Cambridge couple stranded in Brazil with premature newborn say they are stuck in ‘bureaucratic morass’

Cheri Phillips was six months pregnant when she and her husband, Chris, flew to Brazil in late February to mark the birthday of Chris Phillips’ daughter from a previous relationship.

Greyson Leo Phillips was born three months premature in Florianopolis, Brazil, on March 12, 2024. He weighed 2 pounds 12.6 ounces. He is pictured here on March 17, 2024, at ILHA Hospital e Maternidade. (Courtesy of Chris Phillips)

The Cambridge couple spent about two weeks in Florianopolis, on an island off the country’s southeast coast, celebrating Melory, the newly minted 8-year-old.

Two days before the couple were scheduled to fly home, Cheri Phillips started bleeding during the middle of the night. They raced to a local hospital in their rental car, but hospital staff told them they needed to go to a specialized maternity hospital instead.

Four days later, on March 12, their son, Greyson Leo Phillips, was born 3 months premature via emergency C-section at Ilha Hospital e Maternidade in Florianopolis.

He weighed 2 pounds, 12.6 ounces.

“His birth was terrifying,” Chris Phillips said. “I could see in the surgeon’s eyes that he was struggling to get Greyson out. I wouldn’t call it panic, but I definitely saw concern in his eyes, and then, at one point, an incision was made or something, and blood just spurted out of my wife, and that was pure, abject terror. I thought I was going to lose both my baby and my wife at the same time. It was horrible.”

Chris and Cheri Phillips said they weren’t sure if Greyson was going to make it. His heart stopped, and doctors had to resuscitate him. Eventually, Greyson was admitted to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, where he spent the next 51 days.

Greyson was discharged from the hospital on May 3, but his family has no idea when he’ll be able to go home.

Here’s the issue: Brazil officials won’t issue Greyson a birth certificate. Without one, U.S. officials in Brazil won’t issue him an American passport. Without a passport, his parents can’t take him home to Minnesota.

Chris Phillips, a senior audiovisual specialist at Children’s Minnesota, and Cheri Phillips, who works as philanthropy services manager in the foundation at Saint Therese Senior Living, have been working for weeks to unravel what they say is a “bureaucratic morass of harrowing proportions.”

The nightmare started when the couple realized their blue-eyed baby was going to be born in Brazil, and “there was nothing we could do to stop it and get us back home to the U.S.,” Chris Phillips said.

The primary obstacle has been the local registry office, called a cartorio, which refuses to issue Greyson’s birth certificate because the Phillipses’ U.S. passports do not have their parents’ names on them, said Chris Phillips, who speaks fluent Portuguese.

In April, Chris’ uncle sent the couple’s birth certificates and marriage license – “all of which do have our parents’ names on them, but they lack something called an ‘apostille stamp’ that Brazil requires for foreign documentation,” he said.

Four weeks ago, the couple hired a lawyer to help secure Greyson’s Brazilian documentation but, after nearly a month, it has gone nowhere, and they have no way of knowing when a judge will take up their case or how long it will take once he does, Chris Phillips said. “That’s our first bureaucratic hurdle – getting Greyson’s Brazilian birth certificate,” he said.

Another major hurdle: securing Greyson’s U.S. documentation so they can bring him home. That, however, can happen only after getting his Brazilian birth certificate. Once they get that, they can apply for Greyson’s Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) and a U.S passport from the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia or at one of the four U.S. consulates in the country.

The U.S. State Department’s policy states that all applicants must physically go to the embassy or a consulate for this documentation – a policy which presents many problems for the Phillipses, they said.

Greyson, who now weighs 4 pounds, 12 ounces, is still facing serious health problems. He has not had most vaccinations, he has respiratory issues and he has a hole in his heart, Cheri Phillips said.

“It is unconscionable to require that he travel via mass transportation, putting him at grave risk of potentially deadly infection, for no reason,” she said. “He doesn’t even fit in his car seat. We aren’t going to take him anywhere, and we can’t wait until he is big enough.”

Greyson Leo Phillips was born three months premature in Florianopolis, Brazil, on March 12, 2024. He weighed 2 pounds 12.6 ounces. He is pictured here on April 6, 2024, at ILHA Hospital e Maternidade with his parents, Chris and Cheri Phillips, and his half-sister Melory. (Courtesy of Chris Phillips)

The couple reached out to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., for help. They received word on Tuesday that the State Department would send a representative to the Phillipses in Florianopolis once Greyson’s Brazilian birth certificate is issued.

“That is huge,” Chris Phillips said Wednesday evening. “We’ve been pushing for that since he was born.”

Smith said in a statement to the Pioneer Press that her heart goes out to the Phillipses.

“I can only imagine the incredible stress that this family has had to endure, both in giving birth unexpectedly in Brazil and then having to overcome bureaucratic hurdles to come home,” Smith said. “After calling on the Embassy in Brasilia to do more to help the family, we received the news that they will provide extra service to ensure the family does not have to travel to get a U.S. passport. Gov. (Tony) Evers’ office in Wisconsin is also helping us work with the family to ensure they have all of the documentation they need to receive the birth certificate, and ultimately the passport. I will continue to provide every possible assistance in this case until Greyson is home in Minnesota.”

Because the couple got married in Tainter Lake, Wis., they need to obtain a copy of their marriage license — with apostille — from Dunn County, Wis., officials as quickly as possible without too much mailing of the same document back and forth, Chris Phillips said.

Chris and Cheri Phillips met at Children’s Minnesota’s business campus in Edina in January 2020; Cheri Phillips, 36, was working at a temporary job at the organization.

“We started chatting in the break room,” said Chris Phillips, 44. “There is a gym at work, and I worked out in the morning. When I found out she worked out in the afternoon, I thought, ‘You know, working out in the afternoon sounds pretty good.’”

The couple got married in January 2022. Chris Phillips, who lived in Brazil in 2005-06 and 2014-15, travels to Brazil three times a year to see Melory; Cheri Phillips goes once a year for Melory’s Feb. 29 birthday celebration.

Before they left for Brazil, the couple, who were living in a condo in St. Louis Park, had made plans to close on their first house – a single-family house in Cambridge – on March 29 and move in. “That was just another added wrinkle when all this hit the fan,” he said. “We couldn’t be there for closing or moving. Fortunately, we have a huge support network in Minnesota. It wouldn’t have happened without the Herculean efforts of our Realtor and our mortgage broker.”

In Brazil, the couple has been living in three different Airbnb properties; they are going to have to move to their fourth one in a few weeks. They’ve had to buy all things baby: car seat, stroller, crib, clothes, diapers, wipes, bottles, baby bathtub. They’ve also had to supplement their wardrobes.

“We came down for two weeks for the summer, so all we had was shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops,” Chris Phillips said. “Now it’s gotten cooler, so we had to buy some pants and some sweaters and real shoes.”

Cheri Phillips, who had to wait until Greyson was 6 days old before she was allowed to hold him, said she is grateful Greyson is out of the NICU and “home” at the Airbnb.

Spending time at the hospital alone – which happened quite a bit because Chris Phillips was working full time – was especially hard because she doesn’t know Portuguese, she said.

“If I was there by myself, I would always think when I was holding him or feeding him, ‘What if something happened right now and I cannot communicate it?’ I can’t be, like, ‘Oh my God, he stopped breathing’ to the staff. I mean, if I said it in English, they would not understand me, so that was always a little scary and always kind of in the back of my mind.”

Learning to breastfeed in a different language “was also very difficult,” she said. “We’re still learning.”

Greyson’s nurses in the NICU helped name him, Cheri Phillips said. The couple had narrowed their initial list of boy names down to the final four or five when they read them aloud to the nurses on duty. They liked Greyson the most, she said.

His middle name, Leo, comes from Chris Phillips’ paternal grandfather, he said.

“He looks just like Chris,” Cheri Phillips said. “Everybody says so. Everybody. I do all the work ….”

“I saw him come out of you,” he said. “I swear he’s yours.”

Although the couple has struggled to navigate an unfamiliar health care system, deal with Brazilian bureaucracy and pay for unexpected medical care and living expenses, they say they have had profound moments of gratitude over the past two months.

Both of their companies are allowing them to work remotely. Children’s Minnesota also accepted Greyson’s “Certificate of Live Birth,” written in Portuguese, instead of the usually required U.S. birth certificate as proof of Greyson’s birth, so the couple could add him to their health insurance plan.

HealthPartners has helped as well by quickly reimbursing them for medical costs before their credit card bill is due; the hospital bills have topped $49,000.

“I have to give them credit,” Chris Phillips said. “If we had to have waited, we would probably be in debt for the next 20 years of our lives.”

Because of Greyson’s health issues, the Phillipses rarely take him out in public. He’s been on two outings so far: an evening stroll last week, his first adventure outside the hospital or their Airbnb.

“For the first 20 minutes or so, he was really soaking it in, eyes wide and darting back and forth as he heard and saw things for the very first time,” Chris Phillips wrote in an email to friends and family on Monday. “Then, he conked out and just enjoyed the gentle rumbling as we pushed his stroller along the sidewalk.”

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On Wednesday, Greyson and his parents went to the local Policia Federal office to get an extension of their visas. In order to get a visa extension, the couple had to prove they had purchased plane tickets home.

They are set to return to Minnesota on June 25 – if Greyson’s documentation can be secured.

“That’s our goal,” he said. “That’s our deadline so we don’t have to deal with the hassle and expense of rebooking tickets. We just want to board those flights and get home.”

In the meantime, they are trying to settle into some sort of routine – which can be hard to do with a newborn, they say.

Greyson sleeps a lot, eats every two to four hours and requires frequent diaper changes. “We keep an eye on him constantly, make sure he’s fed and changed as needed, and sleep in short bursts when possible,” Chris Phillips wrote in his email update to friends and family.

One silver lining of their lengthy stay in Brazil has been having extra time with Melory, who generally stays with the Phillipses Thursday evenings through Sunday mornings.

“She’s a great big sister,” he said. “She was playing on her Nintendo Switch next to me on the couch the other night, and she spent most of the time playing one-handed while Greyson gripped her pointer finger tightly.”

On Sunday morning, Greyson’s two-month birthday, when it was time to go back to her mom’s house, Melory pleaded to stay “just a little while longer,” he said.

“Although silver linings are tough to find in all this, the fact that those two have the opportunity to bond, and I get to have both my kids and my wonderful wife snuggling with me on the couch, is easily the one bit of emotional compensation for all this heartache and stress,” he said. “Now we just need to get home.”

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