Esther Mills made the move of a lifetime in the summer of 2016. Esther was born in China and her adoptive parents, Kerry and David, knew only a small amount of her health history when they welcomed her into their family at the age of six – just three years after Kerry initially proposed to her family mates of all boys the idea of adopting a girl.
The Mills had reached out to Dr. Suzanne Lavoie in our international adoption clinic in 2015 and provided her with Esther’s medical file for review. Dr. Lavoie explained Esther’s spina bifida diagnosis and provided insight into what her ongoing needs and care would look like.
“We were very fortunate to have Suzanne right here in Richmond. Many adoptive families take long road trips to visit international adoption clinics for their expert opinions,” said Kerry. “Suzanne was very honest to share with us what the best and worst case scenarios would be moving forward. We were ready for Esther!”
When Esther arrived in the United States, her new parents brought her to CHoR for a full exam in our spina bifida clinic, which included coordinated care from urology, nephrology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and neurology. It was then that they learned Esther also has kidney disease. Dr. Herndon performed a 10-hour urologic surgery in February 2018 and sees her twice a year for follow-up. Dr. Bunchman continues to monitor her kidney function and medications.
With Esther settled in nicely with Mom, Dad and two older brothers, Kerry and David were content that their family was complete – that is, until they saw a photo on an adoption Facebook page that stopped them in their tracks. It was the photo of another girl in China who was in need of a home and had the same diagnoses as Esther. Her name was Mia and they knew they had just the knowledge and experience to help her.
Mia’s adoption was expedited due to her health and age. At 13, she was about to age out of the adoption system in China. In September 2019, less than one year after first seeing Mia’s picture, the Mills family adopted her and welcomed her into her new home.
Our nephrology team was also happy to welcome Mia and she has become fast friends with the hematology and infusion teams as well. Several CHoR doctors are able to speak to Mia in her native language of Mandarin and when they’re not available, interpreters help to ensure that Mia understands and is a comfortable, active participant in making decisions about her care. Currently, this care involves dialysis four days per week for her end-stage renal disease while she, her family and her medical team await the good news that there is a kidney available for transplant.
While Mia’s treatment is currently frequent and intense, Esther has transitioned to a watch-and-see season of health. Now at age 9, Esther has quarterly appointments with radiology and nephrology, visits the spina bifida clinic annually, and sees our urology team every six months. The Mills family is grateful for their whole CHoR team, but one doctor holds a particularly special place in their heart.
“We all love Dr. Bunchman – his wry humor and big mustache. He quickly makes everyone feel at ease,” says Kerry. “We feel very fortunate that God placed us in Richmond and placed our girls under the medical care of Dr. Bunchman.”
“Care of complex children is a team sport, requiring input from the child, the family and members of our team that include social work, dietician, nursing and physicians. We have a team that takes care of these children in stride and, when working with great families like the Mills, make it look easy,” says Dr. Bunchman.
While Mia awaits a kidney transplant, she has started a new journey to begin on home hemodialysis. Our program is one of only a handful of pediatric nephrology programs in North America that has the depth to support a child to undergo hemodialysis at home.
“This allows fewer trips to the downtown pediatric dialysis unit and more freedom from medical teams, allowing a child to be a child and a family to be a family,” adds Dr. Bunchman.
Between school (second and seventh grades) and medical appointments, Esther and Mia manage to have a whole lot of fun with their parents, brothers and each other. As a family, they love singing karaoke, playing charades and battling it out in Settlers of Catan. Both girls also love the outdoors, swimming and cooking. Esther’s birthday wish last year was for a sister, so she’s incredibly thrilled that it came true! The transition comes with some bumps as well, but they’re up for the challenge.
“I am most proud of my girls when they stand up for themselves. Having been born in another culture, dealing with major health issues, and having a different upbringing than most American kids presents a lot of curious questions from people. We teach the girls to own their life stories and to be proud of every single aspect of their past, present and future,” adds Mrs. Mills.
Kerry and David have been adjusting to their new normal too, which in addition to two new family members includes teaching their oldest to drive and mentally preparing to have three teenagers in the house when their younger son turns 13 in August. They’re very proud of all four of their kids and look forward to growing closer together as a family in 2020.
Read more: The Mills family was featured on the Good Morning America website over the holidays.