Ever since I was a young girl, I knew that I wanted to someday get married and to be a mom. I dreamed of having children born from my womb and children born from my heart. After college, I met the man of my dreams and we married in March 2006.
A year and half into our marriage, I gave birth to our first child, a beautiful daughter, then nineteen months later, I gave birth to our handsome son. Two years later, adoption went on the back burner as we decided to get pregnant one more time and were blessed to add another precious baby boy to our family. With that, our hands and hearts were full, and we were definitely done growing our family. Or so we thought.
I still loved adoption and had a soft spot for it in my heart. My husband and I were some of the biggest cheerleaders and supporters of family and friends as they pursued adoption in their families. We participated in their fundraisers, provided respite care for them, welcomed them home from their journeys and celebrated each adoption with them.
In 2015, when our youngest son was nearing the age of three and we were no longer in the trenches of the baby stage, the Lord began to slowly stir in my heart once again what had laid dormant for so long…. the possibility of growing our family through adoption.
Over the ensuing months, that little stirring slowly turned into a burning flame and I knew without a doubt that we were called to adopt; that it wasn’t a matter of if we would, but when we would. Furthermore, I knew that somewhere out there was a child who needed a family and that we could be the one for them.
As I began exploring the different avenues of adoptions and searching online forums where pages and pages of waiting children stared back at me, I also began to learn about the different medical conditions some of these children had. Most of the terms I had heard before and even had loved ones with children with those special needs. But before 2015, I had never heard words like “microtia” or “atresia” let alone what they meant.
As I began to learn more, I knew that a child with craniofacial deformities such as ‘little or no ears’ could be one we could easily love and welcome into our family. As my husband and I talked and prayed during 2015 and into 2016, we knew we wanted an older child… a girl near our oldest daughter’s age.
As a family, we were ready to embrace a child and do whatever we needed to welcome her into our family. If she was deaf or hard of hearing, we would learn sign language. If she needed surgeries, we would do everything in our power to get her whatever medical attention she needed. With so many older children waiting for forever families, my search results yielded page after page of older girls with craniofacial differences.
In early 2016, I came across the profile of one little girl who was seven. The description said she had deformity of the ears and esotropia of the eyes. The picture was not a close up of her, but you could tell she was a scrappy one as she was standing in a playroom with her hands on her hips, and a smile on her face. I could tell something wasn’t right with her eyes, but it was hard to see due to the distance from which the photo was taken. I read through her profile, saved it, then kept scrolling.
But something about that little girl kept drawing me back to her, day after day. Finally I just had to know more about her. I inquired for more information and when the agency (Agape Adoptions) that had her file responded, I knew this little girl was meant to be ours.
Her medical file stated she had low intelligence, and though that worried us a bit, we still knew she was meant to be ours. On February 13, 2016, we began our adoption journey to bring our daughter home and 10 months to the day on December 13, 2016, we were in China signing the paperwork officially making her a Sappington forever.
This newly turned 8-year-old girl now had a family she belonged to and she was alone no more. Annika had spent the first 8 years of her life in an orphanage where she had learned to survive. Now, she was a part of our family and with a lot of love for her, we were ready to advocate for her every need.
Once we landed on US soil, we hit the ground running with appointments, doctor visits and medical specialists. Annika didn’t just have deformed ears, she had no ears. Having done a lot of research during our adoption process, I knew our options for microtia and now it was time to pursue those options further. I knew that children born with microtia are often deaf or hard of hearing. When we had inquired about Annika’s hearing during the adoption process, we were told that she could hear just fine. Yet, once we were in China, we quickly learned that she did in fact have some hearing loss. I added to our ever-growing medical list to research hearing loss options once we arrived back in the US.
In April 2017, we learned Annika also had a previously undiagnosed heart anomaly that had not been in her medical notes from China. Annika’s new medical report read: bilateral grade 4 microtia atresia, moderate hearing loss, esotropia of both eyes and an anomalous origin of the right coronary artery. With great determination, we began addressing each of her medical needs. Not long after she came home, she was wearing glasses for the first time (a feat in itself when you have no ears to hold them up!) and had her first pair of bone-anchored hearing aids on a softband by March 2017.
For the first time in her life, Annika could hear sounds better than she ever had, most especially our whispers of “I love you.” A whole new world was opening up in front of her and we were watching our precious girl grow and come out of her shell.
Just as the walls and barriers in her heart were slowly melting away, so were her medical needs.
Annika went through a lot of trauma and bullying in her first years of life and, from the beginning, we determined to find her the best medical care. Since she joined our family two and half years ago, Annika has had seven surgeries and counting and has even become a bit of a world traveler in the process.
We live in Texas and happened to have an awesome otolaryngologist, Dr. Brandon Isaacson, not far from us in Dallas who implanted titanium abutments in Annika’s skull for her bone-anchored hearing aids. And, a few months later, he removed her underdeveloped ear canals and the infections within. Annika’s ophthalmologist, Dr. John Tong, who also is nearby, performed outpatient surgery on Annika’s eyes in June 2018 to help correct her esotropia.
The very next month, we traveled to Boston Children’s Hospital for open heart surgery to correct Annika’s heart anomaly. In February 2019, Annika learned how to use contacts and hasn’t wanted to wear her glasses since! But the thing she still desired the most was ears and it had proven to be the most challenging to make possible with her complex craniofacial anatomy.
It has been a long journey with ups and downs, but Annika’s dream for ears has become a reality. In March 2019, she had ear reconstruction for a new left ear in California by top-notch plastic surgeon, Dr. Sheryl Lewin. Next month, we will again travel to California for her right ear surgery. To see the look of awe and pure happiness on my daughter’s face as she was able to tuck her hair behind her ear for the first time is a moment I’ll never forget. She can’t wait to have her second ear and is counting down till our trip.
People sometimes ask me how our other kids have done with adding Annika to our family. I can’t help but smile from ear to ear as I tell them, “It’s as if their sister was meant for our family and just happened to be born on the other side of the world.” She has fit perfectly in with our crew and we can’t imagine life without her.
Oh, and one last thing. Remember how I said that her medical file stated she had low intelligence? Oh, how wrong they were! Annika is a fast learner and one of the smartest and funniest kids you’ll ever meet.
It’s amazing what the love of a family does for someone. Add the ability to see and hear clearly while you tuck your hair behind your new ears, then the sky is the limit!
– guest post by Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org)