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'My birth mother did not know I had been born alive'

Melissa Ohden tells Sarah Olowofoyeku about life after she discovered she was the survivor of an attempted abortion

I know God didn't make a mistake

SHE should have been delivered dead. But 41 years ago, when an abortion failed at a hospital in the American state of Iowa, Melissa Ohden was born alive. A nurse found her lying among medical waste, gasping for breath, and stepped in to save her life.

Growing up in a loving adoptive family, Melissa knew nothing about the planned abortion until she was a teenager and had an argument with her older sister, who was also adopted.

Melissa explains: ‘I don’t remember what we were fighting about, but at one point my sister blurted out: “At least my parents wanted me!” I remember thinking that what she said was absurd. When I turned to respond, I saw her face and realised that there was something I didn’t know.

‘She told me to wait up for our mom and ask her to tell me the truth.’

That night Melissa’s mother told her that her biological mother had undergone an abortion in the eighth month of her pregnancy but that Melissa had survived it.

‘It’s hard to describe what it was like to hear that,’ says Melissa. ‘If it was possible to feel every human emotion all at once, I’d say that’s what I felt that night.

‘I was angry. I had grown up believing that adoption meant love – I thought that my biological parents had loved me enough that when they couldn’t care for me, they gave me away. But when I found out about the abortion, it seemed as though they couldn’t have loved me.

‘For many years I felt shame and embarrassment. I didn’t think it had happened to anyone else. Now I have had contact with 254 other survivors, which is incredible because loneliness was a huge part of my struggle.

‘I felt guilt too. I kept thinking: Why me? There’s nothing special about me.’

Melissa struggled to cope with her feelings. ‘I developed an eating disorder because I didn’t want to be me and because food was the one thing I felt I could control when I was unable to control what had happened to me at the start of my life,’ she says.

‘I also struggled with alcohol abuse because I was trying to numb the raging feelings I had. It was easy to hide behind my character of being a peacemaker and overachiever. It was a silent struggle. Most people had no idea what I was going through, and I think everybody wanted to believe that everything would be OK.’

After two years, Melissa found her way out of her turmoil.

‘My faith is what saved me,’ she says. ‘I knew God had a bigger plan for me than what I was doing to myself.

‘I had been brought up knowing Jesus, but I was growing uncomfortable because of my bad choices, and I wanted to distance myself from God.

‘But then I remember one day, when I was about 16, I woke up and realised: God doesn’t ever go anywhere! Even though at that point I wanted him to, he wasn’t going away. And that brought me so much comfort, because I had, in essence, been abandoned.’

Though Melissa found out about the circumstances of her birth when she was 14, it wasn’t until she went to college five years later that she decided to try to find her birth parents.

‘I had my adoption records, but some bits of information were missing,’ she explains.

‘So I spent a lot of time trying to piece all the parts of the puzzle together.’

It wasn’t until ten years later that Melissa was successful in her search.

‘I tried everything,’ she says. ‘I put an ad in the newspaper. I petitioned the court to release medical information about me. Over the years I had been contacting the two hospitals I was in as a baby. They told me there was no record of anybody with any of the names that I gave them. But in 2007, they suddenly released my medical records.

‘The names of my biological parents had been blacked out everywhere on the documents, except in one little spot. Somebody forgot, and I’m so thankful!’ she laughs. ‘So that night I started searching on the computer, and I discovered that I was living in the same city as my biological father.

‘I had moved to Sioux City, Iowa, during those years to finish my master’s degree. It was where my birth mother had her abortion, but I honestly didn’t think I had any biological family there. It had been 30 years and I thought that they may have travelled across state lines for the procedure.

‘Not long after my discovery, I sent a letter to my biological father. I had researched and knew that he had a family, so I sent it to his office.’

Melissa never received a reply, and six months later her father passed away.

‘That was hard,’ she says, ‘because it brought up old feelings. But I think it was one of those defining moments of faith for me. I found out through the local newspaper that my biological father had died, and that night I questioned God.

‘But God spoke to me plainly that night. He said: “Be patient, Melissa, because my plan is much greater than the one you had in mind.” I get teary thinking about it because, as the months unfolded, I got to see that plan.’

Shortly after Melissa’s biological father died, his family were cleaning out his office, and they found the letter she had sent.

‘They didn’t know about me, and they found the letter at the same time as I was giving birth to my oldest daughter at the same hospital where I was supposed to die!’ Melissa says. ‘Shortly after she was born, my birth father’s family contacted me. As a result, my biological grandfather and my great-aunt have been a huge part of our lives for almost ten years now.’

Then there was another development in Melissa’s search. Five years ago she and her family moved to Kansas City, Missouri.

‘What we didn’t know when we moved was that my birth mother lives here.

‘I found it out when I started sharing my story publicly and one of my mother’s cousins contacted me. She told me the truth about the abortion – it was forced and my grandmother was responsible. She also broke the news that my birth mother did not know I had been born alive.’

Melissa and her birth mother first made contact with one another by email. ‘I passed along medical records and sent her pictures from my childhood because I wanted her to have a piece of my life,’ she says. ‘Our greatest struggle was that she didn’t believe that I could love her or that I could ever forgive any of them.’

But even at the age of 16 Melissa had already decided to forgive those who had played a part in her abortion.

‘People always ask me how I could have forgiven people who did what they did to me. But I say, how could I not? I make as many mistakes as everybody else every single day, and I’m no better or worse than any of them.

‘As I communicated with my biological mother, I realised that, though she had lots of things growing up, she had never been loved the way I had.’

Melissa and her mother spent about three years developing their relationship to the point where Melissa’s mother could believe that she was loved and forgiven. Then came the moment when they would meet face to face.

‘It was another of those moments that I can’t really describe accurately,’ Melissa says. ‘All I can say is that it was sacred. It was something I had been waiting my whole life for, and it felt God-ordained.

‘When I started out on this journey, I didn’t think it was going to look like this, but now I know that this is exactly how it was supposed to be.

‘I have a relationship with my birth mother now. We text and call, and she was recently at my daughter’s birthday party.’

Melissa has also been able to communicate with one of the nurses who helped to care for her as a baby.

‘I wrote a memoir, You Carried Me, and a nurse who was working in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) read it and recognised the story. She contacted me and told me how my grandmother was there when I was born and had told the nurses to leave me to die.’

But another nurse rushed Melissa to the NICU, saying: ‘She just kept gasping for breath and I couldn’t leave her there to die!’

‘That nurse was the first person to fight for me,’ says Melissa. ‘At the NICU they started the medical care that sustained my life. The nurse who contacted me said that they had all been so surprised that I had been born alive and that I improved so quickly.’

Amid all the joys of reconciliation and connecting with family, there were some upsets. Melissa was never able to meet her biological grandmother.

‘I would have loved the opportunity to speak to her even once,’ Melissa says. ‘My understanding is that she didn’t feel the same about me as I feel about her, and that’s OK. I believe that she was a victim of something and wasn’t able to live the peaceful life that I live. Part of my being able to forgive her is knowing that God loves her.’

Despite the ability to forgive others, Melissa still has to deal with difficult feelings.

‘I’ve experienced “what ifs?” I wonder what would have happened if my birth parents were given the choice about my future. But I respect the fact that this is the way life was written for me. I know God didn’t make a mistake.

‘There isn’t a day that I don’t look in the mirror and think: “Ugh, I wasn’t supposed to be here.” Every single day I’m contacted by somebody who has a painful story, but I wouldn’t change that, because I can use my experience to help other people in times of suffering. But it is a burden to carry. I didn’t want to go through these things, but I understand how God makes good in the midst of them.’

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