Adopting a Child with a Brain Damage Diagnosis: “Prepare to be Amazed”

December 15, 2015 brain damage syndrome, Developmental System, Family Stories, October 2015 Feature - Developmental, speech delay 3 Comments

On January 31, 2014, we were heading out to dinner when I noticed a missed call on my cell phone. It was a Colorado area code. The agency.

I asked my husband to give me a minute as I listened to the message. This was it! The call came only eight days after our application was completed.

My husband told me not to call back. He said it could wait until Monday morning; he wasn’t ready. We’d been on a waiting list to see the file of a little girl on our agency’s waiting child page, and we had grown attached to her. As each day passed, we’d become more convinced she was ours. But then we learned that she was not ours. We were still dealing with those emotions, and we were resigned to waiting a while. Everyone that we had met in the adoption communities online was complaining about the wait for a file for a young girl, and we sort of took comfort in that heavily rumored wait.

Now this call.

Of course, I called right back. They had a file. A three year old girl with a Brain Damage diagnosis. Her file was completed over a year prior but had never been sent in. The information was out-dated. The pictures were 12 to 18 months old. We were told that the Lunar New Year had just begun in China, which meant that we would have at least a week to wait until our agency could even ask questions for us. Plus there were no guarantees that they could even get us any answers.

Our agency told us that we may have to make a decision based solely on the information that we had.


This poor sweet baby was so small and so sad. She stood, tiny and alone, in an expansive hallway. Her face almost expressionless in every picture. Most of the developmental milestones in her file were left unchecked. There were indications that she was nonverbal. There were contradictions about whether she could walk without support. We were petrified. What were her abilities? Were we able to give her what she needs? Can we do this AND should we do this?

We talked to our three grown sons. They were all so amenable to whatever they thought we wanted. They did remind us that she needed a family, and we wanted a daughter so it seemed simple to them! We asked our questions of our agency and waited 13 days for answers due to the holiday. In the meantime, we spoke only of her. We were not particularly religious as a couple prior to this time. We went to church for weddings, christenings, and funerals. For the first time in our lives together we were side by side on our knees, hand in hand, praying together every day for the answer. Was this our daughter?

One evening while we were talking, I said that we really might not get any answers from the orphanage. And then what?

My husband looked at me and said, “I don’t think I can say no. I want to pick her up. I want to make her smile.”

“I can’t say no, so if it’s not no it’s yes. Right? There are only two answers,” I replied.

He nodded and said, “Let’s not go back and forth on this. Let’s be committed to her.”

We decided that once we made this decision she was born to us and there was no turning back. The next day, on February 11th, we got our update. We received a few pictures, a video and some responses to our questions. Pete was at physical therapy. I got in my car and drove straight there so we could look at it together. We stood next to his treadmill hugging and crying, “We have a daughter!”

While we assembled our dossier, we tried to prepare ourselves to be Zoey’s parents. We sent lots of care packages in hopes that we would get pictures or videos with each one. These little snippets were windows into her world, and they gave us clues as to who our sweet girl was.

We did lots of research and identified the local services that we might need for her. We decided to do pre-adoption counseling with the international adoption clinic at a nearby children’s hospital before we traveled. This way we would have in country support should we need it. The IA doctor spoke to us about Global Developmental Delay, Genetic Syndromes, Autism, and Lifetime Plans of Care. She stated that there was a chance that our daughter would never be able to live independently. She asked us if we had a plan in place in the event that our daughter was profoundly delayed when we met her. We were floored.

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“Well, what are your deal breakers?” she replied.

Again, floored.

“We have no deal breakers. She is our daughter. She’s coming home with us.”

That was a sobering telephone call. Really scary. I remember texting Pete soon after and saying that I needed to talk at some point. I knew he was in a meeting and probably would be all day. I put my head down on the table and prayed for a very long time. I thanked God for my blessings, my family, my husband, and my daughter. I asked God for strength and a sign. A sign that we could do this, that we could be the family she needed. I literally turned over all of my fears and insecurities, one by one.

In the midst of my prayer my phone went off and Pete had texted me 3:20. That’s it. Just 3:20. I later found out that he kept sneaking his phone out under the table to check for messages from me. The meeting was expected to wrap up by 3:15 and he planned to call me from his car at 3:20. Of course I could not figure that out so that number drove me to distraction until I heard from him.

In fact, I googled it. The first result was this:

“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” – Ephesians 3:20

There was my sign. This was my peace and my courage. I cried grateful tears and went back to work preparing to bring our little girl home.


Thirteen months after we first saw her face, our tiny powerhouse walked into the civil affairs office in ZhengZhou, China and regarded us carefully. She sat right on my lap on the floor. She took a lollipop from us, and when I asked if she was thirsty she nodded. We took turns giving her juice. She later shed silent tears as the nannies and directors left the room, and we headed toward the bus.

She fell asleep on her daddy’s lap as we drove back to the hotel. Once at the hotel she came to life. We heard belly laughs when we bounced the light up ball. She ran around the room delighting in every single thing we had for her. In minutes she had bracelets up her arm, sunglasses upside down on her tiny nose, bows all over her head – she was fabulous!

Once home we started seeing doctors and therapists and working on putting the pieces of the puzzle together. We explored the referring brain damage diagnosis, and we found new ones that completely took us by surprise. Zoey is an exceptional child. She lights up the room. She is fiercely independent, stubborn, hilarious, and crazy smart. She does have barriers to learning, developmental delays, hearing loss, essential tremor, receptive and expressive speech delays, poor impulse control, hyperactivity and a short attention span. She attends a developmental preschool where she gets PT, ST, Teacher of the Deaf, and soon OT as well.

For us, brain damage has been a manageable need. We have had to advocate pretty hard a few times to get all of her needs met and to get her all of the services she deserves, but she is getting everything she needs. The most difficult part about this diagnosis in fact is not about our daughter. She is awesome. The most difficult part has been how others react to her. Her medical needs are invisible to the naked eye. People doubt the accuracy of her diagnosis. Even people in our inner circles. They argue about how well she is doing, and they assume her issues are behavioral and that we need to work harder on discipline or “controlling” her.

They see her struggle with conversation, and they think she does not want to speak English or that we aren’t doing the right things to teach it to her. I recently told a friend that the next time someone asks me what it looks like to parent a child with brain damage (usually prospective adopting families looking at the file of a child with brain damage) that I was going to say “my daughter is perfect; it’s everyone else that has a problem.” Of course I was kidding (sort of) but it’s how we feel when these things come up.

By and large people expect persons with brain damage to have obvious physical effects from their brain injury when in fact the presentation of symptoms is very broad. The adaptability of the human brain is astounding. What I do honestly tell people is look at the child. If you are afraid of the words on that CT report or that MRI report, look at the child. Discuss your concerns with a neurologist that you trust and be prepared to be amazed.


Our only regret in the adoption process is that we wasted so much time worrying that we would not be able to give her what she needs. Zoey’s potential is limitless. She has a family who adores her and will support her in getting whatever she needs to achieve success in life by her own definition. What more could she need? (besides a sister?)

– guest post by Holly

3 responses to “Adopting a Child with a Brain Damage Diagnosis: “Prepare to be Amazed””

  1. Erin Foerch says:

    I believe I have thought of your family every single day since our trip. I am so thankful we were able to meet you and witness your journey on Facebook. Zoey is awesome! It’s funny that you posted now because she has especially been on my mind the last few days. I am absolutely astounded at some of the things she says and does, her progress is phenomenal to watch. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Renee Booe says:

    I really appreciate this article. Is there anyway to email the writer? My daughter too was labeled with brain damage and I’d love to get more information about their experiences. Perhaps you could give her my email addresss? Thanks!

  3. Rochelle says:

    I just had a dream this morning that I adopted a baby girl with brain damage. I searched your website and found your article. I am thankful you wrote about God’s comfort and prayer and that her future is limitless. Thank you for sharing.

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