CHICAGO — An outraged Janet Agranoff watched in 1996 as “60 Minutes” aired a report about “dying rooms” in Chinese orphanages, where infants and toddlers — most of them girls — were left to starve. When the report ended, the obstetrician-turned-stay-at-home-mom looked at her husband and said, “We’re going to China.”
The Chicago couple, who already had a teenager, knew they didn’t need a child who was perfect. And because both were trained as doctors, they felt could handle the challenges of caring for a child with medical needs.
And so, in 1998, they went to China and came home with Lily, a toddler who had a heart defect. Two years later, they went back for Maggie, who was said to be deaf. Then came Mei Lynn, who needed open-heart surgery, and later Nora, who has spina bifida.
Now, life is a whirl of activity.
Each of the girls has gotten the surgery and medication that largely resolved their health problems. Today, Lily, 18, is an accomplished musician who starts college in the fall. Maggie, 16, swims varsity on her high school team. Mei Lynn, 14, runs cross country, and Nora, 11, dreams of becoming a writer.
“I’m a pediatrician because I think I can make a difference in kids’ lives,” said Janet’s husband, Todd Ochs, 63. “But what I’ve learned is that it’s one kid at a time. Big policies and programs, that’s not where change takes place.”
Instead, change takes place in their tree-lined backyard, where at the foot of their basketball hoop, Todd gives lessons in the fine art of the layup. In the kitchen, Janet demonstrates how to bake fresh bread. On the front sidewalk, the older kids taught the younger ones how to ride bikes.
The big house on Winchester Street always seemed to have room for one more. Janet’s 94-year old mother moved in two years ago. An exchange student from Thailand arrived in the fall. And a teenage friend of Lily’s is also staying, temporarily, on the second floor.
Amid the daily comings and goings, a shaggy rescue dog named Fifi romps through the kitchen and a retired greyhound runs laps in the backyard. Not long ago, Janet looked in a closet and discovered a rabbit that the girls had been hiding for several months in the attic.
It is a life that 64-year-old Janet says she could have once never imagined.
“Twenty years ago, if you said to me, ‘When you are in your 60s, you’re going to have five children and all these animals,’” she says, “I would have said, ‘You’re nuts.’”
When Janet gave birth to a beautiful girl named Anna in 1981, she and Todd thought that the baby would be their only child.
Janet had suffered from a second-trimester miscarriage two years before, and her pregnancy with Anna hadn’t been easy. Seven months in, Anna had stopped growing. She was born by emergency C-section, at 32 weeks, weighing just 3 pounds.
What’s more, both Janet and Todd were busy with demanding medical careers. Janet ran an obstetrics practice at Ravenswood Hospital. And Todd was in the middle of a residency at Cook County Hospital, and later joined a pediatrics practice in Chicago.
For a decade, they did the dual-career juggle.
But in 1992, Janet decided to opt out and become a stay-at-home mom. Not long after, came the episode of “60 Minutes.”
They were in their mid-40s. Janet had more time, and Todd, an only child, had always wanted a big family.
“We’re both impulsive people,” Janet says. “And I thought, ‘Gee, you know, I can probably handle another child now.’ And Todd was like, ‘OK. Let’s do it.’”
Two years later, they brought home Lily, a toddler who had been born with a relatively minor cardiac defect called patent ductus arteriosus. In the United States, the condition is easily fixed with surgery. But in China, where specialized healthcare is not widely available, Lily was dying of heart failure.
A beautiful girl with a big head and a tiny body, she ate constantly but didn’t grow. At 3 years old, she weighed just 19 pounds, the average weight for a 10-month-old. Her heart was so enlarged that, “if you touched her chest, it felt like a motor,” Janet says.
Back in Chicago, Todd and Janet got their new daughter the surgery needed to fix her heart. Then they stood back and watched her bloom. In the span of 12 months, the tiny girl grew a foot.
Fearless, she launched herself at the playground, leaping onto the monkey bars. She had such a sweet and generous disposition, that Todd and Janet could only marvel at their luck.
Their older daughter Anna, then 16, orchestrated elaborate games of dress-up and clearly enjoyed the adoration of her new little sister who followed her everywhere.
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It wasn’t long before Todd began to talk about adopting a second child.
“Anna is going away to college soon, and Lily really likes having a sister,” he said.
In the winter of 1999, they brought home Maggie, a strong and compact girl with short dark hair and a mischievous personality. The orphanage had described her as deaf. But when Todd and Janet met Maggie in China, she was talking, joking and playfully reaching out to tickle other children and adults. She clearly wasn’t deaf.
Was the paperwork wrong? Had someone tried to prevent Maggie’s adoption by describing her as disabled? Todd and Janet would never know.
“It didn’t matter,” Janet said. “We were taking her home.”
In Chicago, their house was suddenly filled with toys and trikes.
Lily grew into an affectionate child who was quick to share, while Maggie was a joker who tried to cut off Lily’s pigtails.
“They were so fun to be around,” says Janet. “Once we got Maggie, I realized that, in many ways, having more than one was easier because they entertain each other.”
On a vacation to China in 2001, the family visited the orphanage where Lily had spent the early part of her life. There were so many children that Janet wanted to pull up a truck and bring them all home.
Back in Chicago, she and Todd gently broached the topic of finding another child. Lily and Maggie didn’t hesitate.
“Let’s adopt another!” they said.
The family learned about a 3-year-old who needed open-heart surgery — a grueling process for anyone, much less a toddler.
Todd urged caution. But Janet felt drawn to the story of the little girl, who had been abandoned at the gates of a British orphanage.
Janet promised that she would read the medical records. Most importantly, she said, “I’m not going to look at the picture.”
She opened the medical file. On the third page, she saw a picture. In it, a dark-haired toddler, with big cheeks and shy, sweet expression, smiles for the camera. In her arms, she held a knitted bear.
Janet made the decision right there. She called Todd at work and said: “We’re taking this child.”
Todd wasn’t surprised, and he didn’t argue. “I trusted Janet,” he says. “She really thought that this was the right thing to do. And it turns out, she was right.”
They brought home Mei Lynn in the fall of 2002, and took her to Children’s Hospital for the six-hour open-heart surgery. When she was released, doctors told Janet not to let her run for six weeks. “That meant six weeks of chasing after her and saying, ‘Don’t run!’” Janet recalls.
By this time, Todd had learned much about the adoption community in Chicago. As part of his pediatric practice, he began reviewing medical records for families who were considering adopting from overseas.
Life hasn’t always been easy. All the girls wonder about their birth families. They’ve struggled with feelings of anger and loss. Because each was abandoned, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever know more.
Still, they’ve learned lessons about what a family is, and what a family can be.
“I feel like I was given a second chance by coming here,” says Lily, the oldest of the adopted girls, who has since become, according to Janet, “the glue that holds them all together.”