By Nicole Wyatt
Most physicians approach their work with a strong sense of purpose, but for UAB pediatrician Jennifer Chambers, M.D., the word “purpose” may not be strong enough. “I was created to care for orphans,” says Chambers, the director and founder of the UAB International Adoption Clinic at Children’s Hospital and the mother of twin girls from China.
Every year, hundreds of prospective parents from around the United States travel to Birmingham to attend the clinic’s “Preparing for International Adoption” seminar. The course—and an online counterpart—offers a realistic look at the challenges and blessings of life as an adoptive family. “Adopting a child is a very emotional issue,” says Chambers. “I like to help people separate emotion from fact. When they become educated about the real issues in adoption, they can make better decisions.”
Looking into the Future
The seminar is just one of several pre-adoption services offered by the clinic, says Chambers. Once an adoption agency matches parents with a child, the clinic’s staff reviews the files to flag important details such as a child’s growth, history of neglect or abuse, number of siblings, and whether they came from foster care or an orphanage. “We talk with the family and explain to them what life might look like with their new child and how it will work in their particular situation, whether they already have children or they don’t have children,” Chambers says.
The clinic staff identifies any special medical needs, from minor issues such as an acquired burn to major issues such as heart problems. Parents can have as little as a day to decide if they want to move forward with an adoption, Chambers says, which means a rapid, thorough evaluation is critical. If a significant need is identified, the clinic will bring in one of its team of subspecialists to prepare parents for what they need to expect. Neurosurgeons, cardiologists, orthopedists, ophthalmologists, and more are on call, says Chambers, and “we couldn’t exist without them. I have to get answers fast.”
Story continues after video
Jennifer Chambers and an adoptive parent discuss a new partnership between UAB's International Adoption Clinic and Chinese orphanages in this video. Learn more about the partnership in this UAB News feature.
A “New Baby” Visit—for Toddlers
When parents are approved to travel abroad to pick up their child, the clinic remains on call throughout the entire journey should they have any questions or need prescription services, for example.
Brian Harmon and his wife, Sarah, placed a call to Chambers after flying to China to meet their new daughter, Olivia, in 2009. “She had bronchitis when we got her, and we were able to call back home to get help with her symptoms, even though it must have been midnight in Birmingham,” says Harmon. “It was a huge relief that Dr. Chambers was there.” Before the couple flew abroad, the clinic staff had given them several medicines to treat common problems seen in children living in orphanages, including eczema and digestive difficulties, Harmon says.
Within two weeks of coming home, newly expanded families come in to the clinic for a full report on their child that covers medical, emotional, and developmental needs. “We look at them as if they are newborns, whether they are three or 14,” says Chambers. “It’s a complete checkup, and then we make any referrals to subspecialists they might need and connect them with services at UAB.” A family therapist also meets with parents to discuss attachment and bonding concerns.
Care for the Whole Child
After that initial visit, families return three weeks later, and at six months and a year post-adoption. “We really want to care for the whole child as long as we can,” says Chambers. “This stems from the fact that all three of the founders of the clinic are adoptive parents. When our children would struggle, we would say, ‘We need to address this.’”
Tessa Easterling and her husband discovered the International Adoption Clinic when they adopted Katie, now seven years old, from China in 2005. “They understand that every child is different,” Easterling says. “It was great to have someone to go to at any time of day when we had a problem or a question.”
Chambers and her staff are eager to share their expertise with an even wider range of children and families. “We love helping kids here, but we want to start earlier,” she says. “We would love to be in orphanages on a regular basis giving of the knowledge that we’ve learned over the last 10 years—and then we would love to continue giving quality care here at home. What we want for our own children is what we want for everyone.”
Answering the Call
Jennifer Chambers found her calling by way of air mail. “When I was a kid, I had a babysitter who was an artist, and she went into the Peace Corps,” Chambers explains. “She would write me letters and draw pictures of the children she met. I fell in love with international medicine, and the orphans in particular.”
That calling led Chambers to specialize in pediatrics. Following her residency and fellowship at UAB Hospital, Chambers pitched administrators on her idea to open an international adoption clinic. “UAB gave me the opportunity to live out my dream,” she says.
The clinic opened in 2001, and Chambers married Phil, a pastor, the same year. After a few years passed, the couple decided to start a family. They planned on having both birth and adoptive children, and started with the adoptive part first.
Chambers says she initially wanted to adopt just one child, but her husband had other ideas. “He said we should ask for twins—if we could handle one, we could handle two. I didn’t know if I could. But Phil called me on a day when I was in the clinic and sappy from seeing all these sweet adopted children come through, and so I agreed to it.”
In September 2005, the Chamberses brought home twin girls—Lily and Kate—from China. “Adoptive parents have struggles of their own, and sometimes they don’t want to talk about it,” Chambers says. “But knowing that we haven’t always had it easy either and that we have been able to come out on the other side and talk about our issues and be proud of our children can be such a relief to them.
“I live by the idea that joy shared is joy doubled and sorrows shared are sorrows halved. I am able to share my motherhood with my patients; they listen to me as much as I listen to them.”