The Two Journeys of the Girl on the Side of the Road

China – 2013

It was in 1998 when Elizabeth Davis had read an article about the astonishing number of abandoned girls in China. At that moment she had made a decision that would fundamentally alter her life. She was going to adopt one of these little girls. She was going to give one of the “lost daughters of China” a home.

So she began the process. Actually, “process,” isn’t the right word. It doesn’t nearly capture the depth of detail, patience, and financial expenditure that was required to make the adoption possible.

Today, it was 2013, and Elizabeth was on a flight into Beijing Capital Airport, finally given the opportunity to meet the little girl she had been matched with. It had been such a long, arduous journey, but her destination–and her child–was just a few miles away.

From the airport, Elizabeth traveled to the orphanage where her child awaited. The anticipation was building. After years of negotiating red tape and navigating the serpentine labyrinth of international adoption services, she was quite literally on the doorstep of taking her daughter home–her precious daughter Carolyn.

Her destination–and her child–was just a few miles away.

Carolyn. That was her name. Even before they met, Elizabeth knew that was her name. Before she had left, Elizabeth’s friends and family threw her a baby shower and filled her house with gifts upon gifts, embroidered with the name “Carolyn.” Family and friends gave handmade fabric pieces to be sewn into a special quilt, a symbol of how much she was wanted.

And now it was time to meet her. The door opened and she walked in and her life changed forever.

New Hampshire – 2018

You walk through the halls of Crotched Mountain School and you hear some activity coming from a room off to the left. Of course, there’s always activity happening at Crotched Mountain School, but there’s something different about this small cacophony. For one, the noise is preceded by a flurry of debris flying through the doorway–some paper towels, latex gloves, the cardboard box that the latex gloves came in.

Following that typhoon of flotsam, two sweaty Crotched Mountain paraeducators give chase to a little girl, the apparent source of the mayhem. She’s of Asian descent, has thick strings of black hair strewn across her face. She darts this way and that like a 30-pound dragonfly.

The little girl–Quinn–had recently arrived at Crotched Mountain School. She brought with her a host of intense behavioral challenges and cognitive delays, all resulting from a traumatic background. Not much is known about Quinn’s earliest years, but this much is known about her now: the moment she set foot on campus she became of one of the neediest, most challenging, most unique students to ever call Crotched Mountain home.

You catch up to Quinn and her two staff–yes, two staff–outside on the ball field. As usual she’s motoring forward with Boeing-level propulsion. Her staff keep up like the pros they are. You sneak in a quick question:

“Do you keep track of your steps when you work with Quinn?” you ask.

Her staff laughs immediately. “Yes. 10,000 steps a day with her.”

10,000 steps in eight hours. The best you can do is shake your head and watch as this strange trio move on, headed towards who-knows-where, for who-knows-how-long, led by a tiny girl who, six years ago, endured God-knows-what.

China – 2013

The baby girl is presented to Elizabeth and her breath is caught in her throat. The child is over a year old but she was clad in the clothes of a three month-old. She was vanishingly tiny. Her skin was nearly translucent, the natural pigment sucked dry by malnourishment and juxtaposed with the sickly crimson of the scabies that covered her body from head to toe. Her lips were calloused and the back of her shaved head was flat, the result of lying prone in one position for untold hours a day.

The orphanage itself was overcrowded and under-resourced; Elizabeth estimated that there were two nannies for every 80 children, the vast majority of whom were girls. The babies were fed with a mechanical nozzle system, similar to what you’d find on a livestock farm to feed pigs. The liquid that came from those metal tubes was superheated (the water had to be boiled to free of it pathogens). Thus the calloused lips.

How does an expectant mom react to this sight–the “gotcha moment” as other adoptive moms have described that first meeting–to the complete and drastic reorientation of what she had envisioned her new life with her new baby was going to look like? Was there anger? A sense of betrayal? A creeping dread of “What have I gotten myself into?”

For Elizabeth the emotional reaction was immediate and unfiltered:

“She was instantly my daughter. I just wanted her in my arms where I could protect her. She was a mess…but she was perfect.”

New Hampshire – 2019

It’s an early afternoon in early 2019 and you find yourself in Quinn’s classroom. She has the entire place to herself, as the risk of her injuring another child is just too great. Quinn has no real concept of play and and very little understanding of boundaries and appropriate interpersonal behavior. She is existing in a simple action-reaction loop, where negative, aggressive behaviors–either self-inflicted or inflicted-on-others–elicit some kind of human response and that’s all she’s got to work with.

Her clinical team consists of occupational and recreation therapists and speech/language pathologists as well as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and their goals are simple: help Quinn accomplish the most basic of tasks. Sitting still to eat. Drinking fluids. Keeping her body safe. Having fun in the pool.

These behavior strategies are built in conjunction with Quinn’s classroom teacher and implemented daily by her staff. For Quinn, progress is measured not through giant swaths of flashy accomplishments but rather in tiny victories, accumulated throughout the day. This is learning at the molecular level–but considering the path Quinn has had to travel, any and all positive momentum is worthy of a daily celebration.

Today, in her classroom, Quinn is embarking on one of those bite-sized successes. Literally bite-sized. She’s at the desk, sitting on her chair, munching on an ice chip. She hangs in there for a scant few minutes before her internal fusion reactor kicks in and she bounces off her seat. It’s a blink-and-you-missed-it achievement, but it still counts; when Quinn first arrived at Crotched Mountain she would not sit at the table even for a microsecond and refused all fluids. Sitting independently and eating ice chips? Big win.

When Elizabeth first heard her daughter had done this, she wept.

Vermont – 2017

The embroidered “Carolyn” items are long gone. The baby shower a distant memory. The quilt was never assembled.

When Elizabeth brought their new baby home a different name was chosen: “Quinn,” as it was phonetically similar to the catch-all Chinese word that the nannies had used in the orphanage. Whatever it took to make the transition easier for her little girl.

As Quinn grew and built up her strength, Elizabeth began to realize that something was not right with her cognitive functions. Eye contact wasn’t there and she was nowhere near striking distance of any pediatric development milestone. And because she had spent those precious formative years not being held or nurtured, she possessed a severe attachment disorder. In fact, the concept of being held close to another human was so foreign to Quinn, Elizabeth had to place several layers of pillows between her and her daughter until she got used to being held.

Eventually, Quinn’s cognitive challenges demanded a closer look. Following an MRI and a consultation with two neurologists, Elizabeth’s worst fears were confirmed: Quinn suffered from profound brain damage. The doctors estimated that over 90% of her brain was irreparably harmed and the source was an unknown traumatic event. She had been born with a normal, functioning brain, but something terrible and unspeakable had happened between her birth and when she was found abandoned on the side of the road.

“The neurologist told me that ‘no amount of love was going to fix her problems,’” Elizabeth recounted. “This little girl is a survivor–and we don’t even know what she survived.”

But even with a diagnosis in hand, there was little that Elizabeth could do for her daughter. Quinn’s behaviors grew more and more intense. She would spit at people, jump out of her crib to dash into the middle of the road, and break anything and everything around her (“Quinn did a great job of making me a minimalist when it came to interior decoration,” Elizabeth said).

“The neurologist told me that ‘no amount of love was going to fix her problems. This little girl is a survivor–and we don’t even know what she survived.”

And she never slept through the night. Quinn needed to be bottle-fed, no matter how big she got, and that meant Elizabeth was up every two hours, every single night, for four years.

“I didn’t sleep her entire childhood,” she says. “Everything was broken.”

The school did everything they could–changed up Quinn’s environment, deployed all the staffing resources they could spare. She couldn’t ride the bus because she spit on the other children. She couldn’t go the grocery store because she knocked over the displays and spit on everyone near her. Overhead lights and everyday noises (like those from a cash register) were very distressing to Quinn).

“There was no place where Quinn would feel comfortable,” Elizabeth said. “There was no place where she would be received. The world is just nor ready for a kid like Quinnie.”

When the idea for an out-of-district residential placement surfaced, Elizabeth recoiled. I wasn’t going to abandon her, she told herself. I had rescued her!

But the situation was spiraling out of control and eventually, painfully, Elizabeth arrived at the understanding that what was best for Quinn was outside of her school, outside of her home. So she, her husband, and the school began to search. As she looked at the residential school options, she realized that no school could handle the volatile mix of Quinn’s behaviors and cognitive disabilities–save for one.

“I really liked Crotched Mountain,” she said. “I liked the close-knit community, that the school and residential staff were well-trained, and that no one was scared of her. They were open to her. My heart told me it was the right place.”

New Hampshire – 2019

Quinn just celebrated her one-year anniversary of being a residential student at Crotched Mountain School. She still has two staff devoted to her. She still has her own classroom. She can still be a tiny typhoon. But she’s making progress.

She’s drinking from a glass. She can kick a soccer ball with pinpoint accuracy and will play catch with other children. She runs and plays in the sprawling backyard of her residence.

Those first few months, Elizabeth was terrified that Quinn would feel she’d been abandoned again. Though mom would come to visit every weekend, Quinn would act out, visibly upset. It appeared her fears were coming true; her daughter was feeling discarded. Even with Quinn safe at Crotched Mountain School, sleep still eluded Elizabeth, the bottle-feedings replaced by the waves of guilt that kept her up at night

But like everything in the Quinn experience, progress came in small bursts, until, one day, Quinn saw mom on a weekend visit–and she smiled.

“She realized that she was in an okay place and that I wasn’t going anywhere,” Elizabeth said. “She knows that I will always come back.”

Today, you are walking past the aquatics center and happen to glance through the viewing windows. You see Quinn and her staff and a Recreation Therapist and they’re bobbing around in the pool. Before she came to Crotched Mountain School, the deepest Quinn would go was up to her ankles, petrified of the water. Now, as you watch, she tosses the ball at the basketball hoop, even making a couple of shots (inadvertently, perhaps, but the scores still count!). She’s clad in floaties and splashing about, up to her neck, laughing.

“She’s gone from abandoned on the side of the road to this amazing place with all these amazing people devoted to her,” Elizabeth says. “It’s what she deserves.”

And for Elizabeth, she finally gets what she deserves, five years later: peaceful, restful sleep.

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