I originally wanted to interview Andy Foster for ‘Extraordinary Expats’ for his fantastic work founding and then building up the Language Exchange Stockholm group, featured earlier on Your Living City. When I contacted Andy, his son Lucas had been born 12 days earlier and it was clear that the whole family deserved the epithet. For Lucas was born with gastroschisis, a condition where the intestines are formed outside of the body and the whole family have been at Astrid Lindgren hospital since his birth 3 months ago. But now Lucas is set to spend Christmas at home, the best present any family could wish for.
None of the above paragraph takes anything away from Andy – he is still pretty extraordinary. Originally hailing from Preston in north-west England, his life changed radically when he moved to Malaga, Spain in 2008 for a sabbatical. He was never to return to the UK to live. What was intended as a 2 week stint at a Spanish language school turned into 9 months intensive study, near-fluency in Spanish and a passion for learning languages.
Languages weren’t the only thing inspiring passion. After 9 months of being in Spain, Andy met Jenny, a lovely Swedish hair-stylist who was also learning Spanish at the same language school. By January 2009, they were together as a couple, and in April that year Andy met Jenny’s parents, here in Stockholm, ‘the two people in Sweden who didn’t speak English’, as he puts it. He was now motivated to start learning a third language in his life, where just under 2 years earlier, he’d only spoken the one. Inspirational for those of us struggling with Swedish here. But more than inspiration, Andy went on to provide practical help for those of us wishing to learn Swedish. In May 2011, he moved to Sweden permanently and set up Language Exchange Stockholm, which offers the opportunity to study a myriad of langauges, but has its main core in Swedish.
I wanted to keep up my Spanish and improve my spoken Swedish and I couldn’t find anything formal or informal set up in Stockholm. So I went by my own philosophy ‘If it doesn’t exist, create it’. We had our first meeting on 15th May 2011, where all 25 members came along and spoke their differing levels of Spanish, English and Swedish. It grew organically, but in a chaotic way; it took time to arrange things so that everyone would contribute and help each other. But we grew to 100 members in the first month; now there are over 1700 members and new members come to us every day. Aside from language learning, it was a great opportunity to make friends from around the world and we started to find common interests. From that, other groups were formed: for sporty people and for people who enjoy big events in the city.
Aside from setting up the group, Andy was also thinking about setting up a family. Just before Easter in 2012, the couple went to Södersjukhuset for their first ultrasound and that was when gastroschisis was first diagnosed.
What is Gastroschisis?
Gastroschisis is a rare condition (one in every 5000 births in Sweden) in which a baby has the intestines, or part of them, growing outside of the body. Just after birth an emergency operation is needed to place them back inside. Only in 10% of cases can the surgeon place all of the intestines back in during the operation, which is what happened with Lucas, otherwise it is usual to slide the intestines into a plastic bag (pre-formed silo) where it will remain for up to a week. During this time the intestines will be gently squeezed back inside the baby’s abdomen. It is then a long process waiting for the body to accept the intestines and a patient wait by all as food is slowly introduced via a drip until the intestines can process the full amount directly into the nappy, then the next stage being the start of the bottle and breastfeeding process. With Lucas it was 2 months before this happened.
It was a tremendous shock when we heard, since we had pictured coming out of the 12 week ultrasound visit happy, ready to tell everyone, show them the profile picture and start making little things. The doctor painted such a bleak picture and googling the condition made things worse. At one point, reading on the internet, abortion seemed the most likely scenario, which was heartbreaking.
Andy and Jenny were referred to Astrid Lindgren’s hospital and it changed their whole perception of the condition and what could be done. The doctors to whom they spoke had seen many babies born with gastroschisis; the midwives were positive and informed and it was obvious that their little boy was going to be in safe hands.
When Jenny was 5 months pregnant, Andy was comfortable enough to start a blog about it: www.andyjenny.wordpress.com. ‘We wanted to feel happy about everything; our message to people reading the blog at home was “you support us and we’ll support him”.’ Not only did this happen, but Andy found that the blog gave others a chance to talk. By the time Lucas was 9 days old, they already had followers from 30 different countries. Lucas has become internationally known, fitting for a child of someone who had done so much work in trying to cross borders and help people learn to express themselves in different languages.
Lucas was born by caesarian section, 4 weeks prematurely, on 11th September 2012 at Karolinska University Hospital, Solna, weighing in at just 2.445 kg and 45cm tall. Although he needed wires and drips to ensure his weight and breathing were maintained, he has proved a fighter all the way through his life here in Stockholm. Just recently, Andy and Jenny were told they could leave the hospital with their charming, smiley son, which means it should be a family Christmas at home this year!
We at Your Living City would like to wish them and you a very merry one. God Jul and Feliz Navidad!