How a Hong Kong cancer survivor had a family against the odds
Thanks to IVF and adoption, a couple have overcome enormous hurdles to build their multicultural family
When Rachel and Sophie Tadelis were three, the twins got into trouble with their nursery teacher for telling friends that they hadn't come from their mother's womb but their aunt's.
Rachel and Sophie weren't just a pair of imaginative toddlers telling tall tales, though. Theirs is an extraordinary life, as is the multicultural family that their parents Jamie and Amy Tadelis have made with two other siblings who were adopted in Hong Kong, Levi and Ruby.
It's family that has triumphed over adversity.
Both natives of New York, Jamie and Amy Tadelis married early and decided they should not wait to start a family after having lost Amy's father and aunt to cancer within a few years. But it was a path fraught with hurdles.
The couple found it difficult to conceive, even with fertility drugs. When Amy conceived unexpectedly, it was an unviable ectopic pregnancy that also damaged a fallopian tube. Then, just as she was recovering, test results revealed that she had breast cancer - especially dangerous for young women under 40.
"There was no time to process or be nervous," recalls Amy. Then working at a tech consultancy, she says, at 28 you think "you're invincible and you [can] do anything".
For months they shuttled between home and hospital as Amy underwent chemotherapy following a bilateral mastectomy, while Jamie fitted in classes and exams for a second law degree.
Friedrich Nietzsche's assertion - "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" - certainly applied here; the hard times allowed Amy's fortitude to shine through and reinforced the couple's relationship.
"I watched Amy lose weight and hair," Jamie says. "When you are faced with adversity, you see one's true colours. Do they crumple up into a ball and hide in a corner? Or do they clench their fist and fight? Amy is a fighter, so I fought alongside her."
But even as they battled cancer, the Tadelis never gave up on their dream of having children. So before receiving chemotherapy, Amy went for in vitro fertilisation and had a set of eggs extracted, fertilised and frozen.
"It was a great feeling to know that after cancer I would have the opportunity to have my own family because, with chemotherapy, you don't know if you will have a period or go through an early menopause," says Amy.
Revisiting the subject of a baby after Amy returned to work, the couple received conflicting advice from doctors on whether she could carry a fetus to term.
"Nobody could give us a definite answer because there were few survivors who sought fertility and thus there was no reason for research," says Amy. "Another reason is breast cancer is affected by hormones like oestrogen and progesterone, so getting pregnant might increase my risk of cancer."
As they were weighing their choices, Amy's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Mines, volunteered a solution: she could be their surrogate to carry their child. The overjoyed couple gratefully accepted the offer.
It took a couple of tries before Elizabeth became pregnant with the implanted eggs. But in 2003, the Tadelis finally welcomed their twins, Sophie and Rachel.
For Amy, the twins are "the best gift my brother and his wife could give me. Nothing could ever top that."
Now 12 years old, Sophie and Rachel share a special bond with their aunt. And understanding their journey far better today than they did as toddlers, the twins have embraced their identity. They love sharing their story and enjoy watching friends and teachers' reactions as they explain what surrogacy involves, the girls say.
In 2009, the family relocated to Hong Kong because of Jamie's investment banking job, and before long they were exploring the city's easily accessible countryside and celebrating festivals such as Mid-Autumn. But Jamie and Amy still felt there was something missing - they wanted another child.
They had exhausted their chances with the twins' surrogacy. So with their daughters' backing, the couple turned to the adoption unit in the Social Welfare Department.
Months of rigorous assessment and visits to foster families followed before the couple was matched with a three-year-old boy they named Levi. In a surprise twist, they learned that Levi had a new-born sister who would be up for adoption in two years. There was no debate: they welcomed the baby girl into the family as Ruby.
"People say Levi and Ruby are lucky to have us," says Amy. "We are lucky to have them too. Their personalities fit our family completely. They've enriched our lives. Levi is the kindest, sweetest boy and he's the funniest kid I've ever known - he cracks me up."
Cared for by Mother's Choice in her early years, Ruby was initially confused by the Tadelis' visits but she and Levi blossomed once they arrived in their new home. They didn't need much help bonding with their elder sisters and grandparents. Now, "Ruby is a ball of energy and attitude." While Levi and Ruby are Chinese and their adoptive family is of Polish-Jewish descent, ethnicity wasn't a problem. And neither was language - Levi soon picked up English even though he only spoke Cantonese when he arrived.
"Levi's first English word was 'hand' because Rachel kept saying 'come, hold my hand'," Amy recalls. "And his second was 'wiggle-wiggle' because the girls used to make him dance."
Their seamless transition was a blessing, Jamie says. "There's no 'you aren't genetically the same as me' from Rachel or Sophie. They have always introduced Levi and Ruby simply as their brother and sister. That to me is beautiful."
Amy adds: "The children take care and bring the best out of each other. The twins teach their younger siblings, while the little ones keep the twins young because they are still playing little kid games."
Just as they have been frank to the twins about their surrogacy, the couple has been open to Levi and Ruby about their adoption. Jamie hopes that the younger two will be proud of who they are and not see their identity as a stigma as they grow up - and know that they will always be loved.