When Sebastian from Norway financed his own trip back to the United States to be there for his host sister Anna who was anxiously awaiting a lung donor, and stood by what became a 6-hour long surgery alongside the rest of the family, he was no exchange student. He was just another member of the family, another sibling that came along.
Karen, the host mom, fondly traces her memories back to the moment it all began – when she first had a change of heart to host an exchange student. “My daughter Anna had asked to host an exchange student for many years. But I always found an excuse, saying life was busy, and this and that. But one day a Facebook post led me to go look at student profiles.” She was touched. “The student letters just pulled at my heartstrings. I could tell the students really wanted to come to the United States; this was their dream. And I realized the only way they can do this is to have host families. I thought, Wow, there is a need. And this is something I can do.”
“Sebastian,” Karen continues, “really stuck out to us. We are not a super athletic family, but one thing you will find across many of the students is a love for sports.” Sebastian was more like Karen’s family. He enjoyed hanging out with friends, and talking to people. Karen advises, “Be open, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to pick an opposite. There are going to be differences, but I think the best chance of blending comes from sharing certain similarities like interests. They serve as an initial base for connection.”
In her case, Karen was absolutely right. “Sebastian was a great fit for us. My daughter Anna has been very sick for quite a bit of her life, so she is not very active. Sebastian and Anna spent a lot of time sitting and talking, and they just really connected.” Karen recalls. Sebastian attests, “Anna and I could sit for hours talking after everyone else had gone to bed. She accepted me for who I am, and I am so happy she did.”
“We did some really fun things together, like going to the amusement park in Denver, being super childish and going trick of treating on Halloween, her dressing up as superwoman, and I, a Christmas tree which was hilarious, and going to the movies together.” When Anna decided in January that she was ready to go back to college after her health-caused hiatus, Sebastian was heartbroken. He shares, “I was really proud of her, but at the same time devastated that she was leaving.”
But such a bond does not falter through distance and the two kept in good touch through the rest of the year. Sebastian remembers Anna’s ‘tigermoming,’ “as she proudly called it,” he says. “I was considering throwing myself out of my comfort zone and auditioning for the spring musical. I’m absolutely not a stereotypical drama student…But Anna pushed me so hard into doing it, practicing my monologue and 30 second song with me the day before the audition. It was the most awkward thing ever, but I was cast and I made so many great friends being part of the musical.”
When May came, Sebastian was no longer saying goodbye to strangers, but promising a see-you-later to his new family. He remembers, “After a heartbreaking goodbye to my second family, I boarded the plane bawling all the way home to Norway.”
What Sebastian didn’t know was that as soon as the family dropped Sebastian off at the airport, they dropped Anna off at the hospital. Sebastian landed in Norway to the news that Anna had been admitted to the hospital because her lungs were failing. “At first,” he says, “I honestly wasn’t that worried. Anna is so strong and has been admitted to the hospital many times before. She was going to go back to normal as she does every time!” He says he thought.
But in the beginning of July, he received a different email from Karen. Sebastian remembers this moment in detail. “I was at a festival in southern Norway with friends I made in Hawaii during my exchange year. Towards the end of it, I received an email from Karen, telling me that Anna had decided to go through a lung transplant. The news came as a huge shock to me. Anna had always said that she doesn’t want to go through with the transplant because of the risk, and that she just wanted to keep on with her life until her body couldn’t take it anymore. “That’s what God’s plan is for me,” she would say. I was DEVASTATED. I sat down crying in one of my friend’s arms for hours…”
Months went by while Anna, Sebastian, and the family patiently waited for a donor. Sebastian was worried that Anna was starting to feel hopeless. “I was so worried,” he says, that the first break he got that year in October, he chose to visit North Carolina where the family was with his own money, “hoping to cheer her and Karen up a little.” Karen says, “This was a real highlight for Anna. It really uplifted her spirit.”
But his decision to visit is barely the beginning of the story. Towards the end of Sebastian’s stay, “this incredible thing happened.” He tells, “On one of the days, Anna was called in by the hospital because they might have a pair of lungs for her. We immediately went and nervously waited for more information. But after spending pretty much the entire day at the hospital, we were told it was a dry-run. Someone else had gotten the lungs. Anna was devastated and I felt so sorry for her. The day after, on Friday, David the host dad came to visit from the DC where he was working. It was so good to see him again, and we all went out to eat. My stay was coming to an end as I was leaving Sunday morning. Then, early Saturday morning, Anna got another call…Maybe they had lungs for her! Anna was excited and nervous, but not as much as the first time as she didn’t think she would get these lungs either. But I was sure; I could feel it. They had to be hers! And pretty quickly, we were informed that she was going to go through surgery. I was terrified and crying! Anna and Karen were so strong; it’s crazy.”
The moment that everyone had been waiting for had finally come, and coincidentally so during Sebastian’s visit. Sebastian continues, “Other family members flew in a few short hours later and it was so great to see them again too. We were told that the surgery could take 12 hours, and we sat in a lounge area waiting. Some of the family’s friends came to support, bringing food and snacks, and it was really heartwarming to all of us.” Karen shares, “Sebastian was a part of our family through the whole thing — not an exchange student. He was just another sibling that came along.”
“The really hard part,” Karen says, “was that Anna almost died in her surgery. She wasn’t conscious at all when she came out.” Sebastian too remembers, “I was so nervous and nauseous I could hardly breathe when I went to go see Anna after the surgery…She wasn’t conscious when I got into the room….This was probably the hardest minute of my life, having to say goodbye to Karen and Anna,” as his impending flight did not allow him to wait until Anna awoke. “Sebastian was a basket case, having to leave like that,” Karen says.
“When I grabbed Anna’s hand crying and trying to say goodbye,” Sebastian continues, “the strangest thing happened. It was as if she “panicked,” and she started moving her fingers trying to tell me not to leave…Oh my gosh, I am crying telling this. It was such a terribly beautiful and emotional moment, and I felt like the worst person on the planet leaving her in such unsure conditions. I got to the airport bawling and trying to look up other flights, but to get to stay longer, I had to pay $1500 more. An 18 year old couldn’t afford that, so with my heart broken and no more body fluids, I had to board the plane…”
Thankfully, what awaited his arrival in Norway this time was the news that Anna made it through the surgery safely. Sebastian reflects, “Anna was the strongest, bravest, kindest, and the most awesome person, and I am so incredibly proud of her. Her Halloween costume wasn’t random after all…she surely is superwoman.”
Anna is now happily back in college. And Sebastian and the family are still in touch, even from thousands of miles away. Karen speaks of a special moment when Sebastian randomly consulted her about college and moving to Oslo one day. She fondly recalls, “He was telling me about his thoughts, the situation, and so on just as he would with his natural mother. I felt so included in his decision-making; it was so touching.”
Since then, the two families, Sebastian’s natural family and Karen’s family, have spent vacations together as well. In April 2014, Sebastian’s natural family hosted Karen, Anna, and the rest of the family in Norway, and the following October, Karen happily returned the favor and welcomed Sebastian’s natural family to Aspen, where she was born and raised. “It was a wonderful time,” Karen says, and continues, “They are our Norwegian family. We have a sweet spot for each other in our hearts.” Family through thick and thin indeed, Sebastian’s and Karen’s families are now gearing up to solve their next conundrum together — where next to meet! “They [Sebastian’s family] would love to go to Florida,” Karen says. “Last time in Aspen, we said, We’ll meet you there! Plans are in the making.”