A miraculous story I recently saw on NBC’s Today show has me thinking about the brain and what it means to be adopted. You may have seen or heard about this beautiful story. A pregnant couple, Kate and David Ogg, were in the hospital because Kate was giving birth to their twin boy and girl prematurely at 27 weeks. Shortly after delivery, the doctor let the mom and dad know their little girl, Emily was fine, but that their little boy, Jamie had died. The infant boy was brought into the couple for them to say their goodbyes. After two hours of holding their son, he opened his eyes — alive!
In the Today interview, Kate spoke about holding Jamie skin-to-skin, calling him by name, stroking him and letting him know his twin sister was safe. She very movingly said:
“…they come out of you and all of a sudden there isn’t the warmth or the smell of their mother or the sound of her heartbeat and so putting him back on my chest was as close as he could have been to being inside of me where he was last safe.”
I believe the key phrase here is “where he was last safe.”
I am imagining how un-safe — even traumatic — an emergency, premature delivery would be for a child at 27 weeks. Taken from the dark warmth of his mother’s womb and separated from his twin sister, entering the world via a brightly lit, cold, sterile smelling, noisy operating room. In just moments going from complete and familiar safety to the extreme conditions of an emergency operating room — well, that certainly could feel threatening and dangerous.
It is interesting to wonder what part little infant Jamie’s brain stem played in his ordeal. The brain stem, which is well developed at birth, helps to regulate heart and lungs. Certainly if the doctor had declared him dead, his heart and lungs must have appeared to not be operating. The brain stem also regulates aspects of our fight-flight-freeze response. A freeze response is stimulated in the face of extreme danger with the possibility of perceived death. It shuts the body down — slowing the heartbeat and breath — to help the body prepare for attack and death. Keeping the heart rate down will help to slow down any bleeding. From an evolutionary point of view, the brain stem serves to feign death because often a predator will not kill an already dead animal. Anyone who has ever seen a cat drop a dead mouse on the floor only to see the mouse quickly scurry away to safety has witnesses the brain stem’s freeze response in action.
I do not believe it is out of the question to say that little infant Jamie’s brain stem was protecting him from the trauma of his birth, sense of extreme danger and possibility of imminent death. This is what I believe his mother Kate may have intuitively been feeling when they brought her dead son into her — just as she said on the Today show — he needed to feel safe again.
Now, what does this all have to do with adoption? Recently I was with a group of adoptive families. Many had adopted their children well beyond birth and were discussing some of the wounds their children suffered as a result of living in orphanages or in the foster system. Some of the parents of children adopted at birth expressed that they did not believe their children had suffered any kind of trauma since they were present at their child’s birth. My hope is that Kate and David Ogg’s story of baby Jamie will help adoptive parents of all aged children recognize and honor the traumatic nature of any child being taken away from its mother at birth. I believe many adopted children long suffer the early trauma of this for years as many of their adoptive parents do not recognize such separation from their birth mother’s as having any impact on their children. Adoption is a wonderful way to start and have a family. The more open and honest we as adoptive parents can be to the experience of our children before they became ours — at any age — the more emotional balance I believe they can have. To recognize that our children suffered this early trauma, to help them make sense of this early part of their life is a wonderful gift to give all adopted children.