“This is fun Mommy!” Anna Kate, dressed as Princess Jasmine, held tightly to her brothers’ hands. (She wasn’t wearing her leg braces; they didn’t match her royal garb.) With her plastic pumpkin swinging from her arm, Anna Kate headed to the next house, dragging her brothers along.
International adoption had always appealed to Mark and Traci Willis. They had two biological sons; still, they longed to bring home a child from far away. They enrolled with an adoption agency and eventually received a referral for a Russian baby girl. Their boys, Connor and Lane, then four and seven years old, anxiously awaited their little sister’s homecoming. In June 2003, thirteen-month-old Anna Kate Willis came home.
“Meet our little serena,” Traci said to Dr. Amy, the pediatrician who had treated the Willis kids for years. (Serena is Russian for princess.) “We’re excited, but concerned,” Traci began. “Anna Kate has some physical delays. She’s over a year old and she can’t sit up, much less crawl or walk.” Dr. Amy watched Anna Kate as she listened to her mommy. “But she surely is feisty. We’re amazed by her determination, by her spirit.”
Dr. Amy completed her examination, agreeing with Traci’s concerns. “She’ll need to go to the Developmental Evaluation Center (DEC) for a thorough assessment.” She paused, her brow furrowed. “And, her head is small.” She wrote her diagnosis on the office form. “But, you know, she’s spent the first year of her life in an orphanage with minimal attention or affection.” Dr. Amy’s voice brightened. She reached over, caressing the back of Anna Kate’s head. “Let’s just see what a loving family can do for her.”
“Microcephaly.” Traci typed the word into the search engine. She had deciphered Dr. Amy’s writing and wanted to learn more. She glanced over at her brave little girl and back at the screen. “Microcephaly: a medical condition in which the circumference of the head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or has stopped growing.” The condition could cause mental retardation, convulsions, and worst of all, shortened life span. And we were only worried about her crawling late, Traci thought as she processed the overwhelming news.
“Anna Kate is significantly delayed developmentally,” Mark and Traci learned at the DEC. “Her gross motor skills are at the developmental stage of a child less than half her age.” The DEC prescribed weekly physical therapy and referred her to a pediatric orthopedist. “Have her brothers rough house a little with her,” the orthopedist told Mark and Traci. “That will help her muscles develop.”
“Cool!” Connor said when he heard the news. “You mean just by playing with her, we can help Anna Kate get better?”
“That’s what the doctors tell us.” Traci watched as Connor got on all fours and crawled over to his sister lying on a blanket.
“Come on Anna Kate! Let’s wrestle.” Connor often kept her company but had previously resisted physical play.
“Be careful,” Lane warned, “Be gentle with her.” Lane, the firstborn, was extra cautious with his little sister.
“Oh, she’s tough, aren’t you Anna Kate?” Connor rolled her over into a bear hug as Anna Kate giggled in agreement, embracing her playmate.
All that love and attention must have made a difference. Because, although Anna Kate was still classified as microcephalic, her head circumference showed an increase each time it was measured. Her muscles were becoming stronger too. However, at two years old, despite leg braces, ankle surgeries, and physical therapy, Anna Kate was not walking. But she wasn’t giving up either. “She’s got quite a temper,” Traci often said, “but not about her disabilities. When she falls, she just tries again. And again. It’s remarkable really.”
“Developmentally, she is still way behind in her motor skills,” the DEC technician said at her 2004 appointment, “but let’s talk about her verbal skills.”
“Mommy, what are verbal skills?”
“Exactly!” The technician laughed. “We would expect Anna Kate’s language skills to be delayed because she was born prematurely in another country. But she’s been here only fourteen months, and her vocabulary matches that of an American-born child several months older than she is. Anna Kate’s cognitive functions are advanced too. You’ve got a bright little girl here.” Ecstatic, Mark and Traci celebrated by explaining the news to their very curious serena. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Amy made it official, “Anna Kate’s head circumference is now within normal range!”
Months ticked by and Anna Kate kept trying to improve her motor skills with what appeared to be little progress. Doctors mentioned a possible diagnosis of cerebral palsy. At two and a half years old though, Anna Kate took her first independent steps. She walked on tiptoes, shifting her weight clumsily from side to side—but no doubt about it, Anna Kate was walking. With a proud smile, she walked across the room from her Daddy into her Mommy’s arms, “I did it Mommy, I did it!” Her brothers rushed in offering hugs and high fives while her parents breathed thankful prayers. “I do it again!” she said turning back to her Daddy, arms open wide.
Even so, it turned out that the doctors had been right: later that month, in November 2004, the cerebral palsy diagnosis was confirmed. Anna Kate remains determined though. It’s as if she fought her way out of a far-away orphanage so that she could have a chance at a full life. When Anna Kate first came home, her feisty temperament hinted at the depth and strength of her spirit. In time, she showed not only a fighter’s grit, but also the joyful expectation of a seasoned victor.
“Look at all my candy, Mommy!” Anna Kate held out her pumpkin for inspection, but didn’t wait for a response. “Hey, bros,” she called to her brothers who were only steps away. “Wait for me!” And off she went, a serena on tiptoe, to join brothers who were waiting to hold her hands.