Dr. Nancy Snyderman Shares Daughter's Arkansas Adoption Story

- NBC TODAY - It was on a poker hot July afternoon 27 years ago when I drove from Little Rock, Ark., three hours west to the small town of Fort Smith. Just 48 hours earlier, a 16-year-old-girl had delivered a baby and knew throughout the pregnancy that she would be giving the baby up for adoption. That drive and seeing that newborn on June 30, 1986, would turn out to change the trajectory of my life forever. It continues to do so.

I had no desire to be a mother. I had no interest in parenting. I was a young, 34-year-old cancer surgeon and my career was on fire. My introduction to motherhood wasn't years or months of waiting. I had no maternal longings. I had other things on my mind. I was making a name for myself as a woman in the exclusive men's club of head and neck cancer surgery. My goal was to be the first female chair of an Otolaryngology Department at a prestigious university.

But funny things happen when you envision your life as linear. Out of the clear on a Saturday night I got a call at home from a young family medicine doctor in Fort Smith who heard through his sister, a pharmacist in my hospital, that I did not have any children. He told me that he remembered me from his rotation as a medical student on my surgical service, that I was kind to him, and that I came to mind when he found himself in this particular situation.

He was the doctor taking care of this young, pregnant girl, who never missed a prenatal check-up and usually came to her appointments alone. He had arranged a private adoption with a nice couple who already had a five year old. But at the last minute the family changed its mind. They just didn't feel like going through the diaper stage again. So, he asked me, "Would you be interested in adopting this girl's baby?"

It was a lightning bolt, to say the least, and I asked for some time to think it through. I figured I had time—maybe two weeks?— to sort things out. But I didn't have time. Turns out, my daughter was delivered 48 hours later and a quick call from the hospital about my decision prompted an impulsive and immediate "yes."

When I went to the nursery, I saw Kate immediately. I just knew which baby she was and I was right. She was perfect. I must have counted her fingers and toes a thousand times. She had the darkest eyes, a shock of black hair, and all the right holes in all the right places. When I got back to my office at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, my partners had painted an extra office pink, loaded it with a crib and diapers, and my fabulous assistant, Brenda, became an overnight nanny. You couldn't do that today.

As soon as Kate could talk (and that was early) she knew she was adopted. There were no secrets. Over the years I had two other children, Kate’s siblings, Rachel and Charlie. They too have always known that their sister is adopted. While Kate’s mother did not know my identity, I knew the name of Kate's birth mother, Cheryl. I always told Kate that to me, Cheryl was one of the strongest and bravest women I had ever known: so selfless and smart to know that she wasn't equipped to raise a child at the age of 16; so courageous to hold a newborn and then surrender her to a stranger for the hope of a better life.

When Kate was 16, she off-handedly said she wondered who she looked like. What she didn't know was that I had a letter from her birth mother, Kate's sonogram, and a faded Polaroid of Cheryl holding Kate hours after the delivery. I had been waiting for years for a sign to give Kate those papers. To this day, no one has seen them but Cheryl, Kate, and me. But now they belonged to Kate. And in that moment I knew that her quest would start.

She wanted to find her birth mother. I remember my words of caution. I told her this was her journey and that I would do nothing to block it. I knew I was her mother and I had no doubt about her love for me. But I also warned her that finding someone is like opening Pandora's box. It could be filled with spiritual presents or demons or disappointments. And she would have no control of the outcome. My second piece of advice was to wait until she was an adult and had some sense of self. Being a teenager is tough enough. And with that I gave her my blessing.

Years passed, web sites scoured, information posted and voila....Kate found her family: Cheryl, two siblings, a niece and nephew. We wondered how to proceed, and initially, the communication was cautious. There was Facebook, then email correspondence and then one day a phone call. On Kate's 27th birthday, I asked her if I could call Cheryl and she said yes. As Kate nervously looked on, I had a short phone call with the woman who changed my life forever. I thanked her 27 times for giving me the opportunity to raise her daughter.

When the idea of meeting came up, I stepped aside and left that to Kate and Cheryl. After all, this was Kate's journey and I didn't want to influence her in any way. It turned out they were all in. We decided to meet in a neutral place, so we all headed to Little Rock the weekend of September 12. I was more anxious than I expected to be.

Cheryl was waiting for Kate in a park. I watched from a distance as Kate tentatively approached this woman who gave her—and me—so much. They paused in awkward silence and then hugged and giggled.

As they sat down to talk, and stare at their facial similarities, I could hear Kate say, "I want to thank you for what you did. And I want you to know I've had a really good life.”

And then she asked her: “Would you like to meet my mom?"

Kate's story:

NBC TODAY - "I wonder if I look like my mother?"

I was 16 when I, almost absentmindedly, asked the question while on vacation with our family in Mexico. It was a question that had plagued me for as long as I could remember. Earlier that day, we’d been talking about traits shared between family members, and my sister and mom had to be reminded that I wasn’t genetically related to them.

Mom, walking ahead with my sister, stopped. In my memory, she looked pale, even rattled. When she regained her composure, she asked me to wait. She told me she had something to show me but we needed to be home.

So I spent the rest of that week silently panicking as situations and circumstances flashed through my head, each more dramatic and terrifying than the last. For the rest of that vacation, I was a jumble of nerves and anxiety, as I waited for whatever news Mom had.

When we made it back home, a week passed before I was presented with a letter from my birth mother. As I read it, I felt miles and years fall away as her words explained why she put me up for adoption.

Initially, the knowledge that this letter existed of course inspired several months of anger toward my adoptive mother. (I was a teen, after all!) I was convinced she had purposefully kept this information from me, and the only reason she had shown me the letter was because she couldn't hide it any more. In time I came to realize that she had not kept it from me, but kept it for me. As this wisdom seeped in, so did the realization that I wasn't ready to go on this quest just yet. That would come later.

So I continued on. I went to college, got a job, lived my life. But always in the back of my mind was that nagging, that wanting, that needing to know where I came from, who my birth mother was, and whether I had any siblings. 

When my mother first gave me the letter from my birth mother, she also gave me advice. She said that I should know who I was before I went on the journey to find my other self, and the person I was before I was named Kate. My mother warned me it was a Pandora's Box. It could be fantastic, or it could be awful, and I needed to be prepared for any outcome.

And so, when I turned 25, I began my search. I finally felt secure enough in myself that I believed I could handle what might be in store. I went on ancestry websites and tried to get registries and records offices to give me something, anything to start my search. My parents had recently moved, which meant a lot of my records were lost in boxes, so I had my limited information to go on; the name my birth mother had given me (Anna Mae), her first and last name, the county in Arkansas, and the name of the hospital where I was born.

A year and a half went by with nothing but dead ends. There was plenty of frustration and anger at my lack of progress, and I began to wonder whether I would ever find my birth mother. I finally stumbled upon a website devoted to connecting adopted kids and birth parents, and put up a listing. After the predictable initial flood of dead-end responses came the drought, and I didn't get any hits for a couple months. Until one day, when I opened my inbox to a message that made my heart soar.

"I think you may be my sister..."

Her name was Cherie, and she was 23, three years younger than I. We began cautiously emailing and soon realized that there were too many similarities to simply be coincidence. She told me everything she could, and asked if she could give Cheryl, my birth mother, my email address. I said yes, and when I got the first email from her, I thought for days about how to respond. When I eventually hit “send” on my first ever email to my birth mother, I was so flustered I went out and mowed the lawn to work off the nervous energy.

And so my birth mother and I began to talk, tenuously learning about one another. One thing was certain; we both wanted to meet, though both of us wanted to make sure the other didn't feel pressured. We figured out a time and place, and counted the days to our meeting. Plans were made and tickets were bought, and on Sept. 12, my mother and I descended on Little Rock, Ark.

As I walked down to meet my birth mother for the first time, my stomach felt like a tangled mess of a knots. We both cried as we hugged, but as we started to talk, that knot eased. 

For the first time in my life, in Cheryl's smiling face, I could really see where I had come from.

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