‘I’ve cried many times’: WW II ‘miracle’ baby saved by Canadian soldiers makes long-lost connections

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Mary Crabb was sitting at her living room table in suburban Hertfordshire, England, staring into a laptop.

« Hello, » she exclaimed with a smile and a hint of nerves as she greeted the man who was staring back at her.

« Hello, how are you? » the man replied from 5,000 kilometres away.

And so began a conversation 77 years in the making, the culmination an emotional roller-coaster for Crabb that took off again in recent weeks.

« I’ve cried many times, » Crabb told Harry Curtis, the son of a Canadian soldier who helped save her life within hours of her birth in 1941.

« If you’re like me right now, you’ve had lots of thoughts running through your head, » Curtis told her from his home in Stittsville in southwest Ottawa.

Crabb has known for much of her life that she was adopted as a baby. It was only after her adoptive parents died, however, that her family dug into her past.

Crabb was adopted at the age of five months in 1942. (Submitted by Mary Crabb)

The family’s research revealed that on Sept. 23, 1941, Crabb’s birth mother had abandoned her as a newborn. The baby was left hidden in blackberry bushes in Horsell Common, a 355-hectare park on the outskirts of London. She was blue and clinging to life.

Then three Canadian soldiers came along and saved the day.

« I owe my life to them, » Crabb, 77, told CBC News.

The soldiers’ story

Stationed in England during the Second World War, the three Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA) members happened to be nearby at the time. Their regiment was out on manoeuvres, part of preparations in the event of a German invasion.

The men heard a noise from the bushes and went to investigate, according to media reports at the time.

They « thought it was a chicken, » Crabb said.

To their surprise, the soldiers found the baby, cut the remaining umbilical cord with a knife and wrapped the girl in a white shirt.

Crabb’s nephew Graeme Elliott recently discovered this photo of three Canadian soldiers, including Sgt. Ernie Curtis, centre, with his aunt after they found her abandoned as a baby in 1941. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

An entry in the 8th Army Field Regiment’s war diary from that day says Q Battery « during their scheme found a newborn baby in the gun area. »

On Dec. 31, 2018, Crabb’s nephew told her he had found a new clue about her past — a photograph showing her as a baby in a British hospital, surrounded by the three Canadian soldiers she never got to thank.

« Tears were running down my face to think that was me, » she said.

Searching for relatives

Crabb’s nephew, Graeme Elliot, took to social media, posting the picture — first published in London’s Daily Mirror in 1941 — in search of family members of the Canadian soldiers.

It wasn’t long before Harry Curtis was shown the post and both families started organizing a reunion of sorts.

« My wife saw the picture on Facebook and said ‘Oh my God, I recognize that picture … there’s your dad, » Curtis said.

His late father, Sgt. Ernie Curtis, is seen in the middle of the photo wearing his RCA uniform.

Harry Curtis had kept the same photo in a book at his home. His father « just said that he and two of his buddies had found a baby in a field or a meadow, » Harry Curtis recalled hearing as a child. « He just wished that she was well. »

Harry Curtis, son of Sgt. Ernie Curtis, lives in Stittsville, Ont. (Harry Curtis/Facebook)

This week, the long-lost connection was rekindled when Harry Curtis reached Crabb using FaceTime on a laptop supplied by CBC News.

Both fought back tears.

« It’s a miracle, really, isn’t it? » Crabb said.

They chatted about their respective families. Crabb has one grandchild, Curtis has six. They promised to keep in touch.

Curtis even plans to send Crabb the epaulettes from his father’s RCA uniform.

« I had Dad, » Curtis told CBC News. « She never had a physical connection to him, so this will give her one. »

‘Daughter of the regiment’

The extraordinary encounter made headlines in both Britain and Canada in 1941.

The Daily Mirror reported the soldiers intended to adopt the baby as a « daughter of the regiment, » naming her Virginia Regina Brandon after their hometowns.

« The child was rushed to an army truck » and then taken to hospital, according to a piece in Regina’s Leader-Post on Nov. 5, 1941.

Within months, the girl was adopted by an English couple and given the name Mary. She grew up in Hertfordshire, 65 kilometres from where she had been dumped as a newborn.

The soldiers found the baby on Sept. 23, 1941, in Horsell Common, a large open space southwest of London. (Rob Lowrey/CBC)

Crabb only learned much later in life that her birth mother had pleaded guilty to abandonment and was reportedly sentenced to two months’ probation.

At the time, the Mirror identified the three soldiers as Gunner Brackett, Sgt. Curtis and Gunner Griffin.

Susan Griffin, who lives in Massachusetts, told CBC News her father, Bob Griffin, is the man on the left of the 1941 photo.

Crabb acknowledges she’s still learning about the first days of her life, all these years later.

« There’s a load I don’t know. »

CBC News has not been able to formally name the third soldier, identified in various media reports as A.J. Brackett or E.J. Brackett. Anyone with information can email thomas.daigle@cbc.ca.

With files from Stephanie Jenzer

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‘New Year miracle’ twins delivered in Toronto apartment lobby

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When Melissa Arrubla saw her twin boy quickly coming into the world, the Toronto woman knew she wouldn’t be delivering her babies in a hospital.

Crouching beside a bench in the lobby of her parents’ apartment building on Dixon Rd., she had her younger brother call their mother waiting in the driveway, who had dashed out minutes ago to pick up the family van. With the boy’s cord still attached, they all panicked when the twin girl emerged, legs first.

Melissa Arrubla and Anderson, 7, hold Elian and Elena.
Melissa Arrubla and Anderson, 7, hold Elian and Elena.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“Call 911!” Arrubla yelled at her mother, Liliana, who was trying to catch the baby while she also tried to get through to the emergency services.

That commotion set the scene of the family’s memorable New Year’s Day as they ushered in little Elian at 5:03 a.m. and Elena, who arrived 12 minutes later.

“We started our new year with a bang,” Arrubla said with a chuckle while resting in her bed at Etobicoke General Hospital. “What happened was surreal, but I’m glad we’re here and everyone is okay.

Arrubla had just visited the hospital in the evening of Dec. 31 for a final cervical gel treatment and had celebrated New Year’s Eve with a McDonald’s meal before she was to return at 8:30 a.m. the next day to deliver the twins through induced labour.

She and her mother had set the alarm on their cell phones for 6:30 a.m., but, by the time the alarms went off, Arrubla had already delivered.

Arrubla said she started feeling consistent pains around 4:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day and immediatley woke up her mother, realizing the twins simply couldn’t wait for another four hours.

“We knew we got to go. We didn’t even have time to grab our jackets,” recalled Arrubla, 28, who left home with just a thin blue sweater, striped pyjama pants and pink flats. “I could feel the head of the baby coming out and I told Junior to get mom right away.”

With her Honda Odyssey outside still running, Liliana rushed into the lobby and looked in horror at Elian’s head emerging from under her daughter, who was bending over with her legs apart.

“Her pants were pulled down and I saw the head of the baby,” said the still-emotional grandmother. “I just grabbed the baby inside her pants and started rubbing his head to make sure he’s breathing. He had blood all over and was slimey and slippery. I told my son to get my husband to bring us towels and blankets to keep the baby warm.”

With one arm holding the baby boy — still with his umbilical cord attached to the mother, Liliana spoke to the dispatcher while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

“My daughter is having twins and we are in the lobby,” the 49-year-old grandmother remembered telling the dispatcher. “We have no scissors, nothing to cut the cord.”

Assignment Editor Amber Shortt explains how reporters found Melissa Arrubla and her twin boys, which were delivered in a Toronto apartment lobby. All three are doing fine.

With the help of her son and husband, Liliana sat Arrubla down beside the bench while she tried to calm everyone’s nerves.

Then they saw Elena’s tiny feet and her legs emerging from under Arrubla.

“Elena was half way out. She wasn’t showing her arms and we were afraid to do anything in case she got her cord around her neck. I told Melissa don’t push no more. We didn’t know what to do and must wait for the paramedics,” said Liliana, still shaken. “The paramedics arrived within five, six minutes, but that felt an eternity for us.”

Three ambulances and one fire truck showed up and took over. One pair of paramedics attended Elian as the other pair tried to rescue Elena who was still stuck.

Jesse McArthur, one of four paramedics attending the call, said time is crucial in delivering a breech birth.

Grandmother Liliana Arrubla looks over her newest grandchildren Elian and Elena.
Grandmother Liliana Arrubla looks over her newest grandchildren Elian and Elena.  (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

“It’s the kind of scenario that we are trained for, but they don’t happen often. The fact that we had a breech baby upped the urgency of the call,” said McArthur, who arrived with his partner, Ross Thomas, minutes after the call and had not been involved in a delivery in his five-and-a-half years’ experience as a paramedic.

“This was unique, because we were not delivering a baby in our truck or at home, but in the lobby of an apartment building. This was far from what we had expected at 5 a.m. on New Year’s day.”

McArthur credited his two colleagues, Sara Richard and Lyndsay Piper, who safely delivered the breech birth, as well as Arrubla’s mother for keeping everyone’s nerves in check. When Elena finally came into the world, the paramedics passed Liliana the scissors to cut the baby girl’s cord.

“That was so perfect. Everything was so beautiful,” said Liliana, looking at her granddaughter as she held her at the hospital.

On her way to hospital with her twins, Arrubla called and broke the news of the births to her husband, Sebastian Cuartas, a welder. He was at work and supposed to meet her at the hospital at 8 a.m. for the planned induced delivery. “He’s had twins on his side of the family and he was just overwhelmed,” Arrubla said.

Elena, who was born 6 pounds 5 ounces, was put on a respirator for oxygen briefly and her brother, 6 pounds 8 ounces, had to stay in hospital for treatment of his high red blood cell count. Despite the commotion, the family did manage to track down the twins’ times of birth through cell phone records to one another and the authorities.

Both Arrubla and her mother said they were grateful to the paramedics and the dispatcher who helped bring the twins into the world safely.

Mother and grandmother were happy that Elian and Elena were a quick labour amounting to just 45 minutes, compared to the nine-hour labour for their big brother, Anderson, now 7, and seven hours for big sister, Cataleya, now 6.

“Thank you for getting it so fast. They did an amazing job,” said Arrubla, who just started her University of Guelph-Humber online degree program in early childhood education in September and is set to start her new semester on Monday.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca

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Finding grandmother who went missing on Christmas Eve a ‘miracle,’ family says

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When 74-year-old Shirley Lee was found two days after going missing on Christmas Eve, it felt like a “miracle” for her grandson Christopher Chase.

“I can’t describe it anyway else,” he said. “If she hadn’t been found, another couple hours, the temperature, with the wind chill, it would have been her last night.”

Shirley Lee, 74, who has Alzheimer’s, went missing on Christmas Eve. She was found on Boxing Day suffering from hypothermia. Her family says they’re now focused on getting her well.
Shirley Lee, 74, who has Alzheimer’s, went missing on Christmas Eve. She was found on Boxing Day suffering from hypothermia. Her family says they’re now focused on getting her well.  (Toronto Police)

Lee, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, had left her Scarborough apartment on Monday around 9 p.m.

“Apparently she had done this before,” Chase said. “But she’d always come back.”

So when she hadn’t returned after 20 minutes, her husband, Don, first called their daughter, Chase’s mother, and then the rest of the family.

What started as a search led by Lee’s family members became, within 24 hours, a Level 3 police search, the highest level that exists. Toronto police deployed mounted and marine units, set up a command post, and even put out drones.

Over 48 hours, Lee was spotted twice. Police said she was first sighted in the area of Lawrence Ave. E and Morningside Ave. and later in the area of Eglinton Ave. near Kingston and Markham Rds., releasing surveillance photos to the public.

Police didn’t ask for citizen volunteers, but professional dog trainer Margaret Pender decided to lend a hand, after catching wind of the search Wednesday morning via Facebook, with the aid of a friend’s bloodhound named Fletcher. The dog was currently undergoing scenting training, and she thought he might have been able to pick up some trace of the missing senior.

“We had a sweater that she (Lee) had worn, so I let Fletcher smell it before we went off to find her,” Pender said. “I thought it was worth a shot.”

The search was called off when Lee was found at 9:30 p.m. on Boxing Day. Police said she was found by a citizen.

Lee was located in a gated area near Cornell Jr. Public School, Chase said, close to where he lives. She was just “leaning against a wall,” he said.

“To know that she was basically at my front door, I was like ‘wow, she was right there’ and we were all looking in the area where the footage was, and for her to make it all the way out there — I’m not sure what route she took, but she was on the back roads, not even on the main roads,” Chase said.

When Lee was checked into the emergency room, her core temperature was 26 C, Chase said. She was so “delirious” that she didn’t resist medical attention, he said.

Lee was diagnosed with hypothermia, which happens when body temperature falls below 35 C.

He said Lee has since been recovering, resting at Scarborough General hospital on Thursday with a normal body temperature. She’s spent most of the day being thoroughly checked by doctors, he added.

Now the family is focused on getting Lee back in good health, and getting her proper care.

Chase said he hopes Lee’s story raises awareness about Alzheimer’s and its effects. Lee’s family had tried getting her into a care facility but were faced with extensive waiting lists, he said.

Toronto police spokesperson David Hopkinson said police deal with about 4,000 to 7,000 reports of missing persons each year. The majority are found alive and well.

“We do have lot of people who have dementia … that maybe wander away or get lost,” he said.

Safety is a key concern once a patient is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which can affect a host of cognitive functions such as memory, said Dr. Howard Chertkow, chair in cognitive neurology and innovation and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

Groups like Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation have been pioneering new solutions, like GPS monitors, he said.

More than 747,000 Canadian’s are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Chertkow said Canada’s investment in dementia research is trailing places like the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Last year, the government passed Bill C-233 which established the framework for a national Alzheimer’s disease strategy, something Chertkow hopes will spark increased investment in research, care and tax credits for tech-tools.

“These are all things that could be going a lot faster,” he said.

Premila D’Sa is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @premila_dsa

Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca

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Baby Amira was born with a broken heart — her mother is praying for a miracle to fix it

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She is fighting for time to love her daughter.

Ideally years. But she’ll take months. Hours even.

Because Jaiden Cowley knows that every moment with Amira is a gift. It has been since she was born 10 months ago with a broken heart.

Amira is waiting for a tiny, strong new one.

“We didn’t know if Amira would make it to Christmas,” says Jaiden, herself just 19. “I live every day like it could be her last.”

A life-time ago, on her first day working at a call centre in Hamilton (she was saving for college to become a nurse), Jaiden learned she was pregnant. Nineteen weeks into the pregnancy, she got more news: there was something drastically wrong with the baby’s heart. It was a congenital defect.

Some of the doctors suggested an abortion. Or said Jaiden should have the child, take it home and let it die quietly in the first few days.

But Jaiden chose another option — to do whatever she could to keep her baby alive. The baby’s father decided not to be involved.


On February 12, at 39-weeks gestation, Jaiden was induced at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. A team was ready to whisk the newborn away.

“I pushed her out and she was gone,” says Jaiden, her voice catching. The new mom didn’t get to hold her baby. Or even see her.

Amira — it means princess in Arabic — has Heterotaxy Syndrome. Her heart is on the wrong side of her body. And it doesn’t have all the right parts.

She was 44 hours old when she had her first surgery. Two days after that, she went into cardiac arrest.

“She died right in front of me,” says Jaiden.

Amira was placed on life support in the Cardiac Critical Care Unit, her chest left open so doctors could peer in.

“I saw her little heart,” says her mom. “It was only the size of a grape.”

Amira spent 180 days in hospital. During that time, doctors told Jaiden her daughter would need a heart transplant.

Jaiden was crushed yet again.

“Why is the heart that I gave her not working?” she agonized.

On June 11, Amira was placed on the transplant list, through the Trillium Gift of Hope Registry.

Amira is a strong princess and in August, she moved in with her mom at the Ronald McDonald House near Sick Kids. They have been there ever since, seeing specialists and waiting to dash to the hospital should a pediatric donor heart become available.

Jaiden’s mom and other family from Hamilton visit on weekends.

Amira is abeautiful girl. She is plump and smiley, often sporting a sparkly cloth headband with a big cheerful bow. She says “Mama” and her laugh is music.

Christmas day will be spent at Ronald McDonald House. Jaiden has to isolate herself and the baby from other guests because she can’t risk infection.

Right now, Amira is a Status 3 on the Trillium transplant registry. Only Status 4 recipients are more critical, being on the verge of death.

Another child whom Jaiden met at Ronald McDonald House just got her new heart. She spent 500 days on the wait list.

Pediatric organ donations are a rare commodity. Children just don’t die at the rate of adults and those who do are less likely to have their parents’ consent to be donors. This is why Jaiden is sharing her story. She wants grieving parents to know their donations could save other children. And that a bit of their child can live on.

Over the past five years, 65 patients under the age of one have received an organ transplant in Ontario, according to Trillium. There have been nine organ donors under the age of one.

Organs are matched by size, blood type and other factors, but not age. Therefore donors under the age of one don’t necessarily correspond with the 65 patients under one that received an organ transplant.

As of Dec. 17 there are 11 patients under the age of one on the transplant waiting list.

If Amira gets a heart, she has a good chance of living until she is 10. After that, she will need another heart transplant, doctors say.

That is a lot of agony to go through. There are great risks of complications and Amira will be on anti-rejection drugs forever.

So why do it?

It only takes Jaiden a heartbeat.

“I want to know who she is. I want her to know love.”

A Go Fund Me account called Help Heal Amiras Broken Heart has been set-up to pay for some of her medical supplies that are not covered by OHIP. The goal is $5,000, with about $1,300 being raised so far.

Susan Clairmont’s commentary appears regularly in The Spectator. sclairmont@thespec.com905-526-3539 | @susanclairmont

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‘To us, it’s a miracle’: Churchill residents celebrate repair of railway washouts

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Churchillians are getting ready to celebrate the completion of repairs to their community’s lifeline. 

The Town of Churchill in Manitoba said in a statement Sunday morning that after slightly more than a month of work, washouts on the Hudson Bay Railway between Gillam and Churchill have been repaired. 

There’s still work to be done before rail service resumes, and it’s not clear whether the line will be operational before winter arrives. 

Nonetheless, residents say news the last washout had been fixed is a big cause to celebrate.

« To us, it’s a miracle and we’re so, so happy that this company took over and they actually got onto the rail line right away and started fixing it right away. It’s amazing. It’s a great crew, » said Rhoda de Meulles, a Churchill resident who owns the town’s hardware store with her husband.

When the track can handle service vehicles — expected to happen in the next few days, according to rail line owners Arctic Gateway — crew members will make it to Churchill. 

de Meulles said when they do, the town will hold a day-long festival to celebrate and thank them.

« People are just ecstatic, » said Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, who called the news a significant milestone for the community.

‘Felt like we were kept hostage’

de Meulles said when the rail line shut down, she felt trapped in her own community.

« We always felt like we were being kept hostage because we couldn’t do anything — couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t see family, nothing, but at least now we know that something is going to happen. »

« We have a lot to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend as the final washout has been repaired allowing the test vehicles and crews to pass to Churchill to continue the surfacing and rail repairs beyond the washouts, » said Murad Al-Katib, a spokesperson for the Arctic Gateway Group that owns the rail line.

Al-Katib said the conglomerate remains hopeful weather conditions will remain favourable. A statement on the homepage of the group’s website makes it clear it’s still possible testing and maintenance of the line may not be completed before winter — meaning service on the line wouldn’t be restored until the spring.

That would be another blow to people living in Churchill who’ve had to cope with higher prices for food and other goods that have had to be flown into the community since the winter melt last year washed out the rail line. A mini food bank for people struggling to make ends meet is still open in de Meulles’ store.

« It’s been very very hard. It’s been hard on trying to bring freight in. It’s been hard on your mind. It’s been hard on our body. You wake up in the morning, you don’t know what’s going to happen today. You don’t know if you’re going to get good news or bad news, » she said.

Even if the rail line isn’t up and running until next spring, de Meulles and Stover agreed knowing there’s a plan to have it functional in the new year is better than what they were facing a year ago.

Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, said it’s a significant milestone for the community. (Submitted by Joe Stover)

« I feel a lot better going into this winter than I did last winter. Last winter there was no certainty, everything was up in the air and it was definitely a lot more negative feelings going into last winter, » Stover said.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart

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