Sick and in an orphanage in China, Lan couldn’t gain weight or develop like she should. But then, one of her caregivers went above and beyond to help her grow.
Every day, orphanage caregivers work tirelessly to care for children. They change dozens of diapers, prepare bottles, spoon-feed during mealtimes and do their best to give every child the individualized attention they need and deserve.
This work is difficult and around the clock, and it can also become deeply personal — as it did for Da Xia, through the incredible way she helped baby Lan.
Diagnosed With PKU
Lan was born in March 2020, a difficult time in China and across the whole world. But amidst the chaos of the worldwide pandemic, 2-month-old Lan had a devastating crisis of her own when she was abandoned at a hospital.
Police picked her up and took her to a local orphanage. But within days, she was so sick and weak that they had to take her back to the hospital. This illness is likely why her parents left her there in the first place. Perhaps they were unable to provide her with the high level of care she needed. So they left her somewhere safe, where she would get help — desperately hoping that someone would care for her…
And that’s exactly what happened.
Doctors ran many tests on Lan at the hospital as they tried to figure out what was wrong. One blood test screened for a condition called phenylketonuria, or PKU. Parents in the U.S. may know this as the “heel prick test” that all infants have performed shortly after birth in the hospital, and then again at several weeks of age. This simple blood test shows a child’s ability to process aspartame and vital protein — or in Lan’s case, the inability to process it.
Babies with PKU cannot handle typical formula, and when they’re old enough for solids their diet is extremely limited and specific — otherwise the dangers include brain damage, seizures and more. The tests confirmed that Lan had PKU, a diagnosis that explained her inability to gain weight or grow.
She would need specialized formula and very specific care — on a level that would typically be difficult for an orphanage to provide. But when Lan returned to the orphanage from the hospital, her caregivers determined to do the very best they could.
But, even with the specialized formula, she still struggled to grow.
Someone Who Could Help
Around this same time, Lan’s orphanage hired a new staff member, Da Xia. Da Xia had just had a biological child of her own, whom she was breastfeeding. When Da Xia heard about Lan and her condition, she had an idea…
“I thought maybe we could try my breastmilk,” says Da Xia. “At the time, my milk was more than my child took, so I pumped extra milk and froze it. Then I told the orphanage caregivers to feed it to Lan.”
Amazingly, Lan was able to drink the breastmilk, and almost immediately her condition began to improve.
“Breastmilk is truly the best option for babies whenever possible,” says Emily DeLacey, Holt’s director of nutrition and health services. “It contains exactly the right nutrients that babies need and it’s much easier [than formula] for babies to absorb and utilize all the nutrients. And for children with phenylketonuria, breastmilk can offer additional advantages over formula because of its lower concentration of protein and a lower content of phenylalanine.”
For Lan, the change in her health was nearly instant. She improved each day, and by day-15 she could drink two full bottles. Her weight nearly doubled. Since she began drinking the breastmilk, she’s stayed out of the hospital.
Lan’s primary caregiver in the orphanage received training not only on how to bottle-feed Lan the milk, but also how to feed her in the future as she began to eat solid food.
Meticulous Care & Feeding
Under such meticulous care and feeding, Lan has gotten better and better. Today, she is 2 years old and her physical development is gradually catching up to the standard. She loves eating fruit, vegetables, noodles and more. She’s walking, claps her hands, dances to music, waves goodbye, snuggles with her caregivers and likes to play with the other children. Her hair is growing in dark and thick — another sign of proper nutrition.
“I felt very happy that I could help Lan,” says Da Xia. “I’m so happy to see her become chubby now, especially when I think of how tiny and weak she was. Honestly, I felt pretty proud as well.”
“I’m so happy to see her become chubby now, especially when I think of how tiny and weak she was.”Da Xia
Providing a child with breastmilk is a unique, personal and difficult-to-replicate way one caregiver found to help. But Emily says that she’s seen this same care and commitment from caregivers around the world.
A Caregiver’s Amazing Dedication
“Caregivers routinely go above and beyond for many children with highly specific needs,” says Emily, “such as ensuring they have access to the resources and therapies they need to grow, but also providing the one-on-one time and interaction needed for them to thrive.”
International adoptions out of China are still paused due to COVID-19 restrictions, so for now Lan continues to live in the orphanage. Although the orphanage staff will seek a permanent home and family for her as soon as they are able to do so. Until then, Lan will continue to grow and thrive in their care while she waits.
In China and around the world, Holt supports the highest standards of care possible for children in orphanages. Through caregiver trainings, education for children, our Child Nutrition Program and more, over 3,500 children around the world received care in foster families, group homes or care centers in 2021. But this is only possible with the dedication and nurturing attention of caregivers — people like Da Xia.
“The orphanage is a big loving family,” says Da Xia, “and I always want to help children in the orphanage as much as I can.”
*Names changed for confidentiality
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