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My Son the Doctor
by Dawn Degenhardt
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My Son the Doctor

By Dawn Degenhardt, MAPS Director

The front page of the newspaper that morning was a story about a family who had just returned from Vietnam with twins. It showed Johanna feeding her three babies – one blond boy and dark haired girl and boy twins. After reading the story I just had to call her and ask if I could come over and talk with her. My husband and I had already adopted two babies, now one and three years old, and we were waiting to adopt two children through the American Indian Adoption Program. I looked up Johanna’s number in the phone book, called her and she said come right over.

As I arrived I heard her say come in. And there she was with three highchairs lined up feeding all three babies. After the babies were fed and changed, etc., we sat and talked about how they happened to go to Vietnam and adopt the twins. She then told me of the conditions over there in the orphanages – how crowded, how few caretakers, little food and how the brave nuns tried so hard to care for so many with so little. Many babies were abandoned each day and left to die if not found and an epidemic of a minor illness could wipe out the nursery – 17 babies died in one week because of an outbreak of measles. She also talked of Rosemary Taylor and her work – there were a few other American women there at that time helping Rosemary or working with other orphanages.

Johanna had worked with Sister Robert’s orphanage in Saigon and had determined that she would do everything she could to help them, including finding families for the abandoned babies and children. We were to be her first found family. But first I had to convince my husband that we could afford to adopt one more. And since we had been told we would probably be adopting boys from South Dakota I really wanted a girl. When I returned home to wait for my husband to arrive all I could think about were the awful conditions and those poor babies. By the time he arrived he found me in tears looking at the newspaper article. He was an easy one to convince so I called Johanna back that evening and told her very excitedly that we would be the first.

At that time (1970) the State of Ohio had a very difficult interstate compact person who believed that there should be no international adoptions without the aid of an agency. Since there were no agencies in Vietnam then there could be no adoptions. The only way around that issue was for both of us to go to Vietnam and see the child before the adoption. That is what Johanna and Bill had done. However, we could not and did not want to do that so we had to find a way around this ridiculous ruling. There was a probate judge at that time by the name of Judge Talty – a wonderful compassionate man. We appealed to him with our story of the children and the barrier and our belief that the interstate compact person really had no jurisdiction over international adoption and that Judge Talty had the authority to approve us for adoption. After reading the laws and policies he agreed, and since he had his own adoption department complete with social workers, he would request a new homestudy done on us. He would write the necessary letter to INS saying we had met the pre-adoption requirements for the State of Ohio. We also had a wonderful INS officer by the name of Ed Purcell who really cared. He processed our application and gave us our approval (I171H).

In the meantime Johanna had sent a telegram to Sister Robert requesting a girl under three years old. Yes, I said telegram. You think it is difficult to do international adoptions now – this was before FedEx, computers with e-mail and instant messaging, faxes and good telephone lines. All we had were the U.S. mail, telegrams, telephone lines that we could not hear over and the officials could send cables. Eventually we received information on an 11 month old boy. He was very sickly, had a bone deep scar on his leg, could not walk or stand and had several other complications. And we really wanted a girl …….. but could we not take him???? We named him David Vinh after my father and began the work and the wait.

We became obsessed with finding families for these beautiful children of Vietnam and formed a chapter of a child advocacy parent group called COAC (Council on Adoptable Children). Our focus was to find families for all waiting children. We were not only president but on the Vietnam committee to provide assistance to the orphanages. It was during this period that I asked Sister Robert for a girl and there were only boys waiting. We had successfully found families for the waiting girls but not for the waiting boys. That has not changed at all, has it? So I began writing to other orphanages – and soon received a picture of two waiting girls from Sister Mary Lieu in Cam Ranh Bay - that was Joy My Lien then age 3 ½. (click on Personal Stories, click on Vietnam and read “The Joy Story”). We said yes and our friends adopted the second little girl in the picture. So we sent another set of legal documents to Vietnam and received INS approval for Joy.

However, I had also sent a request letter to Sister Angela of Sacred Heart Orphanage in Danang and was soon to receive a picture of a 6 month old biracial baby girl. What to do??? Could we say no – I don’t think so……. So we said yes and Heather is another story.

It took 18 months to work out the system to bring David home. It took 12 months to process and to bring Joy home. They arrived on the same day in the first large group of children. And it took six months to bring Heather home from Danang. And yes, we went from two to six children in five months – the oldest was seven – and I would not recommend that a family do that.

Since all of us at COAC were volunteers, and we had a volunteer escort who worked for the airlines and could travel practically free, the total cost of adopting a baby/child escorted to Cleveland or Chicago was around $750 plus INS and communication fees. (Of course, back then our total income was $21,000 per year).

When David finally arrived he was 2 ½, tiny, big head, big eyes and very sick. Those first weeks we spent lots of days at the doctors office. It took another six months before he could walk properly. We thought he was deaf as he didn’t speak – but then it was determined that he could hear and we would just have to wait to see if he would talk. He had very good fine motor skills, and could stay on task for long period of time. My father would watch him and say, “Watch his eyes – he is really in there – he just doesn’t have anything to say yet.” When David was almost four he woke up one morning and began speaking in sentences. He was always a quiet, thoughtful, contemplative little guy – who followed Freddie – his older brother – everywhere. They shared a room and were the best of friends. He attended Montesori School and it was felt that with a lot of work he would be at least of normal ability.

Growing up David was always a good student, participated in all sports with the rest of the kids, including downhill skiing, roller skating, water skiing, tennis, soccer, swimming, golf, etc. He took piano lessons for two years and ended up playing trumpet in the school orchestra and in the stage band. After graduating from high school at the top of his class he attended the University of Maine and received a BS degree. He then decided he wanted to be a pharmacist. After graduating from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy he easily passed his Boards on the first try. He returned home, easily got a good job and married Susan, a local young lady who is a social worker. They became very active in their church – and managed the youth group activities. Then David came home one day and said he had decided to go to medical school. The process began and he attended the University of New England. This past year was spent in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York at hospitals doing his medical rotations. A few months ago he decided that he would do a medical rotation in a foreign country and asked if Joy (who has been living in Vietnam for the past eight years directing MAPS adoption program) and I could set that up for him in Vietnam.

As I write this story David and Susan have just arrived in Saigon – the city of his birth. He will be celebrating the Tet Holiday with Joy and family then it is off to Danang where he will work in Hospital No. 1, the same hospital at which MAPS built a wing and has supported in so many ways, including sending several containers to furnish and equip the maternal and child health section.

He will be attached to the mobile group and will go out to the small villages and towns to provide medical care to the poorest of the poor. I wonder the thoughts and feelings he will have during this six week adventure. I wish I could be there with him as he discovers his motherland and his other culture Susan says she will keep a journal which I will be anxious to read. I know this will be a life changing experience for him – but not how it will change him and his plans for the future.

Two weeks ago David stopped by the house to chat. Isn’t it wonderful when your adult children just stop by to chat? As we were discussing the upcoming trip we began to discuss his history, the Vietnamese culture and how to travel, what to expect, etc. there was a lull in the conversation. He then asked me how many of the family I thought would like to attend his graduation from medical school this June. I wish for all of you younger parents out there that someday you will have a conversation like that with your son or daughter – a really exciting time is in store for the family when we all get together at the graduation and cheer for David, “my-son-the-doctor”.

Girls are wonderful – but then so are boys. Please think again about these waiting baby boys in Vietnam.

Dawn Degenhardt is the mother of nine adopted children and the CEO and founder of MAPS (Maine Adoption Placement Service).

Copyright 2002 Dawn Degenhardt. Published here upon request of the author. This article orignally appeared in Rainbow Kids magazine.

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