When Kevin and Amy McMullen adopted Ryan 3 H years ago (WORLD cover story, June 6, 1998), they knew something about adoption because they had already adopted Dalton (now 8) and Seamus (now 6). But Ryan's birth was something different. He was born at 26 weeks, weighing 1 lb. 12 oz. He was so tiny that he fit easily into the palm of Kevin's hand, with his miniature feet barely reaching his father's wrist. His skin, his lungs, his eyes were all underdeveloped, leading the doctors to think he would either die or have a medically troubled life.
That their new baby had problems did not deter the McMullens from adoption. They wanted to serve. It helped that Kevin is a doctor-at that time stationed at Fort Hood in Texas-and that the McMullens did not panic when Ryan's monitor went off in the middle of the night, signaling that he had stopped breathing. For months after leaving the hospital, that monitor, and a canister of oxygen, accompanied him everywhere.
The McMullens measured Ryan's weight gain in ounces rather than pounds. The many medications he took gave him a round, chubby baby look that belied his actual condition. Meanwhile doctors monitored him frequently for signs of blindness or cerebral palsy. But those who watched Ryan at breakfast in a North Carolina restaurant recently wouldn't have any sense of early problems. Ryan is now 30 pounds of energy, game for anything his big brothers do.
The McMullens are used to attracting attention. Kevin and Amy are white, but their three boys are many shades of brown: Dalton is part American Indian, Seamus is African-American, and Ryan is Mexican-American. In the busy restaurant Kevin handed out pens (touting different prescription medications), while Ryan stood on his chair, climbed down from his chair, pushed his chair out from the table, and sat on his mom's lap, stirring her water and munching on a lemon.
Across the table, Seamus, wearing a T-shirt with a ferocious-looking dinosaur on the front, tucked his burgundy napkin into his shirt collar and asked the 10-year-old boy next to him, "Want to play tic-tac-toe?" They played several games before the older boy tired of it, but that didn't stop Seamus. He continued to draw his tic-tac-toe boards, fill them in with Os, and announce himself the winner, over and over again. When his breakfast arrived-two dinner-plate-sized chocolate-chip pancakes-he chortled merrily, although his appetite flagged after eating half of them.
Dalton also dug into his food, while Ryan watched his older brothers from across the table, occasionally hopping down to get a better look at what Seamus was up to. He provided a receptive audience to Seamus's mugging, laughing on cue. Ryan has thick straight hair that springs out from his head like a soft brush cut and at the moment is slightly uneven in length because Ryan used dog-clipping scissors to remove a silver-dollar-sized patch; oh, there's another short spot where a wad of gum was removed.
According to his dad, Ryan has been talking in sentences since the age of two. He no longer has to make special visits to doctors, since his vision is fine and he has caught up developmentally with kids born after a full-term pregnancy. He's small, in the 5th percentile, but that may owe more to genetics than to the circumstances of his birth: His birth mom was only 4' 10".
About 10 minutes after they finished eating, as though a silent buzzer had gone off that only the kids could hear, all three boys stepped up their activity a notch. "That's it," Amy said with a wry grin. "Breakfast is over. If we stay any longer they'll start tearing apart the restaurant." The McMullens are scheduled to go to China soon to adopt a fourth child.