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Devoted doctor defends overseas adoption

77-year-old pediatrician’s life dedicated to care of disabled children

Since 1953, almost 200,000 Korean children have been sent overseas for adoption, while 75,000 children have been placed domestically.

In 1988, the media named the nation as the world’s “No. 1 child-exporting country,” with some criticizing adoption homes, accusing them of “selling kids abroad.”

Cho Byung-kuk is a doctor who has taken care of more than 60,000 adoptees as the only pediatrician at HOLT Children’s Services Inc. since the 1970s. A 77-year-old grandma, Cho still works with kids with disabilities ― mostly mental disabilities, epilepsy and cerebral palsy ― though she is long past retirement age.

With sadness, she revealed her thoughts on the then stigma of adoption at the time.

“I was furious, I wanted to tell the world that the children are not products, that they have the right to lead a happier life and that no one should take away those rights from them,” she said.

Nevertheless, research indicates that many people continue to have a negative view of adoption.

The most recent survey on attitudes by the Evan Donaldson Institute in New York had the following results: One-third of respondents thought adoptees were less-well adjusted, more prone to medical problems, and predisposed to drug and alcohol problems.
Cho Byung-kuk standing in the health room at the HOLT Children’s Services Inc. located in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Cho Byung-kuk standing in the health room at the HOLT Children’s Services Inc. located in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Additionally, 40 to 45 percent thought adoptees were more likely to have behavior problems and cause trouble at school.

On the other hand, the same study indicated adoptive parents were viewed favorably, with nearly 90 percent of those surveyed describing them as lucky, advantaged, and unselfish.

“Exactly, how else should I explain, then, the adopted kids coming back to adopt children themselves again, and coming back to find their biological parents to thank them for their second life? Those children now as grown ups come back to Korea with their successful careers, and to see that, there is nothing more rewarding then that,” said Cho.

She added: “Besides, during the 70s and the 80s there were not many choices for the adoption homes in Korea. At that time, there were a large number of children given up for adoption ― 4,000-5,000 children ― and facilities were insufficient to accommodate these kids, especially those with handicaps. There just wasn’t enough room, food, or hands to take care of them.

“What would you be doing with all the kids dying from malnutrition and a shortage of medical care?”

She told a story about a couple who adopted a girl with a disease called dysostosis, a condition which causes easy bone fractures.

“I asked them why they would take these kids who had an illness, and the father answered, ‘I have an adopted son with the same disease at home, and he now is 10, I thought now my son could help my daughter move with less pain,’” she said.

“How could I have not been happy with a child that was about to lead a new life with such loving parents? If not for the couple, she’d be here like most of the children here, who stay here all their lives. One of them even celebrated their 50th birthday a little while ago. No one has the right to block these children from living their second life.”

Clearly, Cho loves children. But she admitted that from time to time she feels like running away. “I couldn’t stand the children dying, one time I wrote 13 death certificates in one day. To be honest, I’m really exhausted, but there is no one to substitute this job here.”

It has been 13 years since she first tried to retire, but she has had trouble finding a successor.

“I understand. Who would want to take responsibility for such a job, that’s physically exhausting and low paid.”

She stopped work again at the facility due to her own severe health problems in October 2008, only to come back again last year. “No one wanted to fill the job, so I came back, you won’t understand unless you see the children here for yourselves, they are helpless.”

She is currently suffering from severe shoulder muscular pain, and sometimes her arms go numb, but on the day she spoke to The Korea Herald she was sweeping snow in front of the door despite the pain. “I don’t want kids to slip and fall,” she said.

“Just because you were born with some illness doesn’t mean you should live like that. Once you are given life, then you are given the right to live.”

She has just published a book titled “Grandma doctor with her stethoscope,” which will be translated into English soon. The book shares the stories of her 30 years with children at the HOLT.

“I’ll be taking care of the kids until my body literally isn’t able to handle it anymore,”

By Hwang Jurie  (jurie777@heraldcorp.com)
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