Brendan McGloughlin feeds his bearded lizard a cool salad on a hot summer afternoon as he awaits his first year of high school.
His younger brother, Matthew, wrestles on the couch with their youngest sibling, 3-year-old Emma, who has him in a chokehold. Sister Abby, 11, bounces across the carpet as she shows off her Irish dancing routine.
In the background, adoptive mother Bre McGloughlin admires her family, one that she’s lovingly assembled in her farmhouse deep in the Sierra foothills.
About 15 years ago, the McGloughlins met the mother of all four children, Tonya Carrara, when she visited their home with a friend, Bre’s nephew. A few weeks later, Carrara reached out to Bre about adopting a child she was three months’ pregnant with.
Carrara told The Bee she was unable to take care of the children she already had and with no job and a string of “loser” boyfriends, she suspected there was a better life she could not give her newest son.
Bre had already raised three daughters, but her husband, Stephen, wanted to raise children of his own. Months later, the couple agreed to adopt Brendan.
About a decade on, the McGloughlins have adopted their fourth child from Carrara, a young girl named Emma.
As it turns out, all four adopted children ended up with permanent, and in three cases, life-threatening disabilities.
Doctors have told Bre that some of the four children’s disabilities are hereditary while others have occurred completely at random. Carrara’s other eight children were all born without any health problems.
Despite the medical issues, Bre counts herself and her husband as two of the luckiest parents in the world.
“They all have a great sense of humor, they are compassionate, outgoing, adventurous to a fault sometimes, intelligent and giving,” Bre said. “Seriously the best kids I could ever ask for. I can’t imagine life without them.”
Bre has kept in touch with the birth mother, and the children regularly visit her and their siblings in Reno.
Carrara said she doesn’t regret putting her children up for adoption because she knows the McGloughlins are meeting their every need.
“When she adopted Brendan, being the first one, it killed me,” Carrara said. “At the time, it was the worst thing I had to do in my whole life. It makes me feel helpless knowing that they are going through that, but I couldn’t have asked for better people to take them.”
It’s easy for the McGloughlin children to forget they are not a “normal family,” in between doing chores, participating in outdoor sports, going to school with their siblings and looking out for the furry, feathered and scaly members of their family, said Brendan, now 14.
About a year after he was born, his adoptive parents discovered he suffered from anhidrosis, which prevents him from sweating to cool down his body. A few times at school, he suffered seizures from overheating, and his teachers didn’t know how to take care of him or didn’t think his condition was a serious concern, Bre said.
The family must adjust their outings, especially during hot spells common in the Sacramento Valley, to accommodate his condition by bringing water and ice packs in coolers.
Brendan gave up basketball and sought out other, more manageable sports, such as swimming, hiking and kayaking. Nonetheless, Brendan has pushed himself to succeed on his own and recently re-enrolled in public school after opting for homeschooling because of his condition.
“All my friends at school played on the same team I did, and since leaving I haven’t really seen or heard from them,” Brendan said.
Bre said her youngest son, Matthew, 12, has suffered from seizures throughout his childhood and suspects he has Long QT syndrome, which causes irregular heartbeats and can lead to seizures and in severe cases cardiac arrest.
Brendan and Bre recalled one severe seizure that hit while Matthew was standing at the top of the stairs.
He froze, convulsed, became disoriented and tumbled down the steps, sending him to the emergency room.
An official diagnosis has not been made in Matthew’s case. In many cases, Long QT syndrome is diagnosed only after seizures or a cardiac event gives doctors a reason to perform an electrocardiogram, which analyzes a patient’s heart condition, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Matthew plays the guardian to his two younger sisters, especially Emma who was born with extreme congenital hypothyroidism, in which her thyroid produces unbalanced levels of hormones.
The condition requires her to take thyroid hormone medication every day for the rest of her life and to undergo developmental therapy, according to Bre.
On a recent afternoon, 11-year-old Abby welcomed a group of visitors to the McGloughlin farm. Although she was born with bilateral clubbed feet, and misses some fingers and toes, she’s taken on rhythmic Irish dancing, following in the footsteps of father Stephen’s mother, who taught Irish and Scottish dancing,
She’s already undergone corrective surgery to straighten her feet and will likely require surgery later in life, Bre said.
At the house, the 11-year-old was eager to show off the prized chicks that she raises, as well as her fairy garden and “buckets of hope” filled with vegetables she grows to raise money for a nonprofit organization, the Lucky Fin Project, which celebrates people with “limb differences.”
After each child was diagnosed, Bre said she encouraged her children to not let their physical disabilities stop them from achieving whatever they set their minds to. Brendan, for one, said he’s ready to begin his next chapter at public school, and even encouraged his best friend, who’s autistic, to take the step as well.
“Whether it’s (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) or you’re missing fingers, or you’re autistic or whatever, the kids will just jump right in there and watch out for each other,” Bre said. “We try to keep life as normal as possible.”