A rescue team evacuates premature American twins from Kyiv in a daring mission
RZESZOW, Poland — It's 9:15 a.m. and Bryan Stern is waiting outside a Kyiv hospital. The sound of shelling in the distance forces him and his team to hurry. They need to get two premature babies into an ambulance and out of the besieged Ukrainian capital.
This is Operation Gemini, named for the American twins he has been tasked with evacuating.
Across the border in Poland, their father, Alex Spektor, is waiting to meet his babies, who were born via a surrogate. His voice is thick with emotion and fatigue as he relays the latest over the phone.
"They've been on the road for about six hours, and they have five more hours after that," he says.
"They will be put into the NICU immediately. We don't want to slow down that process."
His twin sons, Lenny and Moishe, were born premature 10 days earlier in Kyiv, just after Russia began its attack on Ukraine.
They were too small to move in the days after they were born into a war zone. But as they grew stronger, Kyiv grew weaker. Now, they are making the run for the border with Stern and his specialist evacuation team of U.S. Army veterans.
It's a treacherous journey that will include Russian shelling, complex border crossings and a snowstorm.
A desperate search for help
Spektor and his partner, Irma Nuñez, live in Chicago but for weeks had been watching the growing tension between Ukraine and Russia as their surrogate, Katya, was approaching her due date.
Spektor was born in Kyiv when it was part of the Soviet Union, and his family came to the U.S. as refugees.
When his sons arrived early in Kyiv and needed vital care to survive, there was hope they could be moved to a city farther from the fighting. But transporting such fragile cargo would be a delicate move and require special medical care, so the babies stayed in the capital.
Then the situation became more desperate, and so did Spektor and Nuñez. Spektor flew to Poland and relayed messages back home. They reached out to anyone who might help.
Stern stepped in. The Army and Navy veteran runs a nonprofit specialist extraction team from Florida called Project Dynamo that goes into war zones and rescues those trying to escape.
Stern has been exfiltrating people, many of them U.S. citizens, from some of the most besieged cities in Ukraine ever since the war broke out.
Operation Gemini commences
As Operation Gemini begins on Monday morning, Stern starts to relay updates to Spektor and NPR.
The team also includes two doctors, two neonatal specialists, a nurse and a Ukrainian ambulance crew.
"We picked up baby Lenny and baby Moishe," Stern relays.
The clock starts ticking, and the dash for the border begins. It's impossible to avoid the conflict.
"[The Russians] were shelling something else, but it was close enough that the ground was shaking," Stern says. "I mean, the artillery doesn't care what it is — it's gonna land where it lands. The artillery doesn't say like, 'Oh, well, there's babies here, so we'll go somewhere else.' "
Stops are few and short. Just enough to get fuel or to feed and check on the babies in the back.
Stern is all too aware of the dangers ahead, the cargo he's carrying and the risks he wrested them from.
"If dust gets in the room, they're in trouble. If the power goes out in the room, they're in trouble. If there's a whole bunch of shot-up troops and the doctors get spread thin, then they're going to be in trouble. So the bottom line is getting out of Kyiv," he says.
Stern navigates checkpoints in the three-vehicle convoy. They are touch-and-go because some of the men on their team are Ukrainians of military age who could have been conscripted to fight.
A few hours into the journey through Ukraine, he relays another message to NPR.
He says the surrogate, Katya, is with them and Spektor is waiting at the border. Then the line drops out.
It's close to 11 p.m. — more than 13 hours since they left the hospital in Kyiv — before another update finally comes through.
"We are at the border," Stern says. "My blood pressure will finally be able to go back to normal once we get rid of this precious cargo."
"The war didn't want to let them go"
On the Polish side of the border, Spektor links up with the convoy and finally meets his tiny twins. From there, it's another one-hour drive to the hospital in the Polish town of Rzeszow. An unseasonal snowstorm has just hit, blanketing the roads in white and making it hard to see at night.
"The war didn't want to let them go. But we got them out," Spektor says.
The streets are silent and dark when the spinning lights of emergency vehicles light up the surrounding hospital buildings just after midnight. A motorcade pulls in, led by a Polish police car, an ambulance and two large black vans.
The ambulance drives into a loading dock where nurses in pink gowns rush out with tiny beds to take the babies.
Spektor steps outside, his eyes smiling behind his mask.
"The twins are already in. They're just tiny but amazing. Because in the photographs they look so big. Oh, my God. Insane," he says.
Stern steps out of the hospital too. Now, he's smiling.
"This is our 13th operation from 12 days of war," he says.
On the website for his company, people in Ukraine have been filling out forms asking for evacuations.
"It's like we're the world's worst travel agency, right? It's like the worst all-inclusive vacation," Stern says.
Case managers in the U.S. go through the applications, prioritizing requests that seem both urgent and viable. The database has more than 14,000 people now. Lenny and Moishe weren't even on the list.
"We didn't even make a dent today," Stern says. "That's why I gotta go back. We gotta make a dent tomorrow. This was a special case. A very, very special case."
Once Lenny and Moishe are safe inside the neonatal intensive care unit, everyone meets back at the hotel to have something to eat. It's 2 a.m., and everyone has been wound up since before dawn. Spektor says he's in shock.
"The emotions come later. Because it's just, it's too huge," he says. "The twins, I just had to look at them and be saturated with their presence."
Spektor can't stop talking about all the people who have been helping in the last two weeks.
"My whole family are from Kyiv. And we have very deep roots in there. We still have family there. And a lot of friends," he says. "And, you know, my aunt has a childhood friend who was one of the people bringing food. But right now, I just think for the first time I feel Ukrainian."
Everybody gathers around — Spektor, Stern, Katya and all the helpers. They open two bottles of Champagne.
"This is for Lenny and Moishe and for all the wonderful people who helped to bring them here," Spektor says.
They toast, and cheer. It's a moment to savor in a war that feels like it's just beginning.
Leila Fadel and Arezou Rezvani reported from Lviv, Ukraine.
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