Published April 10, 2003
ALAMEDA, Calif. – Like thousands of Americans adopting Chinese babies, Susan Rousso got to realize her dream when the Chinese government told her when she could finally pick up the rosy-cheeked daughter she'd named Mea Rose.
After 22 months of paperwork, bureaucracy and anticipation, nothing could have deterred Rousso. Not even the sometimes-lethal respiratory illness known as SARS sweeping through southern China.
"My whole life has been about getting her," said Rousso. "At that point, I would have given my life for her."
It's a sentiment shared by most other parents of adopted Chinese babies, despite their fears about the virus that has sickened 2,700 people and killed more than 100, mostly in China and Hong Kong. Postponing their trips could mean long waits while another date is arranged, so almost no one has put off picking up their babies, agencies said.
"When someone is invested in the adoption process and has their arrangements to go, chances are they are going to go," says Antonia Edwardson of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an umbrella group of adoption agencies. "These are their kids we're talking about."
So far, there have been few reports of adoptive families returning from China with SARS. In Massachusetts, a 15-month-old girl recently adopted from China was treated for the illness last week, along with her 40-year-old aunt. A Kansas man suspected of having SARS was quarantined last month after coming home with his adopted daughter in March.
Determined as they are, many adoptive parents are frightened by the disease and uncertainty in China. Hardest-hit has been the province of Guangdong, where most of that country's 1,200 reported cases have occurred.
The U.S. consulate in Guangdong's capital, Guangzhou, is where all Chinese babies adopted by American families must undergo medical exams and get their U.S. visas before leaving the country. Consular officials there insist they're continuing to handle visas normally.
"It's scaring everyone to death," said Andrea Sawitcke, executive director of ACCEPT, an international adoption agency. "The main concern for everyone is that they have to end up in Guangdong province."
Adoptive parents have expressed alarm that they are required to bring babies — whose immature immune systems place them at higher risk of contracting diseases — from elsewhere in China into the epicenter of the outbreak.
As a result, the Guangzhou consulate is allowing some parents to pick up the babies' visas without bringing the children into the consulate itself, after offsite medical exams by approved outside doctors.
Rousso became convinced SARS was a danger during her trip to Guangzhou from the city of Chongqing, where she had picked up Mea Rose. "Things definitely got a little hairy toward the end," she said.
With frightened citizens wearing surgical masks all around them, Rousso and her boyfriend decided to cut their trip short and return home with the 9-month-old girl as quickly as possible.
Rather than wait until the next day to fly to Hong Kong, they jumped on a train, where they found themselves among dozens of mask-wearing travelers. They spent the night in a nearly deserted airport hotel, then flew home to the San Francisco Bay area on an all-but-empty flight.
In recent days, agencies have formally advised parents adopting in China to avoid the Hong Kong airport. They also are asking adoptive families to consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. The State Department, which has advised Americans to avoid nonessential travel to China, has added SARS information to its Chinese adoption site.
Even though her husband might have contracted SARS during their recent trip to China to adopt a daughter, Christie VanCamp, of Wichita, Kan., decided to return to the Asian nation to assist other adoptive parents.
"SARS is scary enough — but to think you have a child waiting for you in China who could come in contact with it and possibly contract it and die before you can get to her is scary, too," VanCamp said.