Heart Attack Leads Adoptee to Mind-Blowing Family Discovery
Born in Marin, an adopted son finds his birth parents — and precious medical knowledge — right in his backyard.
A SHOCK TO THE HEART
I stepped into a beautiful fall morning. Elated, I held a giant trophy a friend had brought to my recovery room in the ICU of Marin General’s cardiac wing. It was an unsubtle metaphor for beating death. My wife, Liz, and two close friends escorted me to our car in the parking lot, and then it hit me. It was my birthday. October 10, 2016. I was walking out of the very same hospital in which I was born 47 years earlier.
I grew up in San Francisco, Denver and eventually Boston. In fact, my parents still live in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1993 that I returned to San Francisco, where I met Liz. In 2006 we moved to San Anselmo with our two children, seeking excellent schools and better weather. I have also lived in Brussels and Hong Kong, yet here I was walking out of my birth hospital, on my birthday.
Two days earlier, on the 8th, I’d walked into the emergency room wheezing and with severe chest pains. That morning I had left on a mountain bike ride to Lake Lagunitas with three friends. About halfway up steep Shaver Grade, I felt incredible exhaustion, followed by lightheadedness, violent nausea, chest pain and eventually tingly fingers. Fortunately, I was able to ride and walk down to the parking lot at Deer Park school, where one of my friends threw me in his car and raced me to Marin General. I was immediately diagnosed as having had a severe heart attack. My left anterior descending artery, the “widow-maker,” was 100 percent blocked — a condition with a frighteningly high mortality rate. I soon became the proud owner of a stent valve and a new lease on life.
After the stent operation, when the nurses left me alone with my thoughts in ICU, a voice spoke to me. It was the voice of God, universal energy, or maybe it was my subconscious. Yet I had never heard those words before. They were clear and direct. “Find your birth parents.” You see, I’m adopted. I needed to know if heart disease runs in the genes.
LET THE SEARCH BEGIN
The first several weeks after my discharge were spent psychologically and physically learning how to deal with my new self as a heart attack survivor. On November 19, exactly six weeks after my cardiac event, I went out socially for the first time since then, to the Log Cabin bar in San Anselmo. I ran into a woman who asked a lot of questions about my heart attack and whether it was genetic. When I told the woman, Christina Fitzgibbons, that I was adopted, she grilled me about where I was born and what my birthdate was.
The following morning, I received an email from her. It included a table from the California Birth Index — the official state record of births — listing all the babies born in Marin County on my birthday. There were five newborns and one of them was listed as born to unwed parents. Maybe that was me? Two days later Christina and I went for a walk at Sorich Park and she explained that she’s a genetic genealogist and helps adoptees find their biological families. She offered her help and I readily accepted it. I told her what little I knew of my birth parents based on what my parents had told me about my adoption papers, which I had never seen. My birth mother was of Norwegian descent, had brothers and was Catholic. My birth father was Italian. That’s all I ever knew of them. After our walk, I spit into an Ancestry DNA kit that Christina conveniently had in her car.
Two days later, I got a text from her. She wanted to show me something. From the California Birth Index, we’d learned the unwed mother’s last name was Taylor. Christina had looked through directories and phone books from 1969, my birth year, for Alameda, San Francisco and Marin counties, trying to find women of childbearing age with that name. She found two, but one had given birth in September of that year. That left one candidate. Christina told me this woman lived in Marin and could I guess which town? Of course not, I responded. This woman lived in San Anselmo, approximately two miles from where I live now. A wave of goose bumps covered my body.
Christina then told me that this woman’s name was Kathryn Taylor*. She was 24 at the time of the birth, she had two brothers, and her grandparents had Norwegian lineage. Christina told me she’d researched to see if Kathryn attended one of southern Marin’s public high schools in the early 1960s. She could not find any record of Kathryn at Tam, Drake or Redwood high schools. I wasn’t surprised. I had always imagined that my birth mother was from the East Coast.
Then Christina remembered I had said my birth mother was Catholic, so she looked for Kathryn at Marin Catholic. In a mighty rush, the goose bumps returned and a huge lump grew in my throat. Sure enough, Kathryn graduated from Marin Catholic in 1962. I couldn’t keep tears from spilling out of my eyes and I shifted so she couldn’t see my emotions boiling over. You see, my daughter was two and a half months into her freshman year at Marin Catholic. For weeks she had unwittingly walked under her biological grandmother’s senior-year class photo on the wall. When Christina showed me a photo of Kathryn as a sophomore I jumped up and screamed, “That’s her!” I did not need DNA to know I was looking at the face of my biological mother.
I called my parents and sister, who was also adopted, to tell them everything. They had to know. Things were happening so fast and I would feel duplicitous if the search continued without their knowledge. I hated that I had to inform them over the phone, not face to face. They were tender yet supportive. I asked them if they could recall any other information about my birth parents. Mom remembered that my birth father was a title officer. I shared this information with Christina.
From the California Birth Index we also knew that my birth father’s last name was Kelly. Why the adoption paperwork listed him as Italian was beyond me, as Kelly does certainly not sound Italian. Regardless, my crack genealogist went to work and found a Ron Kelly, graduate of San Rafael High School, who worked at First American Title in 1969. When I saw his senior year photo, I knew it was him. No question. Case closed. We had found my birth parents in a few short weeks. My DNA results arrived before Christmas and we had our smoking gun. My DNA mapped to first cousins of both Kathryn and Ron.
A NEW FAMILY, UNCOVERED
With some hardcore online sleuthing I found Kathryn and her husband living in the East Bay near her daughter, my half-sister, who is married, with three young children. Ron and his wife were in Sonoma, and I have two halfsisters on that side who also live up there, one of whom is married. My three sisters are beautiful. I studied photos of them and wondered if they knew about me. I had conversations with them in my head. Would they embrace me in their lives, I wondered?
In late November I started cardiac rehab at the Cardiovascular Center of Marin and began working with a nutritionist. For three days a week I would do cardio workouts, gaining more strength and confidence each time. I also adopted the Mediterranean diet and the weight started to fall off of me like melting snow from a roof.
On January 28, 2017, I sent Ron and Kathryn letters. They were each three pages long and started the same way: “My name is Adrian Jones. I was born in the early morning of October 10, 1969, at Marin General Hospital. I am adopted and I believe you are my birth mother (birth father).”
Five days later I got an email from Kathryn, with the subject line “Thank You.” She had been waiting for this day for 47 years and had never changed her last name, in the hopes I would come find her. Just days earlier she had resigned herself to the fact that I wouldn’t search for her. She told me about her daughter and her family. We exchanged several emails that night and agreed to talk the following morning.
Tuesday February 7, 2017, was an extraordinary day. That morning I drove to Novato to do a cardiopulmonary exercise test, where I rode a stationary bike under increasingly difficult settings with leads attached to several monitors. I passed with flying colors and was informed I had “graduated” out of cardiac rehab and had achieved a full recovery.
Afterward, I drove to the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley to meet the woman who gave birth to me. Seeing her walk toward me in the lobby was an ethereal experience and I simply cannot describe our first hug. My contact with her elevated my soul and being in her embrace brought a profound sense of closure. We spent the next six hours talking in the lobby.
Kathryn and I would meet during the following weekends at places like Left Bank, Farmshop, and the San Anselmo Coffee Roastery. Yet I still hadn’t heard from Ron. Sometime in late February, after combing through information on Facebook, we discovered that one of Ron’s daughters, Kati, had recently dated the first cousin of a good friend of mine in San Anselmo. I approached this friend and he encouraged me to reach out to her directly. He said Kati was really open-minded and he offered to help in any way. He just had.
Two days later I sent Kati an email and three days after that I met Ron, his wife, his daughter Kati, my other sister, Amy, and her husband, at HopMonk in Novato. Toward the end of March, I met Kathryn’s daughter, my sister Annie. For the first time in my life, I had met my immediate biological family.
My reunion has been fantastic, even with the complexities that accompany unpacking decades of separation. My sisters had not known about me, although Ron and Kathryn had told their respective spouses about my adoption before their marriages. I have been welcomed, acknowledged and embraced. We are all learning how to move forward, together. And I have this new biological family to complement my Jones family. There is more love in our lives and especially in my children’s lives now.
Not all adoptee reunions go well. Many, in fact, do not, and it crushes me knowing how a fraught or difficult reunion can impact adoptees and families. Rejection twice over doesn’t sit well. Once I “entered reunion,” I became an adoptee advocate striving to help others find their truth. Adoptee truths are different than those of non-adoptees and these ought to be heard. Adoptees can suffer trauma and PTSD and are four times more likely to attempt suicide. We are overrepresented in mental health treatment settings. Our issues ought to be understood.
Additionally, I want to open society’s eyes to the inequality we suffer. Forty-two states have laws in place restricting adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates, including California. Without the help of savvy genealogists or DNA companies, we have historically been unable to find our birth families and to discover our genetic medical risks. With that in mind, I encourage everyone to track down their medical information and take action accordingly. It’s an opportunity for preemptive knowledge you cannot afford to waste. What I found out from Kathryn is that heart disease runs in her family and caused at least three deaths: of a brother at 52, her mother at 65, and her father at 71. That would have been really helpful information for me to have had 25 years ago. I am one lucky survivor.
* This name has been changed.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine's print edition with the headline: "Full Circle".