When kids adopted from abroad suffer mysterious illnesses,
their parents turn to Dr. Jane Aronson
The next day she and a team of physicians got down to their mission: They examined 200 children from toddler to teens - many malnourished and chronically ill - hoping to find some who could be made healthy and ready for adoption. Aronson eventually helped salvage at least 68 kids, of whom 16 went to American families. One preschooler was adopted by a colleague at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., where Aronson, 4, was then chief of pediatric infectious diseases. "I went back with her and her husband to get him," she says. "It was a moving moment in my life."
In adoption circles Jane Aronson is known simply as the Orphan Doctor.
From all over the country frantic parents seek her help, as if consulting
a master detective. For Aronson has a unique ability to solve the medical
mysteries presented by children adopted from around the globe. The number
of overseas placements with U.S. families has doubled in the past 10 years
-- some 18,000 took place last year -- largely because there are more
foreign infants and toddlers immediately available. Some of these children
are plucked from the Dickensian squalor of places like Siret. Other orphanages,
although more humane, are still breeding grounds for diseases rarely found
in American youngsters -- rickets, tuberculosis and even polio. Aronson
has visited dozens of those institutions, deriving special insight into
the ailments that take root in them. "The good news," she says,
"is that many of these problems can be resolved with proper nutrition
and early intervention."
"She is just tireless," says Sharon Kaufman, executive director
of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, the largest
association of licensed nonprofit international adoption agencies. Now
practicing privately, Aronson is among scarcely a dozen experts in the
young field of international adoption medicine. Over the past nine years
she has traveled to seven countries, treated 1,800 adoptees and evaluated
thousands of orphans for would-be parents. In 1997 she founded the nonprofit
Worldwide Orphans Foundation, devoted to improving conditions at orphanages
around the globe.
One of Aronson's many success stories is that of 3-year old Vietnamese
orphan Evan Sievers of Bedford, N.Y. From the time he could walk, he had
dragged his left leg. His adoptive parents, Drew, 36, an Internet executive,
and Ally, 39, a homemaker, saw numerous specialists, to no avail. Last
winter Ally went to an adoption gathering in Manhattan. "Someone
said, 'There's the Orphan Doctor,'" says Ally. Gingerly, she approached
Aronson, who agreed to look at the case. Her conclusion: Evan's limp was
probably caused by a polio vaccine that had induced either nerve damage
or the disease itself. She recommended aggressive treatment, and today
after surgery, Evan is walking properly. Aronson never sent a bill.
That wouldn't surprise her colleagues. "It's definitely a calling
for her," says Dr. Jerri Jenista of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in
Ann Arbor, Mich., also an expert in the field. Adds Dr. Dana Johnson,
director of the University of Minnesota's International Adoption Clinic:
"She is doing this with her heart."
These days Aronson takes her job more personally than ever.
Last year the openly gay pediatrician and her partner, Diana Leo, 55,
adopted Benjamin, a Vietnamese orphan now 18 months old. "I'm crazy
about him," Aronson says, noting that the experience has deepened
her private and professional lives. Leo agrees. "Having Ben,"
she says, "has taught her even more about being a doctor."
A doctor is what Aronson always wanted to be. Raised in suburban Franklin
Square, N.Y. -- the younger child of Selma, 79, a retired schoolteacher,
and Harold, a grocer who died in 1990 -- she was enthralled by her great-uncle
Dr. Joseph Aronson, renowned for his treatment of tuberculosis, and dreamed
of following in his footsteps. But her road to medical school would be
riddled with detours. "I was plagued by insecurity and a lack of
confidence," Aronson says After high school she attended Manhattan's
Hunter College part-time and at 25 earned her degree in biology and psychology.
Six more years passed before the entered the University of Medicine and
Dentistry of New Jersey, during which time she paid the bills working
as a carpenter, photographer, teacher and bartender.
Resolved to help, Aronson started the Orphan Rangers in 1997. Part of
her Worldwide Orphans Foundation, it's a brigade of volunteer health-care
professionals and grad students who travel to orphanages around the world
in the hope of improving conditions. Still, there was a huge void in Aronson's
life. She'd always wanted a child, but her partner had balked at adopting.
The couple split amicably after 18 years in July 1999. A few weeks later
Aronson applied to adopt a Vietnamese child. In January 2000 she met Leo,
senior director of development at New York Law School and the single mother
of a 13-year-old daughter she had adopted in infancy. They exchanged rings
and found an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Then, as she was
en route to work on June 12, Aronson's cell phone rang: A child was waiting
"I cried," she recalls. "I couldn't believe I was really
going to have a little boy." She and Leo flew to Vietnam that August.
Like so many adopted orphans, 4-month-old Ben was overwhelmed by the attention
and withdrew. "He couldn't make eye contact," says Leo. After
a few months, however, he began to show affection. Ben calls Leo "Mommy"
and Aronson "Mama." The women split parental duties. Around
6 a.m. "Diana gives him his bottle, changes his diaper and plays
with him," says Aronson, who then makes breakfast and plays with
Ben some more. Now, she speaks from experience when counseling prospective
"You're going to be extremely tired - it's hard work taking care
of a baby," Aronson warns a couple preparing to fetch their new son
from Moscow. "Share the burden. Don't be a martyr." Later she
reflects on her clientele. "Most of them are very nice people who
want what everyone wants -- the American dream, a kid who will have a
happy life," Aronson says. "But some are in what I would call
a Bloomingdale's frame of mind. They ask, 'Where can I get the best kid?
What's the best orphanage?' I tell them there is no best orphanage. You
can find lovely babies everywhere in the world - lovely delicious children
in the midst of chaos."
|This page last updated March 5, 2008 5:03 PM EST|