Cristian was abandoned in a hospital in rural Romania shortly after birth. He lived for 5 years in extremely harsh conditions in this institution in the poorest region of Romania. Heat, medicine, blankets and food were always in short supply. For years, only two women cared for over thirty children at the hospital. Thus, nurturing and affection were not part of Cristian’s life. Cristian spent his days lying in a crib absent love or therapy.
I first met Cristian while volunteering for two weeks in the hospital. He was four years old. At that time he was unable to speak, he resisted being touched and, when I watched others try to hug him, I realized he did not know how to give or receive a hug. He didn’t know how to play with toys…only use them to bang against a wall. At least the sound and feel of the banging gave him some relief from the sensory deprivation he was suffering as a result of neglect. At four, the staff still fed him from a bottle. In short, not a single need (emotional, cognitive, physical, developmental, nutritional, etc.) of Cristian’s was being met. Yet during the two weeks I spent with Cristian, I saw in him a spark that, for me, was unforgettable. I saw the potential for intelligence and joy, along with a desire to communicate.
In September of 2000, Dr. Stephen Mott, Chief of the Division of Child Neurology and Medical Director of the Child Development Center , Georgetown Medical Center , recommended Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which was not available in Romania . With the support of my employer, The New York Times, I took a six-month leave of absence to go to Romania to work with Cristian. I studied and trained in ABA therapy with Tracy Pierce Woodall, an ABA therapy expert. Tracy visited Romania to continue training me, as well as a group of interested Romanians, for a week.
While living in Romania , I spent the first four months with Cristian doing ABA therapy, six hours per day, seven days per week. Under my care, he began to accomplish things no one believed possible — he learned to feed and dress himself, to communicate his needs with words, to follow complex directions, and to use the toilet. It was exhausting and often frustrating, but it was a labor of love. With my leave of absence more than halfway over, however, I needed to find a more nurturing environment for him than the hospital where he was institutionalized. I succeeded in placing Cristian in foster care with the wonderful support of Bridge of Love . I hired two young women to replace me in administering Cristian’s ABA therapy from 10am-6pm every day.
Cristian’s progress continued, strong and steady. Though he did not speak until he was 6 years old, in his 6th year he achieved sentences in his native Romanian as long and complex as, “Irina, I want the red lollipop and the thick white book on the floor, please.” In just a year and a half, Cristian had gone from the equivalent, in most ways, of a sixth month old…to a little boy, though one with delays.
Back in New York , Tracy was making plans to return. Her heart had been touched by the plight of the other six special needs children she met on that trip. An email arrived one day from Tracy as I sat in my Barlad apartment asking is I thought she might be able to open a school in Romania ? I was ecstatic and together we made it happen. This was the first of two emails that would change my life dramatically. In July 2001 Tracy returned to that remote corner of Barlad and fulfilled a dream and a promise. We opened Cristi’s Outreach Foundation (named for Cristian who inspired it), an ABA school for special needs children. Eleven Romanian therapists were hired and trained.
That July Tracy arrived in Barlad with 5 huge suitcases filled with toys and supplies. For our special needs kids who have often been those most left out…it was as if Santa had arrived. Perhaps “she” had. Tracy brought them one of the greatest gifts of all…the opportunity to learn and communicate…and she did it all with laughter, hugs, kisses and toys.
Cristian’s progress was featured on 20/20 on June 2001. I pleaded with the audience of millions that I knew would be watching for one of them to become his family, to adopt him. But fate had different plans for Cristian and me. A moratorium on adoptions existed in Romania. The day before I was to leave Romania after my six-month stay to return home, I received the second email that would change my life. It was as unexpected as the first. Despite the moratorium the email said, the writer believed I could get Cristian out of Romania and to his “forever family” in the US. But there was one huge catch…I must be the adopted family.
On December 14, 2002 , my mother and I brought Cristian, my adopted son and her grandson, home. Cristian is now receiving ABA Therapy in New York City. He continues to make remarkable progress and can now communicate his wants in English. He has a vivid imagination, loving spending his time pretending himself in many roles. This week he has been a doctor, a fireman, an astronaut, a parachuter, a sailor in a submarine, a hammerhead shark, a man at a restaurant, and, his latest interest, “first a boy growing, growing, growing….a man.” He loves books and being sung to. This week he began singing, spontaneously, for the first time in his life. He attended camp for a month this summer and enjoyed a gym class last winter and spring….all with normally developing children. He is learning to ride a bike, having mastered the swings and swimming. This fall, he’ll also attend a music, art and gymnastics class. His repertoire of words is quite sophisticated, reflecting his interest in the complex. Ask him to name five body parts and you won’t hear him say the usual “eyes, nose, mouth, etc.” Instead he’s likely to include in his list “esophagus, veins, windpipe, ribs, etc.”
New York City has proved a wonderful environment for Cristian’s insatiable curiosity. The Museum of Natural History , the circus, children’s theater performances, Central Park and its carousel and the Empire State Building have all delighted him. He also loved visiting Grandma and Grandpa “at the beach” where they spend most of the winter. Need a taxi? Cristian will raise his arm at the curb and call, “Taxi!”
Cristian has a traumatic past to overcome, and we feel it is up to us to earn his trust and love. We are intent everyday on fulfilling that promise.