Adoptive medicine as a calling, and a journey

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Adoptive medicine as a calling, and a journey

Trip to adopted son's homeland opened specialist's eyes to the benefits of extended family.
Elizabeth Hunter

Infertility compelled Julie Bledsoe and her husband, Brian Johnston, to pursue adoption. In 1995, the couple, both UW Medicine pediatricians, sought a special-needs child from South Korea. They came home with a 2-month-old boy, Sean, who had a cleft lip and palate.

The unique medical challenges that accompanied Sean's adoption inspired Bledsoe to explore those circumstances in more depth. Today she directs UW's Center for Adoption Medicine.

Elizabeth Hunter
Dr. Julie Bledsoe brings firsthand experience to her role as director of the UW Center for Adoptive Medicine.
picture of Julie Bledsoe

For adoptive children, medical history can be a mystery. Bledsoe walks hopeful couples through the process of adopting children locally and globally. She offers expertise about international health issues as well as special-needs children. When the child arrives, Bledsoe takes over pediatric duties as the first point of medical contact in the United States.

After more than a decade of working in adoption medicine, Bledsoe had seen a gamut of human experiences. Her and Johnston's journey, too, took an unexpected turn. 

As it happened, Sean’s cleft palate was not his greatest struggle. At 5 years old, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, which causes uncontrollable physical tics and twitches. Socializing was difficult for him. His discomfort peaked, as with so many kids, around middle school. Seeing his pain firsthand, his parents joined a program called Adoption Ties, which connects Korean adoptees in the United States and arranges group trips to their homeland.

In advance of the trip, the agency asked Sean to write a letter about himself as a self-discovery exercise. He wondered in the letter if anyone in his birth family had Tourette’s. Unknown to Sean and his parents, the adoption agency, having read his letter, contacted Sean’s birth mother, Seong Yun-moon. She hardly expected this call; she thought her son had died.

Seong had given birth young and unmarried. Sean’s birth father, Jeom Seok-kang, already had a teenage son. When Sean was born, a hospital worker said his heart was very weak and required care in Seoul. Fearing for their newborn’s life, Jeom signed papers that sent Sean to the capital and, to avoid the stigma of having a child out of wedlock, put the child up for adoption. Seong and Jeom eventually married, thinking their first baby had passed away.

When Seong learned that Sean and his American adoptive family would visit South Korea, she was elated. The families made plans to meet.

Adoptive-Sean Johnston
Sean Johnston
Sean Johnston

Sean’s birth parents had had two more sons, Dong-ju and Seung-ju, but ultimately divorced. Seong contacted her ex-husband and explained the impending visit, and Jeom agreed to meet Sean and his family at a hotel. He approached Bledsoe, Sean, and the family heartbroken and terrified, and, according to Bledsoe, when he saw Sean, he “dissolved into tears.” He feared Sean would be angry with him, but Sean assured him he was not. Later that week, Sean met his maternal grandparents and his half-brother. In the space of a week, Sean had united with his whole birth family. 

The joyous trip was the first of many for Bledsoe and her family.

Not long afterward, Sean’s younger brother Seung-ju came to stay with them in Seattle. The group piled into the car for a trip to the Olympic Peninsula. During the drive, Johnston thought he heard his son’s familiar Tourette’s tic. When he leaned around to speak, he saw that it was not Sean, but his brother.

Seong Yun-moon, Sean's birth mother.
picture of Seong Yun-Moon

Sean knew that Tourette’s was hereditary, but had harbored feelings that the disease was somehow his fault. By reuniting with his birth family, Sean saw that he and his brother shared a disability. Instead of it feeling like a punishment, it felt like a bond.

Bledsoe said her family's experience changed the advice she gives adoptive parents. When asked whether or not adoptive families should seek out birth parents, her answer is now more often “yes.” The possibility for reconnection and, in special cases, redemption, is too powerful to ignore. 

Beldsoe is also a featured contributor to this month’s UW Medicine Pulse podcast.