The baby lay in the dying room because she was too weak and too damaged to live. She had been born prematurely and now weighed only four pounds. But that was not her only problem. To gain weight she would have to eat, eat, eat—something she couldn’t do. She was unlucky enough to have been born with a cleft lip and palate–a double cleft lip and palate, to be precise.
Unable to suckle properly, she could not get the nutrients necessary to keep her alive, and there was no one available to spend the time necessary to coax food into her damaged mouth–drop-by-drop, bit-by-bit–to keep her alive. Her birth mother had abandoned her at birth. In modern-day China, where a couple can have only one child, her mother apparently didn’t want it to be this damaged newborn. Better to abandon this child and try again for a healthy one. And no one in the large orphanage in Xi’an, China, where the baby lived, had time to spoon-feed her.
Her caretakers had resigned themselves to the fact that they could not save this one and reluctantly put her off to the side in what was nicknamed the dying room. After all, there were 600 other babies to attend to. So there she lay with all the odds stacked against her. It would be a miracle if she survived.
In another part of the same city, a mother brought her ailing newborn to the hospital. Outwardly this little one looked fine, but she was seriously underweight and had failed to thrive. Diagnostic tests revealed that she had a hole in her heart. While this was no immediate threat to her survival, it could mean a lifetime of health problems. An operation could fix this provided her parents had enough money to pay for it.
The next time the hospital staff checked on mother and child, the only one they found was the baby. The mother had fled, never to return. The city orphanage became this little girl’s new home.
A few years before this, Amanda de Lange, an Afrikaner by birth and a BYU graduate, found herself in Xi’an with an uncertain future. She had been teaching English in a Chinese school but was now tempted to take a more lucrative teaching position in South Korea. Until, that is, she visited Xi’an’s orphanage with a friend. Here the Spirit spoke to her. This was to be her life’s work.
Within a few weeks she had obtained a license from the Chinese government to take some of these orphans into foster care pending their adoption. This was the beginning of the Starfish Foster Home. Over the next few years she took dozens of infants into her home—most of them “medically fragile,” as she called them. In addition to nurturing them, she also arranged for them to have the simple surgeries necessary to repair a cleft palate, a clubfoot, a twisted limb, so they would be more adoptable.
In the spring of 2008, I was looking for something to fill my days in retirement. My wife and I had toured China the year before and had met other retired couples who were teaching English in Chinese universities under the auspices of BYU’s China Teachers Program. This program looked like just the thing for me, but my wife was having none of it. Why should she move half way around the world, away from grandchildren and a new house, to do something she felt incapable of doing. Nevertheless, by September we were both in Xi’an teaching in a university and attending the local branch of the Church with Amanda.
Meanwhile, Karma McLesky, a member of our home ward in northern Virginia, was worried about her annual Angel Tree project. For the past several years, she and her husband, Frank, had set up a Christmas tree in the ward meeting house foyer.
Each ornament contained a suggestion for a gift that would aid someone in need in the community: a winter coat for a boy, a dress for a girl, etc. Over the years, contributions via the Angel Tree had funded purchase of Christmas gifts or warm clothing for hundreds of impoverished children and adults in the area. But this year, Sister McLesky wanted to do something different.
After a flurry of emails among Karma, Amanda, and myself, a plan was hatched. Amanda was to go to the big city orphanage and select a medically fragile orphan who needed some medical intervention. Karma would use the Angel Tree to raise the necessary funds to pay for it.
Amanda made the arrangements and settled on the little girl with a hole in her heart. She bundled this lucky one up against the November chill and was about to return home. No one even considered the little cleft-palate preemie in the dying room. No one except an orphanage worker who scooped the dying infant up in her arms and thrust the little one into Amanda’s arms at the doorway saying, “Here take this one too. Too weak, to ugly, too dark (jaundice).” And then the worker fled before any objection could be raised.
So Amanda brought home two babies for the Angel Tree project. The cleft-palate preemie was called “Sophia,” and the heart baby was given the English name “Virginia.” Over the next couple of years, these babies thrived under Amanda’s care. Patient nannies slowly dribbled formula into Sophia’s damaged mouth and day-by-day she fattened and grew stronger. Along the way a local Chinese dentist fitted her with an appliance to help close the gap in her palate, and later a skilled surgeon repaired her lip.
Virginia’s path was less complicated. All she had to do was gain enough weight to be viable for heart surgery. Amanda and a phalanx of volunteers fed her, cuddled her, and nursed her over the next year or so until a surgeon was able to stitch the hole shut.
All of a sudden the fate of these two little orphans looked much brighter. Amanda created the necessary adoption files and submitted them to the giant paperwork mill that might someday lead to their being adopted. Meanwhile they settled into life in the foster home with Amanda and her loving nannies and waited.
Meanwhile, half a world away and a few years before, 36-year-old Julie Dart Snyder was pondering her future. She wanted children, but her first marriage had failed and the prospects for having children of her own looked bleak. Adoption was an option, one that she considered seriously because several people in her extended family had adopted children. She filled out the paperwork, signed up with an agency, had her home visit, and then waited—for several years.
It was the same for Angela Mohler. She had two teenage boys at home, but there was still room in her heart for one more. From her childhood she had been drawn toward China. So when her yearning reached full flower, it seemed only natural that a Chinese orphan would be the means to fill it.
She too completed all the necessary paperwork, and like Julie, she waited and waited.
Back in China, Sophia and Virginia were thriving at Amanda’s Starfish Foster Home, but neither Julie nor Angela knew any of this. The Chinese adoption process is opaque to the applicants. Adoption officials make the matches using the dossiers of the prospective adopters and the case files from the orphanages and foster homes. Then the adopter is notified. In this case, Julie was notified that a 17-month-old baby girl with a cleft palate was available. Accompanying the notice was a small, out-if-date photo of Sophia’s face. Her lip and been repaired by then, but the surgical scar was still red. Julie had no doubt in her heart but that the two were made for each other. Angela also received notice that a match had been made and started preparations for traveling to China to be united with baby Virginia.
Four months after the notifications, Sophia’s nanny dressed her for her big day and took her to the civil affairs office to meet her new mother. Things did not go well. Sophia clung to her nanny for dear life, but over the next several days she warmed to Julie. As long as she had familiar things around her—a stuffed animal or her bottle—she was fine.
Tears were the theme of the day for Virginia and Angela also, but by the end of the day a love match was playing itself out. Where Sophia was very shy and withdrawn, Virginia was more outgoing and accepting.
Today Sophia and her new family live in the Pacific Northwest where she is known now as Lia. She is a happy, energetic little girl who takes care of her dolls and practices homemaking skills on a Fisher-Price plastic kitchen. She has seen her first Halloween and Thanksgiving. She has been to her first “Disney on Ice” show. Further work has been done to close the cleft in her palate, and she will undergo more surgeries when her teeth come in. When it was realized that she couldn’t hear properly, tubes were placed in her ears. Now she sings along with her favorite program on TV, and Julie says she has become a regular “jabber box.”
Virginia has also settled into her new home in West Virginia with Angela and her husband and is now called Zoey. Moreover, she has two big brothers who dote on her. Unlike Lia, Zoey has no medical hurdles to overcome. Her pediatric cardiologist has given two thumbs up on her heart, and she is cleared to live life full bore, which is exactly what she is doing. Her broad smile and outsized personality fill the Mohler household from dawn to dusk.
For both of these little orphans the future looks bright. But this would not have been the case if not for the intervention of several “angels” along the way. I once thanked Julie for being one of those angels and having blessed the life of baby Lia. “Oh no,” said Julie, “it’s the other way around. It’s me that has been blessed.” Perhaps it is not merely coincidence that Zoey’s new mother is named Angela. She has certainly been an angel whether she regards herself as one or not. What is clear is both played their part in the making of a modern-day miracle. From the dying room to a bright future—who could regard this as anything less?
Note: If any of you are interested in helping the mission of the Starfish Foster Home, the Angel Tree project is sponsoring another of Amanda’s little ones named Baby Joy. (See picture below.) You may contact Karma McLeskey at firstname.lastname@example.org for donation information.