by Ted Sibley, MD
Truman Medical Centers Emergency Services
UMKC Clinical Assistant Professor Emergency Medicine Department
UMKC Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor Master of Medical Science Physician Assistant Program
The next couple of months were some of the most difficult in our relationship. First were long nights on call delivering babies in the Labor and Delivery Unit, followed by a six-week rotation in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital — the same hospital where I had been a patient and had worked in the pharmacy and as a nursing assistant. Now, I was a medical student doing 30-hour on-call shifts. Still angry and wounded by the fertility diagnosis, the vigor and laughter that I used to share with the oncology families had vanished. I put on a happy face and tried to give them hope like I once had, but on the inside I was hurting.
The disease I had beaten and put behind me was now staring me in the face again. Only, this time, it was different. I wasn’t dealing with tumors or chemotherapy. This time, cancer took a different approach. It found a different aspect of my life to take from me. And this time, I couldn’t fight infertility with surgery and chemotherapy. My wife and I had to look inside ourselves, at our relationship, and to our strength in God. We had to accept our situation for what it was and determine if we were going to let infertility bring us down or make us stronger.
During my pediatrics rotation, we finally broke. We had attempted a couple of months of fertility treatments, with no success. The emotional price for my wife during that summer and fall had become too high. We also had exhausted our finances trying to become pregnant. At dinner one night, she decided that she had had enough. Previously, we had been involved in international medical teams and traveled throughout Central and South America.
“What are we doing?” she asked. “We are throwing hundreds and thousands of dollars at trying to become pregnant! We’ve seen children without parents and now we desire to be parents and cannot have biological children! Why don’t we build our family through adoption like we talked about during our medical trips?”
And so it was decided. I attended a meeting about adoptions through Colombia. While we were too young to meet the requirements for a number of countries that adopted to the United States, we met all the requirements of Colombia’s adoption policy because of how long we had been married. We began paperwork, home studies, finger printing and psychological evaluations. We thought of ourselves as “paper pregnant” and celebrated each time we passed a part of the process. After months of meetings, paperwork, and social work visits, we finally had a set of completed paperwork to send to Colombia in application for a child. We considered this our unofficial “ultrasound,” confirming that we were to be parents eventually.
Throughout that time, the emotional wounds of cancer were reopened and I was forced to deal with them. I had to understand that cancer could never be just a part of my past. It is a part of who I am, and its effects on my life, as well as my family’s, will never go away. I became a different person after undergoing cancer treatment, and I had to understand that my life is different because of my past. I began to question my mortality. Would I live to be 90? Am I as invincible as I thought? Should I continue to bury my cancer history in my past, or should I acknowledge it as something that is a part of my life? I had physical reminders of my past in the scars on my chest and abdomen, but I was just beginning to examine the emotional scars that had developed from cancer. The physical presence of cancer was gone, but the magnitude of being a cancer survivor would never leave.
About nine months after we started our adoption process, we attended a weekend fund-raiser for our adoption agency and Colombian orphanage. We knew our names were getting closer to being matched with a child, and that sometimes the agency matched parents to their children at these events. Throughout the weekend, we attended a number of fund-raising functions, but never got any indication that a child was available to us. At the end of the final event, a mass, the founder of the orphanage and the organizer of the agency both spoke about how grateful they were for the weekend’s turnout. At the end, one of them pulled out a manila envelope and read the name of the young boy pictured on it, finishing with, “and my parents are Ted and Erin Sibley.”
We were overjoyed. I called the medical school the next day and extended my vacation for an additional 3 weeks. We were going to be parents! All the tears, all the sorrow, and all the anger were gone. My wife and I were ecstatic! A week later, we flew to Bogota, Colombia, and prepared to meet our first child the very next day.
At the orphanage, we waited in the aptly named “green room,” as it is painted bright green. The walls are also covered with hundreds of pictures of children with their families, placed together by that orphanage. In that very room, numerous others had met their children for the first time, and now it was our turn. A group of Colombian ladies who worked in the orphanage walked in the room with a gorgeous 3-month-old boy wearing the presentation outfit we had picked out for him. My wife and I stood up and held hands as the women who had taken loving care of our son approached us. They placed him in my arms and said, “Congratulations, Dad. You have a beautiful baby boy.”
We were a family. My wife was a mother, and I was a father. Twice now, I had felt the blow of cancer in my life — both times unexpectedly. I learned that the life that I had wanted, and the life that I had planned, was not the life that I was meant to live. I had thought that my initial defeat of cancer was the end. But now I had to live with the long-term effects of what had happened when I was 13 years old. I couldn’t put cancer in a box and place it on the shelf to look at occasionally. I had to learn to live with it. I was a cancer survivor, husband, medical student, soon-to-be-physician, and now — finally — a dad.