When he rocked her, the tiny girl slipped her hand behind his back and held it there while he sang lullabies. She eventually drifted off to sleep.
CJ Whitehead thinks back to that nightly routine now and understands why the little girl’s hand was on his back. She was feeling the music as it vibrated through her daddy’s body.
Whitehead, 35, grew up just outside of Vincennes, In. and attended nearby Indiana State University with a plan to study pre-med. Instead, he ended up with a degree in English, but took an EMT class along the way, worked for a local ambulance company and fell in love with the fast-pace of first response. He eventually went on to study paramedic science and then completed his nursing degree.
He started working at IU Health Methodist Hospital six years ago in cardiovascular critical care and was a clinician with Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) that provides prolonged cardiac and respiratory support to patients with heart and lung conditions.
“I liked the intensity and critical thinking that went with my role helping severely ill patients heal,” said Whitehead. To this day, he remembers one of his Methodist patients and his healing as a sign of hope for the sickest of the sick.
Like Whitehead, the patient was in his mid-30s, and a dad who had open-heart surgery and was on ECMO for months. “No one thought he’d make it but not only did he survive, it’s been almost three years and he’s living life to the fullest,” said Whitehead.
Bedside nursing taught him long-term patient care, but Whiteside said his ultimate goal was to join the LifeLine team.
“When I went to nursing school I knew this is where I wanted to end up. I love being a paramedic and I went to nursing school with the idea of staying involved in EMS and transport. A lot of decisions we make we make on our own during transport. It’s the best of both worlds being a paramedic and a nurse,” said Whitehead who joined LifeLine two years ago.
In October of 2016, he and his wife of nine years, Molly realized another dream. They adopted a little girl from China.
Whitehead served two mission trips to Haiti and after seeing the challenges facing parents, he was sold on international adoption. His wife also felt the tug to adopt.
They started paperwork in January of 2014 and two years later traveled to Jinan, the capital of eastern China’s Shandong province. When they first met their 21-month-old daughter the Whitehead’s knew she was developmentally delayed.
“We were told she was quiet and shy,” said Whitehead. “She was one of 600 kids in her orphanage and one of 15 children – ages 18 months to three and half years – in her playroom with one adult to watch over them.”
At first they thought her lack of eye contact, her unresponsiveness to sound was a coping mechanism, a result of so little one-on-one attention. So they brought her home and prepared to shower her with love. They named their little girl Madeleine Mingxi – Mingxi means “little stream that turns into a roaring river.”
“We learned that the best way to help her adjust is to take her back to infancy and help her experience things that she may have missed out on in the orphanage so I began rocking her to sleep and singing lullabies,” said Whitehead.
He didn’t know then that his daughter couldn’t hear his voice.
Working with doctors at Riley Hospital for Children, the Whiteheads learned last June that little Madeleine was Deaf.
“I was devastated but on the way home from the hospital my wife started researching American Sign Language classes and we set our minds on doing whatever it takes,” said Whitehead.
In November Madeleine was introduced to sound through Cochlear implants, electronic medical devices with 22 electrodes on each side of her head that interpret pitches and tones. At the age of 3, Madeleine is also enrolled in a preschool that works specifically with Deaf children with Cochlear implants.
“They are teaching her to process sound and we are working on listening skills,” said Whitehead. “She is mastering six basic sounds and is progressing toward speaking.” The couple works with a Deaf mentor to help them improve their sign language and their hope is that Madeleine will be bilingual.
“It’s amazing how far she’s come,” said Whitehead. “She was once described as ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ but now she is curious and fearless.”
As he talks, Whitehead’s daughter steps on her tiptoes trying to look out a window. The sound of an engine is heard in the distance and she begins making the sign for a “train.”
She likes Barbie, Mr. Rogers, Toy Story and playing on slides.
“When we first adopted her we thought we’d slipped under the radar and got a perfectly healthy child from China. Now we know the story that needs to be told is that any child you adopt internationally will have issues but it’s all manageable,” said Whitehead.
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.