Tragic losses set stage for new mission in life
A former Rainbow Wahine volleyball star aims to help others avoid losing their newborn children
By Stephen Tsai
It was a sweet dream, really, with Lily (Kahumoku) Olteanu wishing to return to what she referred to as the “most beautiful place in the world.”
“I was going to come back to Hawaii to show off my sons and be a proud mama,” said Olteanu, a former Rainbow Wahine volleyball star and wife of a pro volleyball player. “I am a proud mama. I’m absolutely proud of my children, but not in the way I had hoped.”
She recently returned to Hawaii, greeting old friends and visiting past hangouts. At her side, always, were two boxes containing the remains of twin sons who died in January. She traveled here from Argentina this week to scatter their ashes off Waikiki.
“I had to let them go,” she said, her eyes swelling with emotion. “I had to let their physical ashes go. But they’ll always be with me. Always.”
There was no sense, no fairness, when her prematurely born boys lived only six and eight days.
But the overpowering grief was magnified because three years earlier the couple’s first set of twin boys died on the day they were born.
“Losing a child is probably the toughest thing a parent can endure,” Olteanu said. “I’ve lost four.”
There are times when Olteanu rages with questions. Every morning, she awakens on a tear-soaked pillow. But while she might not ever understand the reasons of her situation, she knows her new purpose.
“Prematurity took all of my babies,” she said. “I needed to do something in their honor. I’m trying to raise money for the March of Dimes in their honor. I couldn’t save my babies. There was nothing I could do. I know that. Maybe I can help someone else save theirs. I’m doing everything I can to find some peace, to do some good in their honor.”
Olteanu, 31, has spoken at fundraisers, comforted those who have suffered their own losses and, more personally, told her story.
She gained Hawaii’s attention as the Rainbow Wahine’s two-time All-American hitter between 1999 and 2003. Back then she was Lily Kahumoku. “That was a wonderful time,” she said.
It was another time. Now she is Lily Olteanu — “no Kahumoku, no hyphen” — the wife of a Romanian volleyball player, Bogdan Olteanu, whose career has brought the couple to Europe and South America.
They were living in Tours, France, in 2010 when she became pregnant. But at 24 weeks an emergency birth was required.
“They came very, very quickly,” she recalled. “The time difference between the first baby I had given birth to and the second baby was two hours.”
She said she did not know how long her first son lived.
“It could have been five minutes, it could have been an hour,” she said.
Doctors tried to slow the second labor.
“When we got the news that Ke‘a had passed away, my water broke,” she said, “and then Kili came. He didn’t have a chance because he was breached. He lived for a little while, but they both passed away after their birth.”
They were named Ke‘aliikauila and Kahekili — lightning and thunder.
Their ashes were scattered under the branches of a 200-year-old Lebanese cedar tree in the French town of Amboise.
There was renewed hope when Olteanu became pregnant last year in Argentina.
“I was pregnant with twins,” she said. “I thought I was getting another chance. I thought I was going to have my resolution, my peace.”
She kept fit with yoga and light exercises. She often spent up to eight hours in bed during the day, where she studied for her master’s degree.
One night in January, her cervix ripped while she was sleeping. She was rushed to the hospital, where she learned she had dilated to 8 centimeters. She begged the doctors not to induce labor. She recalled arguing, “You can’t take them out. They’re too small.” She was told inducing the birth was the only way to assure that she and the babies had a chance of survival.
It was the pregnancy’s 27th week when the twins were delivered.
“When they were born they were OK,” she said. “They had a good chance. Then the complications that come with prematurity were one after the other.”
Both suffered the heart abnormality known as patent ductus arteriosus. They suffered brain hemorrhages and respiratory problems. “They had everything,” she said.
Kainoa died on the sixth day. She said the hospital did not have an infant’s morgue, and his body was stored in a freezer in the janitorial area.
“We didn’t want our baby to be in that place,” she said. “We wanted to have the funeral as soon as possible.”
She fed Kekoa, watched as he clutched her finger with his hands, then went to the funeral. Kekoa suffered a relapse that night. He died two days later.
The night Kekoa died, there was a fierce storm. Lightning and Thunder. Ke‘aliikauila and Kahekili.
“I felt like their brothers had come to take them home,” she said.
Olteanu, who hopes for another chance at motherhood, said she still cries every morning. She still can feel her sons’ warmth. She was lactating up to a month after their deaths.
“I know I had to come home,” she said. “I knew I had to put them in the most beautiful place in the world, and I’ve lived all over the world — not just visited, but lived. Hawaii is the best place to live. There’s not a better place.”
She added, “The thing that is the most important to me, the reason I want to share my story is, I hope my tragedy can help a cause that will prevent the loss for another family.”
March for Babies gets under way Saturday on Kauai
The March of Dimes of Hawaii’s annual March for Babies fundraising walks on four islands kick off this week.
The events raise money to support the nonprofit’s mission to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
The first 2013 March for Babies in Hawaii starts Saturday at 6:45 a.m. in Lydgate Park in Kapaa, Kauai. The march moves to Oahu’s Kapiolani Park on April 13; Maui’s War Memorial Gym in Kahului on April 20; Hale Halawai in Kailua-Kona, also on April 20; and Wailoa River State Park in Hilo on April 27.
For more information or to donate, go to www.marchofdimes.com/hawaii or call 973-2155.