For Karen Sellers-Myers, Christmas of 2007 was more memorable than usual. She and her husband Curtis spent the holiday in the Republic of Georgia, far from their home in the northeast U.S. and they came back with a very special gift - a four-year-old adopted daughter named Sophia.
Sellers-Myers, a nurse with the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, has made nine trips to the region since 2004 to train Georgian scientists in the latest research techniques. The program was created by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to revitalize the scientific community and public health infrastructure in the former Soviet republic.
Sellers-Myers visited a Georgian orphanage in July and instantly bonded with Sophia, who weighed less than 20 pounds. Sophia had been born with a cleft lip and palate, a condition that occurs during early pregnancy, when separate areas of the infant's face develop. Sophia's condition was severe - she lacked proper suction for drinking, so there was always a danger of milk entering the nasal cavity and being aspirated into her lungs. She was also at risk for ear infections, and her speech had not developed normally.
"She turned around and made eye contact with me, and then she came across the room and held up her arms to me," Sellers-Myers recalled. "That moment when we connected - it just felt like she was mine."
The moment was especially touching for Sellers-Myers, who also was born with a double cleft palate and underwent the first of several surgeries when she was just two days old.
"My heart was just breaking," Sellers-Myers said. "It's a third-world country - they do their best but (the staff at the orphanage) didn't have time for a special-needs child."
Three concrete buildings, some lacking running water, housed the children of the orphanage, who subsisted on a diet of oats with cornmeal or rice donated by the World Health Organization.
"Once I'd met her, I said I would do whatever I could - we had to get this child some help," Sellers-Myers said.
She and her husband tried to find a surgeon in the country but were unsuccessful. Other inquiries, to organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Smile Train, didn't pan out either.
"By the end of July, Curtis looked at me and said, 'can we just adopt her''" Sellers-Myers recalled.
By October the adoption was approved by the U.S. The Republic of Georgia gave them a court date in December, and they picked up Sophia at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Sellers-Myers has three grown daughters and two grandchildren, ages 5 years and 7 months. She says she never considered adopting until she met Sophia, but says it was "meant to happen."
Sophia had surgery at the Johns Hopkins Cleft Palate Clinic in Baltimore, Md.
"Sophia now has an upper lip and front teeth," Sellers-Myers says. "The doctors were able to save the bony protuberance and place it in her mouth, where it was meant to be. She also now has tubes in her ears and can hear - the specialist was amazed at the amount of impaction both in the ear canal and behind the eardrum. She has surgeries planned for every three months until the end of the year."
Sophia also will have several tests to determine if she will benefit from growth hormone. Although she is 4 years and 9 months in age, she is developmentally closer to a two-year-old.
"She is already trying to form sounds, and we are confident that she will speak," says Sellers-Myers. "She's up to 25 pounds now and is adjusting really well - she has really come out of her shell and is warm and friendly to almost everyone she meets. She's really bright and has very expressive eyes. It's rare that she doesn't smile - she wakes with a smile."
Sellers-Myers believes the adoption saved Sophia's life.
"The conditions in that orphanage are so dire that (personnel) only give care to the ones who are going to make it. Not that they are harsh - the needs there are just too great," Sellers-Myers said. "One cold or sinus infection without extra attention could have killed her."
Sellers-Myers has assembled an album with photos she took at the orphanage. The child enjoys flipping through it and seeing pictures of her friends. When asked how she thinks Sophia sees herself, Sellers-Myers pauses.
"Will she look at the 'before' pictures' Everyone responds differently. My hope is that she'll tape one to her mirror - and no matter where she is in the process, she will say, 'I am beautiful.'"