ukraine for more than a year, wrestling with her conscience. Eventually, she signed up with the agency and paid £38,000 from their savings. 

She picked Vita from a list of potential surrogates after reading that she had done it before and ‘knew what she was letting herself in for’, she says. 

Then the process began: Mark paid £1,000 for a frozen sperm sample to be shipped to Ukraine and a fertilised embryo was implanted in Vita’s womb. Now they just had to wait. 

While most agencies forbid surrogates and the biological parents from communicating, Heather began messaging Vita from the outset. 

‘Even before she was pregnant, I knew it was going to work. In all the other rounds we did, I knew deep down that I didn’t think I was capable of carrying a baby,’ she says. 

This pregnancy was different for Vita, too. Mark and Heather were continually checking she was OK, and she updated them with pictures and videos of her growing bump. Two months before the birth, she moved to Kyiv. 

Heather and Mark flew out to Ukraine with a suitcase full of toys for Nazar in December 2021. They would spend evenings eating cake with Vita and her family and would accompany her to hospital appointments. 

But as Vita’s due date approached, reports of a looming Russian invasion started to dominate the headlines. Vita, Andrii and all the hospital staff shrugged it off: for them, war drums had been beating in the background for years. But Heather and Mark were terrified they would be trapped in Ukraine — or worse. 

Sophie was born by Caesarean section, with Heather and Mark watching through a small window, on January 27. The couple were left to have ‘skin on skin’ contact with the baby while Vita was taken to recovery.

‘When I looked at her, she looked so much like Mark. She was family,’ says Heather. ‘I thought I was going to cry but I didn’t, I was too excited.’ 

Then, once they had established that Vita was OK — and with Putin’s forces massing on the borders — the race out of Ukraine began. 

Normally, it can take up to five months for couples to resolve the immigration issues to fly home with a baby born via a surrogate. 

Although they are seen as the child’s legal parents from birth, they need to get a British passport for their newborn. Then, when they get to the UK, they must apply for a parental order. ‘I was sending 30 emails a day,’ says Heather. 

They urged Vita and Andrii to flee with them but the couple were reluctant. Like many of their countrymen, they still couldn’t believe that a full-on invasion would happen. 

In the end, Heather and Mark managed to get the documents they needed in a record 13 days and arrived home on February 9. Fifteen days later, the invasion of Ukraine was under way. Vita remembers that day. ‘Heather messaged me at 1am, saying, “Vita, the war is starting”. She wanted us to drop everything and leave. I explained that we had to at least move some of our belongings but she said just leave them. She was very scared for us.’ 

In the UK, Heather had found the family a sponsor who offered Vita and her family a flat just down the road from her in Rugby

In the UK, Heather had found the family a sponsor who offered Vita and her family a flat just down the road from her in Rugby

‘We were in constant contact via the app Viber,’ Heather says. ‘Vita spoke of sirens going off and moving in and out of bunkers. I imagined how awful it must have been — her son is only three and she’d just had a Caesarean. 

‘I just begged: “Please leave. I promise, I’ll get you here. Trust me.” And eventually she said, “OK, we will come”.’ 

Vita and Andrii bought a car for £4,000, then began packing up their lives and saying goodbye to friends, not knowing if they would see them again. 

Vita’s elder son Ruslan, 15, didn’t want to leave his friends, so she made the painful decision to leave him with her parents for the time being. ‘I was scared of the journey,’ says Vita. ‘Would we make it? Where would we stay? I wanted to get out as quickly as possible. We assumed there would be bombs falling around us.’ 

They left with Nazar and their pug dog, Musy, and began the 17- day journey across the Continent, spending the first night on a mattress on a church floor outside Lviv. From there, it was six days driving through Poland, Germany and Belgium, using Google Maps and staying at hotels Heather booked for them along the way. 

In the UK, Heather had found the family a sponsor who offered them a flat just down the road from her in Rugby. She spent hours on the phone, chasing their visa applications and lobbying her local MP for help. 

But almost two weeks later, only Vita’s visa had arrived, and the family drove to the main visa office in Paris. Then Mark decided to fly out to help them complete the last leg of the journey. 

They reached the UK on April 1. ‘It was so weird to see their car on our drive,’ Heather says. ‘We took them to their house and they loved it. I’d put photos of them on the wall — they were really touched.’ 

 The maternity hospital where she was born has been shelled

Mark adds: ‘Andrii looked emotional. I just hugged him and said, “You’re here now, home. You don’t need to travel any more.” ’ 

They have since found out that the maternity hospital where Vita gave birth to Sophie was shelled. 

The bond between the families is so strong, Vita has asked Heather and Mark to be Nazar’s godparents. Heather says: ‘They just feel like family to us. We’re all very comfortable sitting around each other, whether there’s silence or not. Sometimes I forget she was my surrogate because she’s more like a friend. I don’t feel threatened by the fact that she had Sophie. If I ever owed her a debt for having Sophie, it’s settled.’ 

Vita doesn’t want to be a surrogate again. She would like to train as a beautician and Andrii hopes to pick up some building work. 

She is in constant contact with her eldest son, who is still with her parents in Cherkasy. For now, the city is safe and he will think about following them to the UK when they are settled. 

Eventually, the family would like to return to Ukraine and buy their own flat, as they dreamt of. 

‘It was a complete accident that we met Heather and Mark, and thanks to that we are now safe in England,’ Vita says, smiling. 

Heather returns the smile: ‘You’re my friend,’ she tells her. Heather says she plans to be completely honest with Sophie about her birth and is grateful that Vita will be in her life. 

And one day, between them, they will tell her the extraordinary story of how she came to be.

  • Heather has been fundraising to help Vita and her family settle in their new home. Go to justgiving.com/ crowdfunding/vitalysenko

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