Dana Johnson, MD, PhD, never fully appreciated the importance of a loving, committed family in normal child development, until he began seeing children from orphanages who had been deprived of all those things.
Johnson, a University of Minnesota Health neonatologist who is also the father of an adopted child, founded the University of Minnesota Health Adoption Medicine Clinic in 1986. The clinic’s mission? Support families through the adoption process—and help adoptive children overcome the challenges of early adversity.
This year, the clinic is celebrating its 30th anniversary. We sat down with Johnson to ask him a few questions about adoption, the clinic and his own experience as an adoptive father.
When I joined the faculty in 1979 I was one of only two attending physicians in the newborn intensive care unit. The position provided numerous opportunities for gaining clinical experience during the formative years of the field. One fact emphasized during these early years, which continues to resonate in my current work, is that early experience permanently shapes a child’s life. I served as the chief of neonatology from 1991-2006 and director of the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) from 1996-2000.
In 1984, I traveled to Calcutta, India, to volunteer at International Mission of Hope (IMH), a program that provided care for abandoned preterm infants and placed survivors for adoption. As a family, we had already discussed the possibility of adoption and there was no holding back after holding these beautiful infants in our arms. My son Gabriel arrived in the fall of 1985. Before his placement in our home, I reviewed medical information for families adopting from IMH. Through that process, I realized that there was little information on the medical conditions common among international adoptees. I opened the multidisciplinary clinic in collaboration with a number of my colleagues at the University of Minnesota in May 1986.
Today, the goals of the clinic remain the same but we have come to realize that all adopted children –no matter their background—experience early adversity. For that reason, they also face the same spectrum of potential problems. Therefore, we are no longer focused exclusively on international adoptees in the Adoption Medicine Clinic but on all forms of adoption and foster care.
We are fortunate in Minnesota to have some of the best adoption agencies in the country. Working hand-in-hand with these organizations, we provide our local community of adoptive parents and health care and adoption professionals an exceptional level of information and advice. Nationally, our research on infectious diseases in international adoptees became the basis of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ post-arrival screening recommendations. Our multidisciplinary clinic also became a model for community, clinical and academic adoption practices around the country.
While I’ve had a truly splendid experience parenting my own adopted and birth children, the simple truth is that I never appreciated the importance of a loving, committed and permanent family in normal child development until I began seeing children who sustained profound deprivation within orphanages. Therefore, my passion for adoption comes not only from my personal experience—but also because I’ve seen the power of permanent families to rehabilitate children who experienced disastrous starts in life. This fact has illuminated my professional life and shaped my desire to ensure that children and their families receive the medical care and advice necessary to achieve this recovery.
My colleagues within the University of Minnesota Health community have been critical partners since the beginning of the clinic. Adopted children are often challenged with a wide range of complex medical and developmental problems that require multiple areas of expertise to diagnose and treat. Our clinic succeeded only because we’ve had the enthusiastic, compassionate and knowledgeable support of everyone involved.