In the following story, the Shardell family shares about their experience adopting a boy with unknown medical needs from China. Before referring children to families, we do all that we can to make sure questions about the children’s medical condition or development are answered. But given the many unknowns in international adoption, Holt also considers the family’s experience level and openness to potential unknowns. The Shardell family had a particular expertise in and openness to developmental concerns, which was a great fit for their son Brennan. Brennan’s unknowns were all part of the process of discovery during their wait for him. Allison, tenacious in her pursuit of answers to her concerns about his development, asked key questions and was open to wherever the answers led us. Our local on-the-ground staff in China was able to follow up and learn more about Brennan. And ultimately, the Shardells decided to move forward and welcome Brennan into their family. In many ways, their story illustrates how the adoption process is an active partnership between families and Holt’s program staff — ensuring families are as prepared and informed as possible as they enter this major, and wonderful, part of their lives. — Beth Smith, Director of Services, China Program
They say the biggest surprises come when you least expect them, and this definitely seems to be our family’s adage. As a family of five, including a 10-year-old biological son, a 7-year-old daughter adopted as an infant from northern Vietnam, and a 5-year-old biological daughter, we were comfortable and firmly out of the toddler stage. We had a nice little routine of homeschooling and traveling, sports and music lessons, co-ops and field trips. Until one day, that routine was shaken up when we had a family picture taken as part of a culture camp for Vietnamese adoptees and our middle child announced that nobody in the family looked like her. It was around that time that we began to look at different options for possibly adopting one more child. Vietnam, at the time we were looking, was not an option, so we began researching China.
As an autism behavior specialist with a doctorate focused on child development and developmental disorders, I felt well equipped to care for a child with special needs. So my husband and I began talking to Holt to find out about our options. We were told the current status of China adoptions — almost all children have special needs, there was a 6-9 month wait for a young girl, and there was an urgent need for families open to adopting boys. Since we had two girls and a boy, we felt like a little boy would be the perfect fit for our family, and so in August 2014, we applied to adopt a child with a special need through Holt’s China program.
The first big surprise of the process came only a week or two later when we received an email from Holt with the subject line, “Upcoming arrivals!” I opened it excitedly and began scrolling down at all of the children, dressed in pink… girl, girl, girl, girl, girl… Without much thought, I closed out the email and deleted it, knowing that there will be a bunch of happy families adopting these sweet girls soon. The next morning, I kept feeling a tug to go back and read the email more carefully, and so I rushed to the computer, scrolled through the deleted emails, and clicked on it again, this time reading each description. At the very bottom was a smiling 1-year-old, dressed in pink, laying on his belly. Yes, “his” belly. His name was Brennan and he had the most innocent little face, complete with one blue eye and one brown eye. Instantly, I felt drawn to this little face and within seconds, I forwarded it to my husband, and then sent a message to Holt. “I know it’s only been a week since we applied,” I wrote, “but can we please learn a little more about Brennan.”
Soon, we received Brennan’s file. It was a bit vague and nondescript. His file said that he had normal hearing and vision, loved to suck on his feet, could roll over, loved to shake hands with caregivers, loved his grandma nanny, and my favorite line of all, “He is a proud prince.” As I kept flipping through the pages, I came to the diagnosis page — cerebral dysplasia, a term I had never heard before. There was a page with the results of an IQ test, given at 9 months of age, with a score of 42. His file also stated that he had a normal CT scan. As someone with a lot of professional and educational experience working with children, two things instantly jumped out to me — why (and how?) would they give an IQ test to an infant, and why would a 1-year-old be given a CT scan?
Regardless of these questions, we kept going back to the picture and both my husband and I had this unrelenting feeling that this was our son. So we asked if Holt could clarify the file further. Within two days, we had another report and a video. The video showed him interacting with his nanny, sitting up in a Bumbo, showing great head control and fantastic eye contact. He could reach for toys with one hand and seemed to be aware of his surroundings. Fantastic! We felt much better and decided to send everything to our international adoption doctor, who gave her blessings for us to move forward. We submitted our Letter of Intent for Brennan and continued the process of compiling our dossier.
In October, we received our next big surprise. Through Facebook, we met another family that was traveling to the orphanage that month to adopt their daughter. They offered to try to meet Brennan and take some pictures, and we happily accepted their offer, staying up late the night of their orphanage visit to hear how it went. Everything came crumbling down when we heard the words, “You need to get things done fast. He doesn’t look good.” Our little guy was very small and weak. He couldn’t sit up or support his head. He was no longer interactive and just laid on his back, looking at the ceiling. We contacted Holt, who requested some more information from the orphanage. From that, we learned that our little guy had not gained weight in six months, he couldn’t crawl or sit independently, he wasn’t saying any words, and he was having difficulty eating. Holt offered to have Brennan taken to the doctor and assessed, while we frantically secured immigration approvals and authentications.
In December, our dossier was on its way to China in record time — three months, without a formal medical expedite. During that time, we heard back from the orphanage with the words “significantly underweight,” “difficulty gaining weight even when eating more,” “possible metabolic disorder,” “likely cerebral palsy.” They also wrote, “The nannies think he cannot hear well now. They are taking him for a hearing test.” In an instant, these “manageable needs” we thought he had from his initial referral became scary, overwhelming and even urgent. We talked to the international adoption doctor, who agreed that things looked a lot different than in the initial referral. If we proceeded, we needed to be prepared for long-term possibilities like wheelchair use, cognitive impairments and requiring assistance as an adult. We had phone calls with several members of Holt’s China team to discuss our options. We were told there were several, and we should choose the one that is best for our family. We could rescind our LOI with no penalty and wait for another referral, or we could continue to be matched with Brennan and ask the orphanage to provide monthly weight checks and updates. After a lot of discussion with each other and with Holt — and a lot of tears and “what ifs” — we decided to press forward. This was our son, however he came to us. We were prepared for the worst-case scenario, and while it was scary, we could manage it.
We spent the next several months preparing and researching, and making sure we had a plan in place to give him the best possible start with us. Instead of Mandarin, we began to learn sign language with our children. Instead of tricycles and basketballs, we researched gait trainers and therapists. We stocked up on high-calorie toddler formulas and researched adaptations to our two-story house that we could make if necessary. As with our other children, whatever we needed to do to help Brennan thrive, we would try.
At last, it was time to make the journey to China, all three of our children in tow. We spent five days touring Beijing and having a blast before heading to Brennan’s province. The time flew by quickly — I’m not sure many people would say that while traveling with three young children — and at last, the day had come to finally meet the little man we fought for and worried for and that so many people had been praying for. After what seemed like 15 hours sitting in the provincial affairs office — it was actually only an hour! — the car pulled up and we instantly recognized him… our little Brennan. He was tiny — not even 20 pounds fully clothed — and he was weak, but very aware of his surroundings. He squeaked out a tiny cry in protest, but then sat in our arms looking around at everything, just taking in the entire scene. He didn’t scream or try to get away. Rather, he just seemed to want to see everything that was happening.
Later that night, we got a glimpse that not everything was like it seemed in his file. This frail, weak, tiny little child cracked a smile. Then he made eye contact and tossed his dinner across the room, clapping and laughing. And when he saw his siblings laugh, he did it again. And again. And again. For an hour, he went back and forth, laughing and giggling and smiling, interacting with his siblings and us. One day shy of his second birthday (his adoption was finalized on his birthday!), and our fears suddenly disappeared. This was not a child with a low IQ or no awareness of his surroundings. This was a child with a strong spirit who thrived on being the center of attention. And boy oh boy, did he love to eat! I think he ate more than my other three children combined during those early days! And the most amazing thing about our time in China? Within a week, he was sitting independently, could stand for a couple seconds, and actually took his first steps!
Fast forward to now, three months after that first day together in China. He is now 27 months old. He was recently diagnosed as having profound bilateral hearing loss, but has picked up over four-dozen ASL signs that he uses independently, plus he understands even more than that. This boy is obsessed with watching Signing Time DVDs — in fact, his first words (in sign) were “Signing Time!” He is not only walking independently, but he is running too — chasing after his siblings and keeping up with them. He is rough-and-tumble, and still loves to throw things! He is always laughing and smiling, and has a way of brightening up the room just by being there. He is also great at problem solving, and is the only one of my kids who can actually remember to put his shoes away when he comes inside (*smile*). He loves kisses and hugs and cuddles (and food!), and he waves ecstatically when he sees his mama or daddy or siblings return after being away for a couple hours. He has gained five pounds and four inches and is quickly growing out of his infant clothing. And best of all, last week we received the news that his brain and spinal MRIs were clear! He does not have cerebral palsy or brain differences. This boy is perfectly healthy and typically developing and is testing at or above age level in almost every domain, including communication due to his rapidly expanding ASL vocabulary. His only special needs are profound hearing loss — but as we say, he just speaks a different language that now we are all learning — and he is recovering from failure-to-thrive. He is, however, blowing each and every expectation out of the water!
We are so blessed to have this little guy as our son. He is the perfect fit for our family, and I’m not sure you will find a sweeter and more snuggly little one anywhere in the world! We are so happy that we listened to our initial instincts and continued the process even when things looked scary.
For those considering adopting a child with special needs, we suggest following your instincts. If something doesn’t seem right to you, don’t hesitate to contact the Holt country team you’re working with. They were more than willing to do what it takes so that we had all of the information we needed to make the decision that was right for us. We were prepared to handle the worst-case scenario, but Holt was there to support us — whatever decision we made. Be vigilant and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may not be able to get the answers you want, or you may end up with more questions as a result of the answers you do get, but this is a lifelong decision and you have to be comfortable with your decision. And research, research, research! Don’t be afraid of the “scary-sounding diagnoses.” Sometimes, a brain difference is simply undiagnosed hearing loss, as in our case, but also be prepared for any outcome. And above all, consider bringing a sweet little boy into your home. We love our new son and he’s definitely a little mama’s boy with endless hugs and cuddles! Every day, we thank God for leading us to this awesome little person that we are blessed to call our son!
Allison Shardell | Pataskala, Ohio