A baby lies on his side, his feet bandaged to flat boards. “It makes it easier when he needs injections; they’re administered through the feet,” says Ellen Luo, director of the United Foundation for Chinese Orphans (UFCO). Abandoned as an infant, this orphan is thought to be around 9 months old, but without birth records no one can say for sure. He has an enlarged heart that fills his entire chest cavity, placing pressure on his lungs and internal organs. Luo waits patiently for news from the Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU) staff about when they can operate. Surgery could kill this baby, but with every day that passes there is the possibility that he could die anyway.
“Children with serious conditions needing surgeries costing RMB 100,000 are difficult. Do we spend that much on one child or give immunizations and check-ups to 500? But it’s very difficult for us to refuse,” says Luo. This is the daily struggle that she and her team of volunteers at UFCO face. UFCO is the non-for-profit branch of United Family Hospitals (UFH). Every year UFH donates one percent of their gross revenue to UFCO, which then uses the funds to provide vital life saving surgeries to abandoned and street children. Though Luo believes the surgeries her organization provides are a crucial part of their operation, it’s UFCO’s preventative measures that can make the biggest impact. This is why they are seeking to work more closely with local orphanages to curb health problems before they arise.
Despite state-run orphanages’ best efforts, many are understaffed and their staff under trained. UFCO wants to focus the bulk of their resources on these deficiencies. In many rural orphanages the staff do not wash their hands, sterilize baby bottles, or provide children with immunizations. “The most difficult part is the educational aspect. Teaching people to wash their hands might be basic knowledge, but it’s not practiced,” says Luo. UFCO’s volunteer nutritionist visits their sponsored orphanage in Jiaozuo, Henan province, four times a year to weigh the children and ensure that they are receiving proper care. During these visits, they dispense infant formula donated by Abbott Laboratories. If not for these visits, the orphans would have to drink watered-down goat’s milk which lacks the nutritional value infants need.
The lack of basic medical services reflects a larger problem. “It becomes a public health issue. In one season, we can care for 200 to 500 children easily,” says Luo. In an effort to prevent serious health issues before they become a problem for the public health system, UFCO runs an immunization program for street and migrant children who are susceptible to diseases such as hepatitis.
Despite their work with these communities, Luo insists that UFCO has no intention of going outside their role as a health care provider. “We don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” says Luo. With limited funds, UFCO cannot afford to provide more holistic care; instead they focus strictly on providing medical services, leaving other aspects to the experts.
Bill Moody, the chief volunteer physician at Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village in the outskirts of Anwei, north of Beijing, moved to China four years ago. Unlike UFCO, which simply provides the means for children to receive much needed surgeries and medical care, Shepherd’s Field works in cooperation with local orphanages to provide comprehensive foster care for children with physical and medical disabilities. Shepherd’s Field was established by the Philip Hayden Foundation and provides housing, clothing, food and education to every child in their care. The local government was so moved by the organization’s work that they sold them the six-acre lot for RMB 1.
After relocating his family from California, Moody and his wife, who is also a doctor, have planted firm roots at Shepherd’s Field. Moody’s teenage sons, who are now fluent in Mandarin, act as translators for their parents as they navigate the maze of cultural transactions and medical care.
In the current economic crisis, organizations such as Shepherd’s Field are suffering from a severe lack of resources. With the bulk of their funding obtained solely through donations, “every day is a faith walk,” says Moody.
With a shortage of funds and medical specialists, many orphans must wait until they are adopted to undergo treatment in their new home countries. According to Moody, “If a child has a neurological problem, there are no treatments available that will help them in this country.” When faced with the daunting task of providing medical care to physically and mentally disabled children, Moody says, “Our expectations of what we can do for these kids has to be a little lower.”
Often orphans are abandoned due to a cleft lip or palate (a condition considered relatively minor in the West) because surgery to remedy the birth defect is either unavailable or unobtainable in China. Another common problem is that parents are given incorrect information about the severity of their child’s defect and believe it is incurable. This is tragic, especially considering that most abandoned children could be perfectly healthy after undergoing a simple treatment.
Shepherd’s Field is often at full capacity. The total population rests at around one hundred children, of which approximately 30 are adopted every year. According to Matthew Winn, director of operations at Shepherd’s Field, 80 percent of the children they’ve fostered have found an adoptive family. Winn says that families who wish to adopt a child from China can receive a child with special needs in a fraction of the time required to receive a healthy child. As a result, international adoption agencies openly encourage families who are on the waiting list to consider children with mild to moderate special needs. The unsung heroes of orphan care are the private individuals who work in cooperation with foster homes and orphanages to provide personal one-to-one care. One such woman is Teresa Woo, who runs the Ping An Medical Foster Home. Established with her own funds and donations from the expat community, Woo’s operation has grown from one room in her apartment to two properties in inner-city Beijing where she currently employs seven ayis to care for ten babies. Woo takes on the hard cases and works directly with hospitals and fundraisers, such as UFCO, to ensure each child receives the best medical care possible. She prides herself on being able to provide pre- and post- op care on a small scale, making the environment as close to a real home as possible.
Like the situation at Shepherd’s Field, babies with cleft lip and palate are common at Ping An, but Woo also cares for children with more severe disabilities and birth defects. Sitting cross-legged on a playmat, Woo tickles a tiny baby girl on her tummy. She explains that this girl has recently had open-heart surgery. Pulling the infant’s top down slightly, she reveals a large red scar on the baby’s chest. Now in post-op care, Woo has taken it upon herself to make sure this baby recovers fully so that she has the best possible chance of adoption. Other children in Woo’s care include a baby boy with a “cup hand” (one of his hands is bent above the wrist at a 90 degree angle towards his body) who is recovering from a successful operation to remove a blockage in his esophagus. Before the operation he was unable to eat anything and was at serious risk of dying from malnutrition. He’s now a giant bundle of a baby thanks to the food he’s finally able to keep down.
Portraits of children Woo nursed to health and successfully helped adopt out cover her living room walls. They are now happy, healthy, and surrounded by their new families. Woo helps around 30 children a year get adopted into new families, mostly in the US. She keeps in contact with them whenever possible and even visits them on her return trips to the States. Woo’s living room is an example of what one person can do to give a child a brighter future. She hopes to see each of these babies’ faces in one of the many family portraits that are sent to her every year.
The organizations mentioned in this piece rely solely on private funding and donations. You can help by offering your time, money, or even donating old clothes and toys.
United Foundation of Chinese Orphans
Ping An Medical Foster Home
8736 7464 or 138 0111 0878
Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village
+22 2219 0708