Did you know Kim Kardashian is Armenian? That is the extent to which most people know about the obscure little country that only declared its independence 24 years ago.
There are a few that know about the country’s Christian Holocaust because we just passed the 100-year anniversary of that event, but not much else is common knowledge. That is unless you know someone with a connection to the country.
I do — and her name is Karene Elizabeth Hardin.
Karene was born in Armenia on November 20, 2006 with a condition called Spina Bifida.
Armenia is a matriarchal society that doesn’t exactly participate in arranged marriages but they still nudge couples together. Any family with a disabled child would be considered less desirable to add to your family’s lineage and is therefore often considered a liability. Parents of special needs children are often pressured by other family members to leave a disabled child at the hospital and to tell friends and family the child did not survive.
That is how Karene’s story began.
Many of these babies are rescued by the same order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa’s — The Sisters of Charity.
The Sisters operate Bethlehem House. An orphanage dedicated to saving the abandoned special needs children of Yerevan, the capitol city of Armenian.
Yerevan, sits in the shadow of Mount Ararat — which was actually part of Armenia till the ‘expansion’ of Turkey during the Armenian Christian Genocide of 1915.
Mount Ararat is still held in Turkish territory.
Karene’s journey from Bethlehem House to America started with a simple picture and short bio discovered online by her mom, Kathy Hardin.
Kathy and her husband David already had eight children when they began the search to adopt a child with special needs.
Their search was a difficult one, derailing on multiple occasions. Once, they were defrauded by an adoption agency losing over $5,000, and another time when adoptions from Liberia closed after accepting Kathy and David’s application for adoption.
Having their desire for adoption destroyed so many times would lead many to think, maybe God was sending them a message — ‘You have eight kids! Enough already!’
But in January 2009 Kathy came across Karene’s picture. Kathy’s reaction was simply — there she is — she had found their daughter, but foreign adoptions take a lot of time and a lot of money.
Families are advised the process could take up to three years and cost about $35,000. So it was no surprise when it was 18 months before their first trip to Armenia.
By this time, Karene was nearly 4-years-old.
David made the first trip alone and recalls the first time he met his daughter.
The Sisters, with the help of local volunteers, had taken the children out onto the walled patio. Most of the children were sitting in car seat type carriers lined up around the wall.
Karene was in a high chair eating her dinner and watching the other children.
David said at first he thought Karene was a bit shy when she didn’t give him much attention on that first visit but he later realized she wasn’t shy at all, just busy — watching.
They told him she was the watchman of the group. Many of the children were non-verbal and Karene took it upon herself to alert the adults if anyone needed attention.
David spent a total of eight days that trip, including the time he had to travel. There of course were legal matters to attend to, as with any adoption but most of his time was spent getting to know his new daughter.
By the time his visit had ended he was Papa to Karene.
Once home, the reality of the money began sinking in. So far they had managed to cover their costs but they had no clue how they were going to fund the final and longest trip or pay the overall costs of the adoption.
It had been suggested they apply for assistance from Shaohannah’s Hope — the organization now known as Show Hope, founded by Christian Singer / Songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife Mary Beth.
Special needs children were seldom turned down.
Kathy had filed the paperwork expecting about a $1,500 grant but just before Christmas when the call came to tell them they had been awarded a grant, they were amazed to hear the amount was everything they needed — ten thousand dollars!
Now all they had to do was wait — Wait for the call telling them that the final legal issues were settled — the adoption papers were ready to sign — and Karene was ready to come home.
Monday February 21st:
The phone rings. Their excitement of knowing the call was from the orphanage quickly deflated. They were calling to tell the family they had performed surgery on Karene. The surgery was necessary to repair the shunt used to prevent fluid from building up on her brain. As a child born with Spina Bifida, the surgery was fairly routine and there was no reason for the family to worry.
Wednesday February 23rd:
The family receives another call. As a relatively healthy 4-year-old, with Spina Bifida, Karine had always recovered quickly from medical procedures but this time she wasn’t bouncing back. Still the opinion from the attending doctor was that she would be fine.
Friday February 25th:
There was another call. This time the family was informed that if they wanted to see Karene alive they needed to come to Armenia immediately. They didn’t think she wasn’t going to make it.
Saturday February 26th:
The family wasted no time. Kathy and Abigail, the oldest daughter who was 13 at the time, boarded a plane in Nashville. David had purchased two round trip tickets the night before and one one-way ticket from Armenia to the United States — they were bringing Karene home.
Monday February 28th:
With time changes and layovers, Kathy and Abigail arrived in Yerevan, Armenia very early Monday morning. No one, not even family, was allowed in the hospitals during overnight hours so they settled into the hotel and tried to rest.
It was mid-morning before Kathy and Abigail were taken to see Karene.
The interior of the hospital was shocking. The rooms were tiny; most contained two beds with very little walking area and absolutely no medical equipment. In fact, the hospital had no food or linen services. A patient’s family member was required to see to those needs because the hospital didn’t even have hot water!
Any need for medical equipment required a patient be moved to intensive care. Karene was not in intensive care. She was in a normal room and was being tended to by the Sisters from the orphanage.
When Kathy saw her daughter for the first time Karene was lethargic and severely dehydrated. It was not what she had anticipated as she thought of the first moments she would have with her daughter.
Abigail was so distraught over the condition of her new sister she broke down crying and went into the hall. Within moments Kathy joined her and quickly placed a call to David — “We have to get her out of here now,” she said.
Tuesday March 1st:
Back home in Tennessee David had contacted Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. They were getting ready for Karene. Kathy had begun a campaign to get her daughter moved to intensive care so she would have access to precious medical equipment and the one thing Kathy knew Karene needed more than anything — an IV.
Meanwhile the attorney handling the adoption process had managed to bundle Karene’s adoption with another adoption case. So far everything was moving forward. Final adoption papers would be signed in just seven days.
Wednesday March 2nd:
With Kathy’s constant insistence, the doctors relented and allowed Karene to move to intensive care. She was finally getting the hydration she so desperately needed.
Even though she was receiving a very limited amount of glucose in her precious IV the tiny amount seemed to make a difference.
That night they left the hospital optimistically, the adoption would be final in a week and Karene was going home.
Thursday March 3rd:
Throughout the ordeal Kathy said the nuns were fond of saying, the rain pours and the sun shines.
When they left the hospital Wednesday night they all thought the sun was shining once again.
But early Thursday morning the nuns hustled Kathy into an old Volkswagen van saying they had to get to the hospital. The doctor’s had decided Karene needed more surgery. Kathy said she felt like she was in an action movie as she sat between the tiny sisters, speeding down rutted streets, trying to get to the hospital before they performed surgery on her daughter.
David had discussed Karene’s condition with the doctor’s at Vanderbilt.
They had suggested a way to modify her shunt to drain the infection, later discovered to be meningitis, from her tiny body.
By the time Kathy got to the hospital the surgery was over but thankfully they had heeded Vanderbilt’s advice. The rain pours and the sun shines.
Friday March 4th:
Since Karene would be a dependent and covered under the family’s medical coverage in just a few days, David asked for a medivac out of the country as soon as the adoption was finalized — a request that was initially approved early Friday and then denied later that afternoon. The sun shines and the rain pours.
In Armenia, doctors were discussing another surgery on Karene’s frail body. They seemed to think there was a problem in her abdomen, so they wanted an X-ray.
With no choice in the matter, Kathy at least wanted to be present.
Getting this X-ray was nothing like the experiences she had been familiar with. There were no gurneys to carry a patient from one department to another so they carried Karene up a flight of stairs and into a room with a large stationary X-ray machine.
Under the best circumstances a patient would be required to stand in front of the machine, positioning the area to be examined in just the right spot so an X-ray could be taken.
Karene, was not only a very ill 4-year-old that had just undergone surgery the day before — she is also a paraplegic!
It was finally decided that Kathy would hold her on one side, a volunteer on the other side and the two women basically dangled this very sick child between them, in front of the machine so the X-ray could be taken.
The final conclusion, the X-ray was inconclusive so Karene was scheduled for another surgery the following Saturday.
And as long as Karene continued in the hospital’s care, Kathy could do nothing to stop it. The rains continued to pour.
Saturday March 5th:
With just seven days left before a surgery no one thought Karene would survive, there seemed to be no way to prevent it.
The only way to stop the surgery was to get her discharged from the hospital and the only way to do that was to get her approved to leave the country.
Deemed too ill to travel commercially, the doctors had consented for her to travel by medivac but with the insurance company’s denial that possibility seemed impossible.
Back in Tennessee there was an effort underway to raise the needed funds to hire the medical transport.
A Nashville TV station had picked up the story and people were rallying around the family but the cost of $124,000 was simply too much.
Sunday March 6th:
The attorney’s mother-in-law unexpectedly dies. Since Armenia is a matriarchal society, losing a female family member, especially one that held a leadership role, meant the attorney would be expected to take time off to spend with his family. To complicate matters further, Monday was a national holiday closing government offices that already operate on a limited schedule. The rain pours.
Monday March 7th:
With less than a week before their flight would leave for America, Karene needed her visa, passport and exit package expedited. No small feat without an attorney — and of course there was still the little matter of finalizing the adoption! The rain continues to pour.
Tuesday March 8th:
Meanwhile back in Nashville, there is a new plan; to have a nurse accompany Karene home on the commercial flight. And David had plenty of volunteers willing to make the trip. The sun shines.
Wednesday March 9th:
The presiding judge to finalize the adoption was a pleasant but business-like woman.
The courtroom was small and simple. It was really just a formality; as far as Kathy was concerned Karene had been her daughter the moment she found her more than two years ago.
But finally! Now it was official Karene had a new American family and they were determined to take her home. How to work it all out with still no passport, visa or exit papers? They had about 48 hours to find a way. The rain pours.
Thursday March 10th:
The attorney returned and began working on an Embassy appointment. They needed an exit package with all the documents required to take Karene home. The U.S. Ambassador agreed to a meeting in his office Friday morning, his day off, to conduct the interview and issue the documents. The sun shines.
In the meantime, Kathy received news from David that there were no flights into Armenia before the flight home was scheduled to leave. They would not be able to send a nurse to escort them home as planned. The rain pours.
Kathy, the sisters and the attorney met around a table in Bethlehem House to discuss the situation. One of the Sisters, MeKei, sat listening to the conversation and suggested that since she was a nurse, possibly the church would allow her to make the trip. The sun shines.
“Of course!” they all agreed. The answer had been right under their nose the entire time.
It seemed the last obstacle was out of the way.
Then someone added — “You can’t go. You don’t have a visa and there is not enough time to get one.” — The rain pours.
That revelation seemed to take the air out of the room until MeKei declared — “I’m a European National, I don’t need a visa.”
The normally reserved Soviet-era attorney — completely out of character —threw up his hands and yelled— “SO YOU ARE!”
The sun shines.
Now with all the major obstacles out of the way they scrambled to contact the airline. They were told, good news, there was a seat available for the nurse but the paperwork allowing someone in Karene’s condition to fly commercially had to be submitted two weeks prior to the flight. The paper work also required her doctor’s signature. The rain pours.
By now it was late Thursday afternoon. Kathy begged the airline representative to give them an exception under the circumstances. They agreed but Kathy still had to pick up the paper work, get it signed by the doctor — that had grown weary of the American mother at his hospital — Then she would need to return everything, signed and sealed back to the airlines. The sun shines.
Back at Bethlehem House, Kathy and the Sisters decided one of the nuns should approach the less-than-compliant doctor for his signature.
Kathy stood back and watched. She said even though she couldn’t understand a word they were saying she could tell the Sister was saying exactly what needed to be said to get the paper signed.
They left graciously, thanking the doctor — but in the hallway, Kathy said, she saw the Sister’s deeply held spiritual convictions put to the test. The Sister seemed uncharacteristically disgusted as she shared with Kathy the last thing the doctor had said. After signing the paper he smugly told the nun, speaking of Kathy and Karene, “If she wants it, she can have it.”
The papers still had to be submitted and special short notice approval had to be given by the airline. Another call to the rep to see what time they closed resulted in the rain pouring once again. There was no time to get to the office before they closed and they didn’t have office hours on Friday.
This was the moment the attorney stepped in to call in a favor. He had a friend with some authority at the airline. By late Thursday night everything had been settled for the flight and now the sun was shining again as Kathy anticipated her appointment with our U.S. Ambassador at the Embassy the next morning.
Friday March 11th:
The Embassy was empty except for the Ambassador and two security guards to greet Kathy and Abigail.
The sun continued to shine as the appointment went very well. They had no problems getting the all-important exit package at the last minute.
Now it was time to return to the hospital to try and explain to Karene what was about to happen. They also had packing to do. The Sisters wanted Karene to have everything from her original room at the orphanage —sheets, blankets, clothes, dishes and even the light bulb.
That evening was the first opportunity Kathy had to spend precious time with the women whose love had kept Karene alive for four and a half years. They presented her with a photo album a volunteer had kept for Karene. It was full of baby pictures and important dates from her life, along with a few mementos of the country.
With a morning flight leaving at 5am requiring them to arrive at the hospital basically in the middle of the night it was finally time for the shining sun to go down for the last time on Karene’s life in Armenia.
Saturday March 12th:
Driving to the hospital that morning Kathy expected something to go wrong. Karene was not allowed to leave the hospital until they were headed to the airport and she was so afraid that by the time they arrived they would have changed their minds about letting her leave at all.
But walking into the hospital at such an early hour was a bit like walking into an abandoned building. Not only was there no one preventing her from taking her daughter, they had a hard time finding anyone to tell that they were leaving.
From this point on I wish I could tell you all went smoothly. The trip was mercifully as short as it could possibly be. They made the return trip home in just 24 hours, but Karene had to be carried very carefully the entire time. They had to prop her at just the right angle due to her shunt and the only way to facilitate that position was with your arms straight out and rigid in front of you.
Kathy was operating on very few hours of sleep and Abigail was getting sick from a virus she caught while helping and volunteering at the orphanage.
I can only imagine the scene running through the airports to make connections. A very ill 4-year-old child bundled and bandaged up almost like a mummy. Lying on a piece of foam, being carried and accompanied by a nun in full habit, a 13-year-old American teenager and a ‘limping’ mother. Kathy managed to tear her ACL on the flight from Heathrow to New Jersey. I forgot to mention that.
Because of the time difference the ragtag crew arrived on what was Saturday evening in America. Karene was taken straight to Vanderbilt Hospital where she was put in PICU with a serious but stable diagnosis.
Sunday March 20th:
The sun most definitely shined, as Karene — new daughter to David and Kathy Hardin and sister to Seth, Jacob, Caleb, Elijah, Abigail, John Mark, Hannah Grace and Gabriel — began her first day in America.
Mekei barely let her feet touch solid ground before she insisted she had to return to her duties as nurse for the orphanage. She did manage a visit to our Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and was practically speechless at the facilities we take for granted. Kathy said as she visited Karene in her room Mekei said several times in disbelief, “All of this for one child.”
Karene spent most of her first three months in America in the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. She was so sick when she arrived her weight had dropped from a healthy 35 pounds when David had visited her six months before to a sickly 17 pounds.
It is also worth noting, the family received a bill at the end of the hospitalization for approximately $125,000, the 20% insurance didn’t cover. David called the hospital and promised to make payments on the account, vowing to eventually get it paid off but, after answering a few short questions, the bill was determined paid.
There is so much more to this story: Like the extra security search the weary group of travelers had to endure in route home.
Or how it is a common practice in the Armenian hospital for nurses to place newborn special needs children with other children from the orphanage, making sure the Sisters see the newly abandoned child. They know if the Sisters see a child in need they will ask to have custody without having to go through the normal channels.
During the Hardin’s ordeal, the incredible compassion of the Sisters was clearly illustrated when a newborn little boy was placed in the room with Karene. As usual the nuns went right to work caring for the infant. At one point a nurse came in and scolded them saying, they should stop spoiling the child because when they aren’t there it is left to the nurses to do.
After the nurse left in a huff, one of the Sisters picked up the little boy, cuddling him closely and said, “Then we shall spoil!”
But I absolutely can’t close without mentioning a hospitalization Karene endured during the year David and Kathy were waiting for the adoption process to move forward. She had to spent 30 days in the hospital!
When Kathy first heard about this it practically broke her heart.
Just the thought of her little girl there alone in that hospital for 30 days was overwhelming.
Then she heard about the nun that had just arrived at the orphanage right about that same time. She decided to dedicate herself to caring for Karene during her hospitalization. The new Sister spent thirty days holding Karene in the hospital.
To this day Kathy and David believe had it not been for this selfless nun, Karene might not have survived the ordeal.
But even more amazing was a discovery they made long after Karene Elizabeth Hardin, had been adopted, given her new middle name and gone to live in America.
The middle name the family had long ago chosen for Karene was the same as the angel that had held her safely those 30 days in the hospital.
Meet Sister Elizabeth one of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity.
LaVern Vivio with Kathy Hardin
August 17, 2015
For LaVern’s website and book check out the links below: