If you don’t leap, you will never know what it is like to FLY!
By Wen Holmes
I was abandoned in Chongqing, China at the West South Hospital Outpatient entrance in July of 2002; I was approximately 2.5 years old. Born with bladder exstrophy; my bladder was still on the outside, the tissues surrounding the bladder were inflamed. I believe my birth parents did the best that they could for me and had no choice but to abandon me so that I could get help. In my heart I know them leaving me at a hospital sent a silent message of love. I was taken to a large orphanage, the Chongqing Social Welfare Institute. As there was no identifying information found with me, my birth-date was set as January 10, 2000 and I was given the name Zhang Wen. The pull of the bladder caused me to walk with a bend at my waist as I could not stand up straight without pain. I had 2 surgeries in Shanghai where my bladder was ultimately removed and my ureters were connected from my kidneys to my sigmoid colon, this is called a ureterosigmoidostomy. These surgeries allowed me to walk upright, run, play with the other kids.
At the Chongqing SWI, I shared a room with approximately 9 other children with various special needs. We spent our days watching TV, playing and going to pre-school. Although there was a school on the property, I was not sent to regular classes. Food was not always readily available and withholding breakfast was used as punishment if I had an accident during the night. My best friend, Bai Hua was in my room, she has cerebral palsy and lives here now…something about a pinky promise with my mom that she would find her a family. The Chief Nanny, Huang Mama sometimes took me home with her on weekends, this was a time where there was plenty of food and a possible trip to the zoo! Mom says that Huang Mama was the one responsible for getting me my surgeries and considers her a hero as they likely saved my life. We are still in contact with her through her daughter who speaks some English. I didn’t have my own clothes or toys; I didn’t feel as though I was missing anything as I didn’t know life outside of the orphanage.
When I was 6 years old, Huang Mama called me into her office and showed me a photo album, there were pictures of my mom, she told me that I was going to have a family. There was a box with candy to share as well as a camera to take pictures of my friends. As it got closer to the time that my mom was coming, I was sent to live with a “foster” family. I called them grandma and grandpa, this was confusing for me as when their adult daughter came to visit, I thought she was my mom. This process was to help me transition to living with a family. They were nice to me, it was fun to have the attention and I learned to fold a dumpling like a pro! I lived there a little over a month and went back to the orphanage when my mom was close to coming.
At 7 years old, I remember the day my mom came for me, Huang Mama told me to “be good” and to “hug her” or she might leave me there. When she got off the elevator I was a little confused as there were 2 ladies that looked alike, as it turned out, one was my mom and one was my Aunt Karen. I had never seen anyone that looked like her (not Chinese) and spent some time checking her out. I don’t remember being afraid, I was just ready to go…. I pulled my “mom” out the front door to the waiting van. My new name was Wen Mara Holmes.
The rest of the adoption trip was spent playing, it was great that my cousin Mia who is also Chinese had come on the trip. She was 5 and I may have been a little rough on her as we played that way in China. I realized pretty quickly that having a mom meant there were rules which I didn’t really care for! With a ureterosigmoidostomy, I have to go to the bathroom “right now” …. we figured out some hand signals pretty quickly as I didn’t speak English and my mom didn’t speak Chinese. I had a last phone call with Huang Mama with the help of our guide before we left China, I remember my mom crying; she said I cried myself to sleep but don’t really remember.
Once home, we began doctor’s visits; My urologist, Rama Jayanthi, MD at Nationwide Children’s Hospital was very interested in me as the procedure I had in China is not performed routinely in the United States. After a lot of talk with my mom about alternatives, they ultimately decided that what I had worked so there was no immediate need to make any surgical modifications. It was decided that he would follow me every 6 months with kidney ultrasounds and that I would also be seen by a gastroenterologist to ensure that the urine traveling through the sigmoid colon was not causing other issues.
My mom called my elementary school after we had been home about a week, she told them that I was adopted from China, needed to be registered and that I didn’t speak English. She also told them that she was not in a hurry as she wanted me to have time to settle in to my new life. The principal of the school called her back a short time later; she told her that the next first grade teacher in line to receive a new student was Chinese and spoke Mandarin; the next student to come in to register would be assigned to her class. Needless to say, she reversed her decision to wait and we arrived at the school that afternoon to register me. We were able to meet this teacher, Mrs. Wagoner (who also has an adopted child from China) and my class who greeted me with Ni Hao (Hi in Chinese) and a Chinese song. I did not want to leave the school, I wanted to start that day; mom was rather embarrassed when she had to pull me out from under a table to take me home with plans to start school in 2 weeks. We met Mrs. Wagoner again that weekend at our local Families with Children from China, Chinese New Year celebration; she had me on stage dancing within minutes and quickly convinced my mom to start me in school a week earlier than I had planned. I had Mrs. Wagoner as a teacher for one and a half years and she has become a dear friend and wonderful role model. I was quite small for my age, the other children liked to pick me up and carry me around, I tolerated this for a while then was done, Mrs. Wagoner taught me to put my hand out and say “Please Stop!”, I tried this at home with mom; very funny, it only worked at school!
As I learned English (my school had an excellent “English as a Second Language” program where I received extra tutoring) I became interested in other activities where I could be around other kids. Mom was very hesitant to allow me to be involved in sports due to my special needs. She had enrolled me in a gymnastics class which I hated. I went one evening with a friend to watch her play softball, the coach immediately saw that I was interested in playing and began encouraging my mom to allow me to play through a series of telephone calls. She told him that I had medical issues and it might be harmful to me to play such a sport; imagine her embarrassment when she finally said that I could try it and went to meet him to find him in a wheel chair with only one leg. Clearly, I was in far better shape than he was! I loved softball and played for 3 years during the summer.
I never liked to sit still, after seeing that I was successful at softball; we looked into other sports; I played soccer, basketball and practiced Tai Kwon Do. I love sports and enjoyed every sport I tried; I was the only girl on my basketball team and was considered one of the best players!
It was during my basketball season in the winter of 2008 that a routine ultrasound showed swelling in one of my kidneys. An MRI showed that one of my ureters had blocked and was not allowing the kidney to release urine. Several procedures were tried to open the blockage; during this time, I had a Nephrostomy Tube placed to drain my kidney; the tube from my kidney connected to a bag that had to be worn at all times and emptied during the day. Aunt Shelli to the rescue! She purchased fun fabric and made pouches to disguise the bag, kids at school thought the bags were cool and were upset that they didn’t have them; they never gave a thought as to what they were hiding! You may think that this kept me from playing basketball? No, not for a minute; mom wrapped the tubing with a bandage around my waist, secured the bag to my shorts and off I went! I even played in the championship game as one of the star players! Shortly after the end of the season, I had major surgery at Nationwide Children’s Hospital to re-route one ureter into the other to bypass the blockage. I loved the hospital; there was a game room with crafts and local sports teams would visit to play with us. In China, I was in the hospital alone; my mom stayed with me all of the time in the hospital here! I healed quickly and only missed two weeks of school.
At age 9, I told my mom I wanted to try gymnastics again after I saw one of my friends compete (mostly I wanted a blinged out leotard and cool hair with glitter!). She originally told me “no way” as the first round had been a disaster and the only sport I ever tried and hated. After some begging and swearing I would finish a session without complaining, she relented and took me to my friend’s gym. I loved it and was moved to the team program after one class, this was my start in competitive gymnastics. I started as a Level 4 and was State Champion for my region on Floor and Uneven Bars that year. I competed in club gymnastics through Level eight as described by the USAG (United States of America Gymnastics). I was the State and Regional Bar champion as a Level 8. I had a real love for this sport and have had wonderful coaches that have provided guidance and encouragement. This level required a huge time commitment, I practiced 21 hours a week during the school year and 28 hours a week in the summer. At the end of my sophomore year in high school, I decided to leave gymnastics at the club level.
After so many years in a “club” sport, I needed to find some other physical activity. My mom suggested I try Cross-fit, I was able to convince a couple friends to try it with me. I loved this right away and starting attending 3 to 4 sessions a week. My friend Emily and I registered for a partner competition as the team “Tiny but Mighty”, we placed third and were knocked out of second place by only a couple of seconds! This kept me in great shape and I felt stronger than I ever had! I was able to lift 130 lbs over head in that competition!
When I was 16, my kidney infections started to become more frequent, from 1 or 2 per year to 1 every couple of months; a side effect of the ureter connection to the colon. These have been treated with antibiotics both IV and orally due to some drug allergies. I have struggled with ovarian cysts, the last was the size of a grapefruit which required laparoscopic surgery. I have a vision deficiency that meets the definition of “legal blindness” in my right eye and now wear contact lenses for correction. I also have a moderate to severe hearing deficiency in both ears, I have hearing aids but hate them so I don’t wear them; yes, mom and I argue about this!
With some encouragement from my mom, I decided to compete for my high school team as a Junior. I placed first on uneven bars and second on vault in the Ohio Capital Conference as a Junior. I was proud to have completed as part of the State Tournament team for my school where we placed 5th in the State of Ohio. Leading up to the summer between my Junior and Senior year, I was undergoing numerous tests and scans to try to pin down the reason for the increase in kidney infections. After discussion with Dr. Jayanthi with all options presented, I made the decision to keep my ureterosigmoidostomy. There were some problems with the way my surgery was done in China so I opted to have another surgery to “fix” some of those issues. While the surgery went well, my infections continued; I am now on a routine of medication that is keeping them under control.I went into this surgery realizing that there was a chance I would not recover to the point that I could return to gymnastics my Senior year. After 6 weeks, I slowly returned to the gym and was able to perform my skills by the time the season started. Unsure if I really wanted to return, some encouragement from teammates helped me make the decision to continue. I am in my last season as a gymnast.
I went into this surgery realizing that there was a chance I would not recover to the point that I could return to gymnastics my Senior year. After 6 weeks, I slowly returned to the gym and was able to perform my skills by the time the season started. Unsure if I really wanted to return, some encouragement from teammates helped me make the decision to continue. It was a fun season, successful competitions with a really great Senior Night where I even managed to stay on the balance beam! Unfortunately, I was down with a really bad kidney infection the week before the Ohio Capital Conference meet; I attempted to compete uneven bars but it wasn’t pretty. I was feeling a lot better by the following week at Districts and hoped to qualify for States on the uneven bars. It wasn’t meant to be but I was really happy when my team qualified for the State Tournament and I qualified for individual event finals for Vault. We placed 7th out of 12 teams at States, I was able to redeem myself on the uneven bars in the team competition and stood up vaults for both the team and individual competitions.
I have a large and loving extended family. My mom and I speak openly and freely about my abandonment, time at the orphanage and my adoption. I have positive memories of China and my time at the Chongqing SWI, I love to tell funny stories about my nannies and my friends. We were able to return to China on a Heritage tour in 2011, I got to see Huang Mama and visit my orphanage. I have to say; the food was just as good as I remember!
I have done well in school over the past 12 years. Having only been to “pre-school” in China, my mom and teacher decided to keep me in 1st grade for an additional year so I could catch up. I have always had to work hard to get good grades, I have to convince people that I am not a “typical Asian” that just gets it naturally…haha! I was accepted into the National Honor Society as a Junior and Senior and will graduate in May with an Honors Diploma. I volunteered the past 2 years our local Special Olympics Gymnastics team as a Coach, for the past 3 years at the Family Promise House (Homeless Shelter for families) in Delaware County, Ohio and for the past year through the Connecting Families Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital for bladder exstrophy families. I am trying to decide which college to attend and what to study, maybe Athletic Training, maybe Chinese, maybe Criminology, maybe a combination of a couple!
Contact Wen at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2019 Wen Holmes and Courage to Shine™