By Susan Rosegrant
Darren Kreps holds up a small flowered purse stuffed with coins. “Mama! Too heavy!” he shouts. Then, round face intent, he tosses the purse into the air. When it hits the ground with an explosion of coins, he looks surprised, and then cracks up laughing.
Not unusual behavior for a small boy who recently turned 4. Unless you consider that a mere nine weeks earlier doctors were cutting open Darren’s chest to correct a jumble of heart defects. And that 79 days before that, Darren was meeting the woman he calls Mama for the first time. And that he spoke no English, because his only home had been an orphanage in China.
Less than five months in all, but utterly life changing for a boy and his new family of eight.
* * * * *
Erik and Sandy Kreps had never considered an international adoption. The Brighton couple, who fell in love in high school, already had four biological children ranging from 8 to 16, and two children, 5 and 7, adopted in the United States. It was a big family, made bigger by the Kreps’ belief that giving kids a home was a way to fulfill God’s will.
But after their adoption of a baby boy from Detroit fell through early last year, Sandy knew she wanted another child. Trolling through an adoption blog in March 2012, she saw Darren. He was 3, with short-cropped hair and a straightforward and serious gaze, and he had heart defects that would eventually kill him if he didn’t get the right operation, an operation that wouldn’t happen in China. “His face just stood out to me,” Sandy says. “And then we started investigating.”
Erik, a financial specialist at ISR’s Survey Research Center, says he warned Sandy to be cautious. The average Chinese adoption runs $30,000. The paperwork requirements were crushing. And if Darren’s heart turned out to be inoperable, how would his decline and death affect their six other children—not to mention the two of them?
And yet… “We’re sitting over here with one of the best cardiology units in the entire world for children,” Erik remembers thinking. “And there’s a legendary doctor [at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital] in Edward Bove—who’s been a pioneer in all sorts of heart surgeries for kids. Let’s see if we can get Darren over here.”
Sandy and Erik took it a step at a time. They filled out forms. They sent Darren’s medical files to doctors to review. When Dr. Bove, who had recently performed his 10,000th cardiac surgery, requested a new echocardiogram, they got the orphanage to do another. They turned to family, friends, and their church to help with bake sales and other fundraising. Each step led to another. But to their surprise, the barriers kept falling.
In November 2012, Sandy and her oldest daughter, Madeline, 13, flew to Tokyo, then Hong Kong, and then boarded a train for the city of Guangzhou in southern China. Other than occasional drives to Canada, it was the first time they’d left the country.
At Guangzhou’s Civil Affairs Office, in a room tense with other parents who had come to adopt, and sprinkled with small stunned boys and girls, they met Darren. “They essentially just hand you your child and give you a few little details and you’re on your own,” Sandy says, still amazed by the abruptness of the transition. “You head back to the hotel and you have this child.”
Monday was “Gotcha” day, as Sandy put it; the day Darren joined their family. On Friday they traveled two hours to the orphanage at Sandy’s request so Darren could say a proper goodbye. Posters brightened the inside of the cement-block structure, but there was peeling paint, puddles on the floor, and row after row of cribs. “He was glad to be back there to say goodbye,” Erik says, “but he didn’t want Sandy to set him back down.” Six days later, after more paperwork and medical tests, they were on an airplane heading back to Michigan.
The shock of going to a new home is often traumatic for an adopted child. Erik says he expected hitting, kicking, maybe biting. Instead, Darren took in the world with unending curiosity. To soothe himself, he clutched a water bottle, even taking it to bed. (He soon replaced the water bottle with a toy car or truck.) He bonded tightly with Sandy, wanting to be carried at all times. His six new siblings accepted him. “It seems like he has been born into our family,” Sandy says.
But as the weeks passed, Darren was already getting weaker. Fortunately, Sandy and Erik had gotten the news they had hoped for: Darren’s heart defects were operable. “When we first got him, he could go up the stairs and just be breathing very heavily,” Erik recalls. “By the end—he was with us two months before surgery—he wouldn’t go up the stairs. He would wait for us to carry him. He’d get tired even eating.”
Darren had open heart surgery on February 6—a complex operation known as the double-switch. The left ventricle and atrium were functioning as the right, and the right ventricle and atrium as the left, so doctors had to transpose them. There were also holes to patch between the atria and the ventricles to stop the constant mixing of oxygenated and non-oxygenated blood that was leaving him breathless.
After the operation, Darren was kept in an induced coma for three days. “This wall of machines was keeping him alive,” Erik says. His recovery after that at first felt maddeningly slow. There was fluid on his lungs that wouldn’t clear, his oxygen levels were still low, and he was barely eating. And then Darren began to bounce back. “Monday [five days after surgery] the occupational therapist comes, and he can’t even sit up on his own,” Sandy says. “Friday night he is running down the hall. I am chasing him with his oxygen tank. It is incredible.” In all, Darren was in the hospital 16 days. The operation cost $270,000, but was covered by insurance.
These days, Darren looks and acts like an entirely healthy boy. He understands 99 percent of what they say, Sandy says, and speaks English in complete sentences.
Darren will need more surgeries down the road as he outgrows the blood-channeling conduit that doctors placed in his chest. But for now he is off all medications and won’t need another checkup for six months. He pulls up his shirt to reveal his chest scar, and when an English-speaking visitor haltingly says “hen piaoliang”—Chinese for “very pretty”—he laughs loudly at this silliness.
“We can’t get enough of his laughing,” Sandy says. “It’s so good for the heart.”