Feb 2020 Yakima Herald-Republic
Missa Uhlman, right, adjusts a bone-anchored auditory implant on her son Eli Uhlman, 3, center right, during snack time with the family
When Missa Uhlman and her husband, Matt, decided to adopt a child from China, they had no way of knowing it would reconnect Missa’s own family. Missa is half Chinese. Her father, Kim Jong, moved to China in 2002, where he lives now in Shenzhen, whereas she opted to stay in the United States to continue her work as an audiologist. She wanted to keep the lines of communication open across the oceans, but there came a time when her dad did not respond to her emails. Matt remembered asking, “Do you think he’ll ever talk to you again?” And still — silence.
Meanwhile, the couple continued with their life, raising two sons and hoping to expand their own family. They had been contemplating adoption for a while, weighing options and figuring out their limits, before they agreed to adopt internationally. Missa had specialised training working with hearing loss patients, so the couple checked the box indicating they could accept a child with that special need.
The call came in March 2018. The Uhlmans’ social worker liaison said an orphanage in China’s Hubei province had a little boy with bilaterial microtia and atresia, birth conditions in which the outer parts of his ears hadn’t developed correctly and he lacked ear canals. The Uhlmans were interested. The caseworker sent over the child’s files. After the 48-hour period allowed for review, and much prayer and reflection, the Uhlmans wrote back with a heartfelt yes. Paperwork, background checks, travel arrangements followed. In the midst of the intensive process, Missa heard from a relative. Her father’s silence had not been intentional, the relative said. Due to a technology issue, he hadn’t gotten her emails. Missa downloaded WeChat, a Chinese app that allowed her to reconnect. She messaged him. She told him that she and Matt would be adopting a child from China; and they were headed to the country in the near future. “He was thrilled,” she said.
Shortly after the Uhlmans returned to the United States, they discovered the hearing of their little boy, whom they had renamed Elias, was even worse than what had been reported in his medical file. The first doctor they approached didn’t know what the child needed. But Missa did. The type of advanced technology that Elias needed, called cochlear implants, was an area of expertise for her.
The couple dated for five years before marrying in 2005. They moved to North Carolina, where Missa pursued graduate school and Matt entered medical school. Then onto Iowa, where Missa started her career as an audiologist. She had always been interested in those with hearing loss; in high school, she chose an American Sign Language class as her language elective. When Missa discovered the professionals at the University of Iowa were renowned nationwide for their expertise in cochlear implant technology, she jumped. “It was a new challenge,” she said. “I didn’t have any experience with the implants. But I wanted to learn, and the people I learned from were the best.”
While grateful for the learning opportunities and friendly people in Iowa, the couple couldn’t stand the harsh winters. They moved to Yakima, Matt’s hometown, in 2016. Settling down allowed them to reopen conversations they’d been having, for a while, about adoption. Missa said the church community in North Carolina, which had a strong culture of adoption, first planted the idea in her mind. Stories of successful adoptions from friends the couple had made in Iowa morphed the idea into a possibility. “We knew a shocking number of people who had adopted kids,” Missa said. “It normalised it for us. We knew we wanted to be parents, and there were kids who needed parents.”
Possibility then became probability for Missa. She said, laughing, it took Matt awhile to catch up.
“I think about things silently and mull them over, but once I’ve made a decision I am committed and already 100% down that path,” she said. “He came home from work one day and I said, ‘OK, we are ready to do this.’ And he said, ‘Can we talk about this?’”
After the return plane ride from China to the United States, Missa tried signing to Elias to see if he would respond. She scheduled appointments to learn more about his hearing abilities, but added that “trying to test the hearing of a 2-year-old was fruitless.” She brought up the idea of cochlear implants with Elias’s first doctor and was told he didn’t need them. The couple decided to get a second opinion from the staff at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where a doctor agreed immediately that Elias qualified. “I went in ready for battle, because I had been battling,” Missa said. “It was not like I had Googled a bunch of stuff. This is what I do. But the doctor agreed he needed one. I feel like God put us there in Seattle for a reason, because Eli now has an amazing team.”
Matt Uhlman sways his son, Eli Uhlman, 3, from side to side on his shoulders
Missa said adopting Elias has served to strengthen her faith, and her belief that her own life experiences are adding up to part of a bigger plan. Elias’ first cochlear implant surgery, in September 2019, was successful. Now 31∕2 years old, he is a resilient, rambunctious problem-solver who enjoys toddling around the family’s home in Yakima, playing with toys stacked in a case with his name on it, curiously tracking the screen of a handheld toy, popping up at intervals to shout his name with his hands thrown up in the air. The couple decided to also have him outfitted with a second implant to further help his hearing.
Missa and her father had steady phone and email communication for eight years after he moved to China. They continued emailing sporadically through 2014, when Missa said communication “just kind of dropped off.” She said part of problem might have revolved around Google and Facebook not being as accessible or reliable in China as the sites are in the United States, due to governmental restrictions. But their phone calls stopped as well, given her father’s number had changed at some point though hers had not. “He wasn’t making an effort to restore communication, and he thought I wasn’t either,” she said. “It was a relationship broken due to distance in physical location as well as life circumstance.”
Meanwhile, the couple was narrowing down their adoption options, and decided to adopt internationally. Missa, who considers herself the “dreamer” in the relationship, said she wanted to check all the boxes on the adoption form related to possible medical conditions. She said that Matt, the “grounded” one of the pair, encouraged her to think about what the couple could realistically handle with their boys, who were 4 and 6 years old at the time.
The Uhlmans picked China as their country of choice. Missa realised what a blessing it would be for the child to have an established connection to the country, given her father’s residence there. She decided to try reaching out again. “Once we were officially adopting, I wanted to let him know,” she said. She got her father’s WeChat information from an aunt who had moved to Australia. When she messaged him, around November 2017, she found out he was eager to re-establish the connection as well.
The couple was matched with Elias in March 2018. They agreed to go to get him, as a family unit, in August. The Uhlmans said they’re grateful they decided to bring their boys, as Cyrus and Gabriel helped Elias open up. Elias had been living with a foster mother who clearly had taken good care of him, Missa said. But when the 2-year-old appeared with his caseworker at the civil affairs building, Missa said he was “sad and scared.” “He was a scared and sad little boy, until he saw our other kids playing together,” she said. “He went over and started playing with them, and after that he was one of the crew.” The Uhlmans know that Elias likely will have questions about his biological family when he gets older. Even though the thought of Elias possibly wanting to leave them to find his biological family is scary, they’re prepared to help him find those answers, if possible, Matt said. “These kids need to know they are loved and cared for, but they also need to know that you’ll help them get answers to their questions,” he said. “We’re ready to help him get those answers.” In the meantime, the Uhlmans said they are grateful Elias has become a part of their family.
“It’s been such a cool thing for our family,” Missa said. “We didn’t ‘rescue’ him. He needed us, and we needed him.”