'Why shouldn't I adopt?' NJ surgeon, Virginia teen become family after patient's social post
About 20 years ago, when orthopedic surgeon James Wittig was a resident in training, his mentor gave him a photo of two young girls he had treated for bone cancer during the 1980s.
Tamara had been 10 years old and had innovative limb-saving surgery. Linda was 14 and had her leg amputated – lost to osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that begins in the cells that form the bones.
The photo was meant to be a reminder to the young doctor of the importance of their life-saving work. Wittig had no way of knowing then that the 14-year-old girl in that photo would forever change his life.
'It was meant to be'
About 15 years later , Tamara, who was in her 30s, developed an infection in her leg and became Wittig's patient. The doctor and patient kept in touch following treatment via Facebook.
By this time Wittig had become a successful doctor sought after for his skills and expertise in the field – he is now 54 and an orthopedic oncologist and chairman of the Department of Orthopedics for Morristown Medical Center and medical director of Orthopedic Oncology for Atlantic Health System. He also served as chief of Orthopedic Oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But his personal life, he said, was not exactly where he thought it would be.
Wittig and his two siblings grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, children of the city's chief of police and surrounded by a large and loving family. He thought he'd start his own large family as an adult.
"I actually thought I'd be married with four children by the age of 24," he said.
"But here I was, single," Wittig said as he sat in a Morristown Medical Center conference room still in his blue scrubs on a recent rainy day. He drank coffee out of a paper cup and answered phone calls and texts as he told the story of how he came to adopt Linda's youngest son.
Linda and Tamara, both from Virginia, remained friends long after they posed for that photo. Their close age and shared illness had created a strong bond.
Following the amputation of her leg, Linda grew up, married and had two sons.
She had more surgeries – Wittig was not part of the treatments – and she and her husband divorced. He moved to Colorado where he died a few years later.
Linda remarried, but a month later she died due to complications of her cancer. Her boys – just 11 and 7 years old – were left without a parent.
The boys, Will and Ronnie, went to live with their grandparents, who unfortunately also died of cancer a year later, sending them back to their stepfather. He fostered them, but did not have the resources to care for them properly.
Will and Ronnie missed school and doctors' visits while living in conditions that were not ideal, Wittig said, carefully choosing his words so as not to hurt the boys' feelings if they eventually read the story. Their trauma of losing so much family in such a short amount of time was not addressed.
Tamara checked up on the boys and learned of their living situation. She took temporary custody of Will first, and eventually of Ronnie. They were now 17 and 13.
Will had plans to join the military on his 18th birthday, but Ronnie still needed a good and permanent home. As Tamara was dealing with some health issues and had her own children to raise, so she asked for help on Facebook.
The doctor becomes a father
Tamara posted Ronnie's story for her Facebook friends to read. There she asked for someone to step up and take Ronnie and care for him.
"I saw it and said, I'm so well off in life...why shouldn't I adopt?" Wittig recalled.
He responded to Tamara's post and told her he would take Ronnie.
"Even though my life didn't turn out how I thought it would be, I have an amazing life," Wittig said. "I have so much abundance in my life, so fortunate financially, family wise, friends wise."
"And here is a kid who has nothing, who has lost everything that was important to him," he said. He quickly decided he would share his blessings with the young boy. In return, he received the blessing of becoming a father.
"Years ago, I was engaged to be married, and we used to joke about having kids and we'd say: 'Wouldn't it be great if we have a child, send him away and then get him back when he's 13, after the hard years?'" Wittig said. "Then funny enough, a 13-year-old boy falls into my lap."
Wittig's family wasn't surprised he stepped up.
"When Jimmy told me he wanted to adopt Ronnie I was shocked, and yet I wasn't. I know him, he's always got something cooking up in his brain," said his sister Erin Wittig.
"One of his dreams in life was to have children, and this happened, so it's meant to be," Erin said.
When Wittig asked for advice on the adoption, Erin told him: "I will help you." The rest of the family said the same.
Ronnie moves in
In January 2015, Tamara and Ronnie traveled from Virginia to Wittig's home in Montclair, New jersey, for a visit. Things went well and after legal guardian requirements were met, Ronnie moved in with Wittig two weeks later.
Things moved fast. Ronnie met his new family– grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. There were doctor visits to address some medical issues, enrollment in a private school and – for the first time in a long while – a birthday celebration with cake, gifts and lots of family.
The adjustment was not easy for either – but very rewarding, Wittig said.
Both had to adapt to a new schedule and rules, setting structure and dealing with underlying anxieties and depression brought to the surface by the isolation that came with COVID. Ronnie struggled with the death of his mother, and that needed to be addressed. There were also struggles with homework, Wittig said, bringing up new math-teaching methods that stump most parents. He hired tutors to help.
The busy doctor made time to address the issues and worked closely with his family. His sister Erin became Ronnie's tutor and caretaker when Wittig needed to be at work.
"I have a very tight family," Wittig said. Ronnie "instantly took to my parents. My sister is a teacher and was thinking of going back to school. Instead, she took on the job as his nanny. If it wasn't for my family, I wouldn't have been able to do it."
After some time the two moved to be closer to the hospital in Morristown so Wittig would have an easier commute. Slowly, over time, the father and son started to build a strong bond.
"When Ronnie first came, it was a really tough transition. He was a 13-year-old from Virginia who moved to New Jersey – that's a huge transition," Erin said.
She said Ronnie had not had a strong person in his life who he really trusted for a long time. That trust with her family did come, but it was slow.
"Jimmy also had to adapt," Erin said. "He was going from being a single man to the father of a 13-year-old boy. It was tough to have a demanding career and raise a child."
Erin said they bonded over movies, their love of the beach and the ocean, vacations and working out at the gym.
Ronnie talks to his brother, who is still in the military, and occasionally flies down to Virginia to see him. Wittig and Tamara also stay in touch and keep Linda's memory alive for her sons.
The present and future
When asked, Ronnie, now 20, said he did not want to be interviewed. He's not comfortable talking about his story, but his father said following his graduation from Seton Hall Preparatory School last year, Ronnie enrolled in a welding program at a technical school. He fell in love with welding during a summer program shortly after he moved in with Wittig. He recently used his welding skills to make a firepit that now sits in their backyard.
Ronnie, just like his father, wants to find the right person, marry and have a family, Wittig said. As for himself? He's dating and keeping all family options on the table.
"The universe listens," Wittig said, and gives you what you need. "Have you heard of synchronicities?" he asked. "It's God's way of giving you what you want."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: New Jersey surgeon adopts teen after seeing patient's Facebook post