real life

'Had they sent the wrong baby? She looked nothing like her photo.'

Nola Wunderle has written an extraordinary story about the adoption of her daughter Kartya from Taiwan. It’s a heartbreaking tale that begins as she waits for Kartya at the airport arrival gates, only to be presented with a child who looks nothing like the baby she was expecting. In this extract from her book Lost Daughter, Nola recounts what happened next.

We were all full of expectation as we waited impatiently at Melbourne’s international airport. I hadn’t slept properly for weeks. All of us had been waiting for this moment for months. Our fourth child was soon to arrive. Kiersten, particularly, was eagerly awaiting her little sister. She loved her two brothers, but a sister adopted just like she was would be very special.

What a mixed bunch we were. Me, the Aussie girl from Geelong. Othmar, the dad, born and bred in Germany. Kiersten from Vietnam, a Eurasian war orphan. Alex and Josh, half German and half Australian. Kiersten was six. Alex was five and Joshua two.

Nola Wunderle , her husband, daughter and grandchildren.

And our newest addition was about to come through the airport gates: Kartya Elizabeth from Taiwan.

It had been almost five months since we had first set eyes on the photo of the little baby girl and fallen in love with her. It was the little fat face with the cupid’s bow lips that I fell for. I felt like I had met her before and that she belonged with us.

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I kept glancing at the photo, as if to remind myself what she would look like. How could I possibly forget? I’d been carrying the photo in my purse for months. What a robust, healthy baby she appeared to be.

I had butterflies in my stomach. My feelings were a mixture of excitement and fear. I hoped that she would like us. I hoped she would bond with us. And then I told myself that was a stupid thing to think. She was just a baby; of course she would love us. Othmar was squeezing my hand tightly assuring me that everything would be fine. I knew he was eager to hold his second daughter.

Michael and Susan, a couple we had met through an adoptive parents group, were bringing Kartya home to us. We had every confidence that they would take care of our baby during the flight.

Our constant phone calls to and from Taiwan with Julie Chu, the lawyer, assured us that Kartya was well cared for. Kiersten, Alex and Josh had each brought a soft fluffy animal for their little sister. My sister Nerida was there, poised with her camera, ready to record the special event. I couldn’t help but think that it was more stressful than giving birth. Giving birth was easy for me. I loved being pregnant and the boys just popped out. No dramas. No waiting around, heart thumping, hand sweating in anticipation.

Oh, God, I suddenly saw Michael and Susan in the distance coming through the doors. Susan had a tiny bundle in her arms; it couldn’t be Kartya, it must be her baby. The bundle was too small to be Kartya. My eyes scanned the crowd for Michael; he must have our baby. Our baby would be sitting up, looking around. I said to Othmar anxiously, ‘That’s not her, is it?’ He shrugged his shoulders. Susan fought her way through the crowd of people, walked right up to me and handed me the tiny bundle. ‘Congratulations, Mum. Here is your daughter.’

My mind was telling me that they had sent the wrong baby from Taiwan. She looked nothing like her photograph. What had happened to our baby? This couldn’t be her. This baby only looked about three months old. Where was our big fat healthy baby? I held her in my arms and spoke out loud as the realisation began to dawn. ‘Oh my God, you poor little thing, who did this to you?

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Suddenly Kartya began to scream. She screamed and screamed as if she were in pain. She was rigid, stiff as a board. It felt like she was frozen in one piece. Several people stood and watched us. I was crying. I felt sad and happy at the same time. Othmar took Kartya in his arms and I just stood there, shaking my head, a condition that was to become quite common over the coming years. Whenever I became stressed, I would unknowingly start shaking my head, as if in disbelief. The kids named it ‘Mum’s shaking head syndrome’.

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We all walked out of the airport to our car. I clutched Kartya close to my chest; her face was snuggled into my neck. She kept screaming. Othmar was holding Kiersten and Alex’s hands. Joshua was holding the end of my skirt. Everyone’s excitement was visible, with the kids chatting amongst themselves about who was going to have first turn to hold her. The sun was shining; it was going to be a beautiful day. I sat in the back seat with this little screaming bundle in my arms, trying to imagine the journey that we were all to travel with Kartya Elizabeth Wunderle.

Despite my shock, as we drove back home through Melbourne’s busy streets, my optimism and enthusiasm returned: we would make our baby well. I made a promise to her in my mind that nothing bad would ever happen to her again. Kiersten piped up in her little squeaky voice, ‘Mum, maybe she’ll stop crying if I give her my doll'. I thanked her for being thoughtful, but I felt that the sight of a black Cabbage Patch doll wasn’t exactly what Kartya needed. I told myself that our family would love and protect her always.

I was overcome by love and pity for this little red-faced screamer and I felt that inside this tiny girl there was a story. A story that perhaps we would never know. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to know. I just wanted her to look like her photo again.

At home, we gingerly unwrapped our tiny bundle. She was skinny, scrawny and still screaming uncontrollably. Her little bottom was red raw, with huge weeping sores right up to her waist. I said to Othmar, ‘Not much wonder she’s screaming. How could this happen?’ Michael and Susan didn’t mention anything to us about her red raw bottom. Then again, we were so consumed with our new arrival, that we didn’t really talk to them. We just said goodbye and promised to catch up.

We thought that Kartya might have been dehydrated from the flight, so we tried to give her a bottle, but she would not feed, she could not feed. She just screamed and lay rigid, like an ironing board. The beauty spot beside her eye was very evident. One ear looked as if it had been turned inside out.

My friend Barbara arrived with some flowers to welcome home our new baby.

Barbara took one look at Kartya and said, ‘This kid should be in hospital, she’s not well.’ I was suddenly scared there was something seriously wrong with her, so we wrapped our new baby back up, piled back in the car and took her to Box Hill Hospital. One of the first doctors to see Kartya was a young Asian intern named Dr Lim. He asked us why we had adopted a baby that wasn’t healthy. He said, ‘When you adopt baby, you should make sure you get healthy baby. This baby no good, she have big problems.’

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He also seemed to think it was a bit strange that we had adopted a baby when we could have our own.

Finally he told us that Asians would not adopt a child if they could have their own. When he said that Kartya would have to stay in hospital under observation, we were all devastated. We had waited so long for her, and now we had to leave her alone again. The doctor told us she was dehydrated, malnourished, had suffered enormous physical neglect and the sores on her buttocks were from not having her nappy changed over a long period of time.

He also commented on the fact that her head was severely moulded indicating that she had been lying on it continually over a prolonged period. Othmar and I had noticed that when we looked at her side on, she appeared to have only half a head, as if the back of her head was missing. She needed expert help and we could not deny that she was in the best of hands to heal her fragile body.

The nurses took a shine to her and assured us that they would take good care of her. They could see that we were all upset. As we walked slowly away from the hospital, Kiersten was crying so much that she got the hiccups. She said, ‘Mum, it’s not fair, why did she have to be sick? I just wanted to take her home, that’s all.’

There are two things that make me sick more than anything: one is aeroplanes, the other is hospitals. But I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital the next day. Overnight, I’d forgotten what she looked like. I just wanted to see her little face again. We all went in to the ward: Othmar, Alex, Kiersten and Josh, with me walking about 10 steps ahead of them. In through the big automatic doors, into the lift, up to the second floor. I was hit by a wave of nausea.

I felt like I was going to vomit. Every time I went into a hospital I felt the same way. It was the smell of food and disinfectant and the thought of blood.

Kartya was lying in a big white iron cot with the sides pulled up. Bits of paint were chipped off the side. I picked her up and cuddled her, but she didn’t respond at all. I would spend every day at the hospital, sitting in the chair beside Kartya’s cot, trying to will her back to health. She was detached and unresponsive. She looked so terribly sad.

I would pick her up and cuddle her and she would look at me with such a lack of interest, as if to say: Who exactly are you supposed to be? I would try to give her a bottle, but the nurses said the only way she would feed was with it propped up on the pillows beside her. The only way she would sleep was flat on her back with her arms and legs spread-eagled.

Watch Kartya's story on 60 Minutes:

Othmar and I had noticed that she had strange discolouration on her wrists and ankles. We wondered what had caused that. When I would hug her and hold her, she wriggled free as if to say, don’t do that, I don’t like it. She could stand up straight, but not sit down. Her legs were unable to bend. We felt helpless to take away the pain we knew she was experiencing. I could see it in her eyes. She had a shallow, glazed look of indifference. I would hold her, I would talk to her, I would stroke her face, but she never responded. She remained unreachable. I thought that we just needed time together, time to bond. My enthusiasm would not be thwarted.

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Eventually, I believed, we would be mother and daughter.

One day I walked into the hospital and Dr Lim was pricking the bottom of Kartya’s feet with a needle. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was testing her responses. She didn’t react at all. He said that sometimes when babies have been without love and care for a long while, they can block out physical and emotional pain. I thought it was strange that this little girl would cry when you cuddled her but when she had a needle poked into her foot, she showed no reaction.

I wanted to ask Dr Lim if he thought that she would suffer any long-term problems. I didn’t, because I thought it would be a stupid question. After all, she was a baby, she would forget whatever happened to her. Besides, Dr Lim would tell me if she needed any special care in the future. I was sure of that.

Even though I was sad every day I left the hospital, I could see that she was getting better and stronger and that soon she would be able to come home. Going to the hospital every day and night was exhausting me. I still had the other three kids to organise.

Dr Mason, who took charge of Kartya’s treatment, was an imposing-looking man in his early forties with grey hair and a black moustache. He would give me an update every day. He felt that she was coming along extremely well and would suffer no long-term effects from her unfortunate beginnings. Each day she got stronger, more alert and even, on the odd occasion, smiled.

Two weeks after admitting Kartya to hospital, we got permission to take her home. I was relieved that I didn’t have to drive away from the hospital for one more day leaving Kartya behind. It had been very stressful for all of us. Her medical report read:

Taiwanese orphan admitted 21.3.1981. Nine-month-old baby had been adopted and her mother felt unhappy about the fact that the child was not feeding. No past history known. On examination, Kartya was a Chinese babe with head circumference, weight and length all well below normal. Her head was quite moulded, having been lying on it for past nine months. Assessment showed her to be at least four months old, although this is hard to assess due to cultural differences. Skin discolouration on wrists and ankles indicate that babe has been restricted in movement over a period of time. We discovered that babe would only feed and sleep lying flat on back. Total absence of eye contact would indicate severe emotional deprivation. Kartya is scrawny, immobile and febrile. No obvious cause of Failure to Thrive other than emotional deprivation and physical stimulation denied. Should have no problems bonding to enthusiastic, loving family.

I asked Dr Mason how he thought Kartya got the marks on her wrists and ankles.

He said he believed that she had been tied to a cot to stop her from moving. That would explain why she would only sleep and feed on her back: that was all she was used to. I felt sick. How could anyone do such a thing to a defenceless baby?

The cure seemed pretty simple at the time: love would overcome everything. As we drove away from the hospital we were confident that the love that we all felt for her would surmount any difficulties we would encounter along the way.

The physical scars from Kartya’s early mistreatment soon began to heal. The discolouration on her wrists and ankles started to fade. The horrible sores on her buttocks began to heal over.

We did wonder occasionally if any of this pain and suffering could have left any emotional scars, but Othmar and I reassured ourselves that as she was so young she had every chance of healing completely.

I had always thought that bonding, for a small baby, was automatic. I had no problems with Alex and Josh, and with Kiersten it was instant. She was stuck like glue to me. The moment we set eyes on each other, we bonded. Our destiny was to be mother and daughter forever.

With Kartya it was to be a very different story.

This is an edited extract from Lost Daughter by Nola Wunderle. For more information visit www.nolawunderle.com
You can purchase the book here.

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