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A story of survival

When Johanna Overstreet and her husband decided to adopt a child with medical needs, they were prepared for it to be a difficult process, but believed they were capable of providing a home for a child who would need constant treatment. “We had sought to adopt a medical needs child, since my training as a nurse allowed us to handle things others might be scared to take on,” Johanna explains.

When a young boy in India who had severe hemophilia B was put up for international adoption they began the long adoption process and faced particular challenges due to his having hemophilia. Overstreet is a trained nurse, and her husband has von Willebrand disease, so they were confident they could provide everything that the little boy, named Chetan, would need in a family, but there was little precedent for the adoption. “India had never placed a child with hemophilia for adoption. We were interviewed by the embassy and there was an article in the Times, it was a really big deal for them to be placing him,” she says.

A Rough Start in Life

Born in India, Chetan’s mother died in childbirth, leaving his father to raise two young children on an impossibly low salary. Despite the difficult circumstances he made an effort to take care of his children. In the first years of Chetan’s life his father placed him in a nursery school, the Indian equivalent to daycare, where he was kept in a crib for the majority of the time. Despite a lack of activity it quickly became apparent that Chetan had medical issues as he visited the hospital six times from the age of 20 months to just before his third birthday, often with a cut lip or a nose bleed that would not stop. Eventually, two months before he turned three, a doctor noticed what appeared to be a joint bleed in his toe and it led to the blood test that showed a severe factor IX deficiency—hemophilia B.

The doctor told his father that Chetan would need treatment for the rest of his life. “He was told he would need to take Chetan to the hospital once or twice a month for fresh frozen plasma as it was the only treatment available,” Overstreet explains.

The prognosis from the doctor made Chetan’s father decide that he had no choice but to give him up to Ashraya orphanage in hopes of placing him with a family that could afford to care for him properly. Within a week of being released from the hospital, Chetan was surrendered to the orphanage. His father was so distraught by giving up his son that he had to be carried from the building.

Chetan spent months in the orphanage with his father calling every few weeks to get news on whether he had found a home. When it was confirmed that a family from America was to take him in, he never phoned again. That was the last anyone has heard from Chetan’s father, but Overstreet thinks of him often “I believe that he put Chetan in the orphanage to make sure he got the medical treatment he needed,” she says.

Overstreet was concerned about how Chetan was going to be cared for in the six to nine months that the adoption would take as the orphanage had no experience or training dealing with a child with hemophilia. Thankfully, the special needs coordinator for the adoption agency was not only a social worker, but had been a nurse previously. Overstreet explains how she ensured that Chetan would remain as healthy as possible before going to his new family. “She had contacted the Hemophilia Federation of India, who had in turn contacted the World Federation of Hemophilia. They agreed to provide my son with Benefix until he traveled stateside.” Overstreet is confident that the donation saved her son’s life.

As the adoption was nearing completion, Chetan suffered a series of brain bleeds and was taken back to the hospital where he had been treated many times before. The hospital ran the required tests needed to confirm that he was indeed bleeding in his brain and confirmed it with Johanna. She was overwhelmed that a week away from her arriving in Bangalore to bring Chetan home they were facing what she believed to be a worst case scenario. “We had just had the call that he was coming to us and then we got a call saying he was probably going to die. It was pretty much as bad as it could get.”

Or so she thought.

Two days later on December 26, 2004, an earthquake hit just beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra.

The impact was extraordinary. With a magnitude of Mw 9.1–9.3, it was the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. While the earthquake itself was catastrophic, it triggered what is now remembered as one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami destroyed boats, homes, and swept away entire communities in seconds with waves of up to 30 metres (100 feet) high. Fourteen countries were hit, almost 230,000 people were killed and the largest humanitarian aid effort in human history ensued.

But for Overstreet, her only focus was Chetan. The impact of the tsunami was felt across India, and almost immediately communications systems went down. Chetan was not in a region directly hit by the waves but Overstreet knew her son was in the hospital with a critical brain bleed at the time of the tsunami and didn’t know anything else. “I had no idea what was going on. I was sick to my stomach.”

When asked what she felt when she woke up to the news of the devastation in the region she remembers the frustration she felt, “I almost just got on a plane. But I had no idea what my legal status was at that point since the adoption was not complete. And I knew aid agencies from around the world were all heading to the region so I was not sure I would even get a flight.”

A New Life

She waited for a week to hear an update on Chetan. Finally, the phone rang with the news that he was ok and was back at the orphanage where they were preparing all of his medical records for her. Overstreet secured two doses of factor from her local Hemophilia Treatment Centre and left with her husband to bring Chetan home.

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The story of getting Chetan home to the United States is one that features the help of many people that Overstreet has not forgotten, the doctors and nurses at the hospital, the embassy worker who bent the rules to ensure that she and Chetan could get out of the country the same day, the airport doctor who granted Chetan permission to fly knowing that he was in danger but needed to get to a premium care facility as soon as possible and every hour counted.

The story thankfully ends well. Chetan made a complete recovery upon arrival and has had no long-term physical damage as a result of his childhood injuries or bleeds.

“The doctors were stunned to see there was no damage. When they saw his knees when he arrived in America they were sure we were looking at physical therapy, and then within six weeks he had normal mobility,” she says.

Chetan has no memory of being in India; he has no interest returning and has not talked about finding his father. He is good in school and has expressed a desire to be a hematologist. “He knows it will be a lot of work but he wants to show other boys that they can live a normal life,” Overstreet says.

Overstreet still thinks of Chetan’s father. “We’ve tried to go back and find him, we have been unsuccessful. The one thing I’ve wanted to do for ten years was tell this man that this child has a family, that he is thriving, that he is loved.” But there is hope she explains. “The law in India is that at the age of 18, Chetan can go to court and demand that the files be opened.”