Lia’s Smile Story – by Julie Snyder
In August 2006, at the age of 36 – and recently divorced from a relationship of ten years – I decided to pursue motherhood on my own by adopting a baby from China. At the time I applied, the wait to be matched with a child was expected to be 18-24 months, which I felt would be good for me in terms of saving up money for the adoption and preparing my home for a child.
What I did not expect was to meet (my now fiancé) Steve in October of that year. On our first date, I was very clear that I intended to adopt a baby from China. Steve was intrigued, and asked a lot of thoughtful and intelligent questions about the process and seemed genuinely interested. Our running joke became “if I know you then…” as we talked about how this child would ultimately fit into our lives if we were still together when I was finally matched.
As the wait time to adopt a healthy baby from China continued to increase, Steve and I moved in together and relocated to a new state. In 2008 I accepted a job working for a large adoption agency and learned a lot about the types of children waiting for homes around the world. I also learned about some of the most common “special needs” these children had. I was surprised to learn that about 30% of the children waiting in orphanages in China had a cleft lip and/or palate. As I got to know families who adopted these children, and learned more about the medical treatment available to these children in the U.S., it became clear to me that this was something we needed to consider. We found out the wait time to adopt children who have medical needs, is much shorter than that of a healthy baby. In July 2009, after a lot of discussion, we decided to update our child request to be open to several special needs – one of them being cleft lip and palate.
Just after midnight on April 21, 2010, I received an email from our adoption agency with a subject line I’d been waiting nearly four years to see: WAITING CHILD MATCH – AN XIAO HUI.
The email said in part:
Last night we had access to China’s Shared List of Waiting Children, and we have locked in a potential child’s file for you: An Xiao Hui, female, born 11-10-2008, with cleft lip/palate, from Xian, Shaanxi. The first thing you need to do, after downloading and saving all the attached information, is to get the file into the hands of a medical professional. You can go ahead and do this NOW, before talking to us. Because there is a time constraint (72 hours) to finalize the “lock” on this child’s file, time is of the essence, and unless you know for certain you DO NOT wish to adopt this child, we will proceed as if you are accepting this match. Please respond with the best number for us to call later this morning, and then wait for us to contact you. However, you do not need to wait to talk to us before you send the information to a medical professional for review…
Attached to the email were four of the most beautiful photographs I had ever seen. This child was strikingly beautiful, with big, round, brown eyes and a wide smile. I had to remind myself that she was in China, as she did not look traditionally Asian and in fact, with the exception of the cleft, looked much like I did as a toddler! In the final photo, she was very serious, sitting in a high chair, and it was clear that she had recently received surgery to repair her cleft lip, as the scar was still bright red and visible. I called out to Steve who was in another room, “Steve, I think I’m looking at our baby!” He came running. We both cried as we looked at every detail of the photos again and again.
I immediately got in contact with the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Washington to discuss Xiao Hui’s file. I told them it was urgent that I speak with a doctor immediately. They had me fax what few medical records and photos we had received, and the doctor set up an appointment to speak with us by phone at 9 pm that evening. All we knew is that this little girl had been 4 lbs 10 oz. when found, and that she had a bilateral cleft lip and palate. There were also some vague references to a dental prosthesis, and the lip repair surgery. We spent an hour on the phone talking with the doctor about the various types of clefts, the various surgeries she may need and what they would entail, and the medical and dental expenses we could expect to incur over her lifetime, as well as the outcomes for children with clefts who are adopted internationally. There was no question we were going to take this leap of faith – I contacted the adoption agency and told them to lock in our daughter’s file!
While we waited for the final paperwork to process so we could travel to China, we learned more about our little girl. We were blessed to find out she was living at the privately-run Starfish Foster Home in China which gives special care to medically fragile babies, many of whom are cleft affected. Through English-speaking volunteers at Starfish, I was able to learn more about Xiao Hui’s personality, her life in China, and the medical care she had received thus far. We learned she had been lucky enough to receive a Nasal Alveolar Molding (NAM) device (a rarity in China), and that her lip repair surgery had been done by an American medical team headed by Dr. Lisa Buckmiller of Arkansas Children’s Hospital. A generous church in Virginia had collected donations to pay for her surgery.
In August 2010 – almost exactly four years after I had initially sent in my application to adopt – Steve and I flew to Xi’an, China where our 21-month old daughter was placed in our arms. At first it was heartbreaking to hear her cry with sadness as she left her beloved nanny and life at Starfish behind to begin her new life with us, not understanding what was happening or where she was going. However, after several days, our little girl began to blossom and she has never looked back.
When we came home from China, we found out that Xiao Hui (now called Lia) had so much fluid built up in her ears, that her hearing was 85% blocked. No wonder she was so quiet! We started working on sign language with her right away to help her communicate her needs and wants. In October she was scheduled for palate surgery and ear tubes were placed to drain the fluid in her ears. By Christmas our girl was talking and singing! In February of this year Lia started speech therapy, and in May she had her second palate repair and ear tubes replaced. I cannot believe that just over one year ago I received the email about my precious girl. In so many ways it seems as if she has been with us forever.
There are so many cleft-affected children around the world who are waiting right now for adoptive families who can provide them with the love, nutrition, medical and dental care they so desperately need. In some cases there are grants available to help families with the costs of adopting these children. I can tell you from personal experience that Lia’s biggest “special need” was the “need” for a family. Her cleft does not affect our day to day lives. We may have a few more doctor visits, and the occasional overnight hospital stay, but she is a normal, happy two year old child in every other way. I am so glad we made the decision to open our hearts to a cleft child. She is the light of our lives!
Lia’s Smile Story – by Julie Snyder