Franklin is our blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked, beautiful and healthy little boy who was born in July 2019. Due to health reasons, we were unable to safely carry a pregnancy, but thankfully we were able to turn to a surrogate in Canada. There were unexpected complications, however, and Franklin’s medical expenses weren’t covered by health insurance. He came almost six weeks premature and had to spend a week in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), which left us with a hospital bill of over $120,000 AUD. To find out just how we ended up with this large medical expense for Franklin, you're invited to read our story below. If you don’t want to read it all, you can scroll to the end for a shortened summary.
Video produced by Alyssa Kellert
We’re Rhys and Ellice from Sydney, Australia, and we’re the proud parents of Franklin.
Photo: Rhys, Ellice and Franklin in Squamish, BC, taken by Kendal Blacker
Ellice was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that caused her lungs to deteriorate to the point of failure. She received a life-saving double-lung transplant in 2012, which gave her a second chance at life and made it possible for her to envision a future. This opened up the possibility that we might be able to have a child together one day (you can read a story she wrote about that experience here). Unfortunately, after an episode of rejection, which reduced her lung function by half, her specialist advised her against carrying a pregnancy because it would pose a serious risk to the life of the baby, to Ellice, or to both of them. This was a huge blow to us emotionally, and it took some time to come to terms with. But we decided that we still wanted to be parents, and if we were able to make embryos via IVF, then we would try to find a surrogate to carry our baby for us.
It was a long journey spanning four years researching surrogacy, looking for a surrogate and coordinating everything we would require for the process, so we were elated when a friend introduced us to a remarkable women in Vancouver, named Kendal, who, after a few months of getting to know us, offered to carry our baby. So with all the necessary administrative and logistical stuff finally taken care of, we air-freighted our frozen embryos to Canada in December 2018 and Skyped into the operating room as the embryo that would become baby Franklin was successfully transferred to Kendal. We watched in amazement from across the Pacific as it slowly grew into a baby boy throughout a successful pregnancy in Vancouver. We were so fortunate that Kendal was someone who shared our values and sense of humour and was willing to include us in her experience of the pregnancy. We felt like we were right there with her, sharing in it all.
Eventually, the time came for us to join Kendal, her husband Dave and their family in Vancouver to prepare for the birth of our son, who we had at that point given the nickname Tiny T, short for Tiny Traveller (due to the many miles he had travelled before he was even born). We worked together to come up with a plan for the birth but were taken by surprise when Franklin decided he couldn’t wait and had to come out six weeks premature. By some stroke of good luck, we had been in Vancouver for a week when he announced his imminent arrival, so we were able to don our scrubs and join Kendal and the medical team in the operating theatre and be present for his birth.
Unfortunately, that’s where our luck took a turn.
When we saw Franklin over the surgical screen for the first time, we cried with joy and immediately fell in love with him. In that moment we had become parents. He came out crying—which is generally a positive sign—but it soon became apparent that something was wrong. A team of paediatricians and nurses examined him, focusing intently and speaking to each other in shorthand that we couldn’t follow. Their expressions were hard to read, particularly because only their eyes were visible behind their face masks and surgical caps. Franklin lay at the centre of the action, struggling to draw breath. His cry had morphed into an abrasive grunting sound, and although we didn’t know what it meant, we knew instinctively that it wasn’t a good sign.
Photo: Ellice with Frankie moments after his birth, taken by Morag Hastings
Photo: Ellice and Rhys comforting Frankie, taken by Morag Hastings
After what felt like hours but was probably only a matter of minutes, someone explained to us that Franklin’s lungs hadn’t yet fully developed because he was too premature. We watched helplessly, touching his little feet and hands and trying to reassure him as he lay there under the heat lamp with noise and activity whirring all around. Our tears of joy turned to tears of despair. But we were reassured that this was really common for a baby born at 34 weeks and that he would get through it.
Photo: Ellice and Rhys looking on as Frankie gets an x-ray, taken by Morag Hastings
In the meantime, Kendal was ready to be transferred to the recovery ward so we hugged her in an emotional embrace before she left the operating room. At that moment, words weren’t necessary. Kendal could feel our gratitude and our love for her and our new baby.
We spent the next week by Franklin’s side in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), day and night, doing skin-to-skin and giving him long cuddles while the bulky continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask obscured half his tiny face. As part of his care team, we took his temperature, changed his nappy, fed him and bathed him. We learned to read the measurements that were displayed in real-time on the monitor above his cot, and watched them obsessively, looking for any sign of improvement. There was very little of that in the first few days, but as the week wore on Franklin started to turn a corner. By day six it was clear to everyone that he would soon be ready to face the world outside.
Photo: L-R Dave, Kendal, Ellice, Franklin and Rhys, taken by Morag Hastings
Photo: Franklin one week old, taken by Kendal Blacker
So how did we end up with $120,000 debt?
The NICU cost is close to $15,000 CAD per day, with doctors’ fees and extras billed on top of that. We incurred this as personal debt to the hospital because, although Franklin was entitled to Canadian citizenship, he wasn’t considered a resident. Our comprehensive travel insurance policy also didn’t cover any post-birth care for Franklin. We hadn’t insured him specifically because we were still looking at policies when a condition called ‘vasa previa with velamentous cord insertion’ was diagnosed early in Kendal’s pregnancy. This condition meant Franklin would need to be born via caesarean because a natural birth could cause him to lose a dangerous amount of blood and be without oxygen, and it also increased the likelihood of premature birth. The fact that it was detected before we had locked in an insurer for Franklin also meant it was classed as a pre-existing condition, and therefore would not have been covered. On top of all this, Australia doesn’t have a reciprocal healthcare agreement with Canada. So ultimately, all of this meant that Franklin’s stay in hospital would be coming out of our pockets.
A lot of people have asked why Franklin wasn’t covered under Kendal’s insurance. Well, in the province of British Columbia, Canada, babies born via surrogacy are transferred into the intended parents’ care immediately after birth.
By the time all the tubes and machinery were removed and Franklin was finally discharged, we had incurred a final bill of over $120,000. This was on top of the expenses that we had already paid for: creating embryos, transporting them internationally, covering Kendal's out-of-pocket expenses, and pursuing a surrogacy arrangement that meets the legal requirements of Australia and Canada (legal representation for all parties, psychological counselling, etc.)
Franklin is growing bigger and is now 3 months old. Where has the time gone! We came home from Canada with over 10 Litres of breast milk that Kendal had pumped for us and since we’ve been home Franklin has been receiving donor milk from generous mother’s with an oversupply all over Sydney. Franklin has a beautiful sweet nature and is loved by so many people. We feel so lucky to be his parents and we’re sure Yoshi, our family dog, is already plotting schemes and mischief to get up to with Franklin once he’s old enough to walk. Kendal is doing really well after the birth and had a relatively fast recovery with plenty of rest. We really miss Kendal and Dave and their kids. But we exchange messages with them almost every day and chat when we can over Skype. After what we’ve been through, our bond is unbreakable and will be with us for life. Now that the final hospital bill has come through, we’ve decided to make our story public in the hopes that our friends and family, and perhaps even some kind strangers who we’ve never met, might be in a position to donate to our cause. Regardless of whether we raise money here or not, we will honour our debt to BC Children’s Hospital. We are truly grateful to the staff who worked so tirelessly to deliver our healthy, happy little boy to us. Any amount we’re fortunate enough to raise here will make a huge difference, but even if you aren’t in a position to donate we thank you for taking the time to read our story. Every dollar raised will go directly to the hospital.
Photo: Yoshi (dog), Rhys, Franklin (nearly 3 months old) and Ellice, taken by Jessamine Chen
Ellice received a double-lung transplant in 2012 because her lungs were failing from a condition called cystic fibrosis. It would have been unsafe for her to carry a pregnancy, but we had the incredible fortune to befriend Kendal, our friend’s sister-in-law in Canada, who offered to act as a surrogate and carry a pregnancy for us. An unexpected abnormality developed, called vasa previa with velamentous cord insertion, which ultimately caused Franklin to be born six weeks premature. His lungs hadn’t had enough time to develop so he needed to spend the first week of his life in Intensive Care, which ended up not being covered by insurance. Australia doesn’t have a reciprocal health care arrangement with Canada, so we had to pay privately for the cost of Franklin’s hospital stay and medical care. The final bill was more than $120,000 AUD.
Photo: Dave, Ellice, Kendal, Frankie (6 weeks old) and Rhys, taken by Judy Blacker
Thank you for your support!
Photo: The happy family, taken by Kendal Blacker