Malnourished, underdeveloped and with a catalog of ailments and medical issues, this Bulgarian orphan was given little chance of survival by many. And when a Tennessee mom first met him, she thought that he was going to die too. After all, even doctors didn’t hold much hope for him. But the woman vowed to give him the love and attention she felt that every child deserves, and she set out on a road to rescue the toddler from a near-certain death.
Yes, when Priscilla Morse saw this boy, she knew she had to save him. Or at least try. His name was Ryan, and he was living – perhaps “surviving” is a better word – in a Bulgarian orphanage. At seven years old, he weighed only eight pounds and had a catalog of ailments and afflictions.
Morse grew up in Chicago, Illinois, but now lives in Jackson, Tennessee. She first saw Ryan’s picture on a Facebook adoption page back in June 2014. And she and David, her husband, immediately knew they had to adopt him.
Priscilla and David already had two of their own sons: Dylan, aged 13, and Jack, aged seven. And in 2012, they had also adopted McKenzie, who they found in a Russian orphanage. McKenzie is now seven years old, and she has Down syndrome as well as heart problems. Nonetheless, Morse made plans to add one more child to their family.
“The first meeting was pretty scary,” said Morse of her visit to the orphanage in Bulgaria. She believed nurses presented her with the wrong child because he was so much smaller than he should have been. “He was bones and skin,” she told Inside Edition. “He literally looked like a skeleton. The first thing that went through my head was, ‘he’s going to die.’”
Indeed, Ryan was incredibly small for his age, weighing only eight pounds. In fact, the seven-year-old was so malnourished that his veins could even be seen through his skin. Plus, hair covered his tiny body. This is, strangely, a survival mechanism the human body adopts to preserve heat in a last-resort attempt to stay alive.
Morse, now 33, was herself an adoptee, and it was her big brother who came to mind when she first saw Ryan. After all, she hardly had time to know her brother because he died when he was nine years old. But it was her parents’ unconditional love for her disabled sibling that struck a chord with Morse when she saw Ryan.
“I was pretty young when he passed away,” Morse said of her brother. “I remember how much my parents loved him in spite of all his special needs.” She added, “I wanted to give that to a child that was given up because of his special needs. Everyone is deserving of a family.” But Ryan was in a really bad way.
In fact, as Morse began the adoption, she didn’t even believe that Ryan would live to see the process finalized. After all, she had learned that the child rarely ate. In fact, when he was fed in the orphanage he would regurgitate food to mimic the act of feeding. It seemed that his body had developed a survival mechanism in which he would throw up food to replicate eating.
But Morse wasn’t ready to give up. And after repeated visits, she developed a bond with Ryan. She said, “By the second or third visit, we were swinging him around and tickling him. For being as tiny as he was, he wasn’t as fragile as I thought he originally was. He enjoyed the interaction.”
So, in November 2015 Ryan made the journey to his new home in Tennessee. Aware of the dire health he was in, however, doctors at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville were on standby to receive him directly from the airport. It was only then that the full seriousness of his condition became known.
Doctors discovered that Ryan had developed re-feeding syndrome. First discovered in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, it’s what happens during starvation when the body loses its ability to digest food. For instance, when Holocaust survivors left the Nazi concentration camps, the shock to their systems from being fed again killed some of them.
But that wasn’t all. Specialists also found that Ryan had dwarfism – which helped explain his underdevelopment – along with cerebral palsy, curvature of the spine, microcephaly (an abnormally small head or incomplete brain) and deformed feet. That’s on top of disabilities and handicaps resulting from his stay at the orphanage.
“I had never in my life seen doctors look at a child and burst into tears,” Morse said. “They did call social services. They said, ‘I’m sorry, he’s probably going to die.’” However, doctors managed to fit a feeding tube directly into his stomach, and Ryan’s fortunes began to change.
Ryan would spend the first two weeks of his life in the United States in hospital. Over time, he would slowly gain weight, lose the hair he had grown through malnutrition and develop a much healthier complexion. The photos charting his progress over a year are stunning.
By December 2016, Ryan had gained around 15 pounds in weight and five inches in height, and his mobility and verbal communication skills were starting to develop. Morse had even enrolled him into a public school with the attention of a special-needs teacher.
Of course, Morse realizes it could take years before Ryan fully recovers from his ordeal. After all, even doctors don’t yet know how far he will be able to develop. But, said Morse, progress has been good, with Ryan starting to say words and build relationships with his brothers and sister. He even tried solid food at Thanksgiving dinner 2016.
And because of Ryan’s extensive life-limiting challenges, the Make-A-Wish Foundation accepted him. Due to his background, though, meeting a celebrity wouldn’t be practical or much fun. So instead, Ryan was taken on a shopping trip to kit out his very own sensory room that will help aid his development. But there was a catch.
Make-A-Wish is unable to grant construction wishes, so the Morses will need to build and fit the room themselves. Being parents to disabled children, however, their resources and time are limited. So to help Ryan on his way to full recovery, they set up a GoFundMe page to cover some costs. So, in late 2016, the Morses erected walls and converted a carport.
Despite thinking her son would die before he left the Bulgarian orphanage 13 months ago, Morse is optimistic about Ryan’s future. She said, “He is attending school, has a wheelchair to help with mobility, and is learning to communicate via adaptive equipment. He is a strong, capable little boy who brings a smile to the face of everyone who knows him!”