March 04, 1996 12:00 PM

IT STARTED LAST SEPTEMBER WITH a stomachache that wouldn’t go away. This was followed by exhaustion and loss of appetite. By the middle of October, Brian Bauman, a cadet in his senior year at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, had made an appointment to see his doctor. It looked as if the trouble was his appendix, so that was removed. Still, the pain persisted—and, more ominously, blood tests showed a high white-cell count. “When I explained my [medical] concerns, it hit him really hard,” says Air Force Maj. Bill Gibson, Bauman’s physician, who ordered a bone-marrow check.

Then, at 10 a.m. on Halloween, Brian Bauman—21 years old, high school valedictorian, Air Force pilot-in-training, aspiring pediatrician—got the crushing news: He had chronic myelogenous leukemia. Without a successful bone-marrow transplant, he would be dead within three to five years. “It seemed like suddenly I had lost control of everything in my life,” he says. “It was like it had shattered, and I was slowly trying to pick up the pieces.”

A search began immediately for a suitable bone-marrow donor. In the best of cases—with a transplant from a full relative with genetically matching marrow—Bauman would have an 85 percent chance of survival. But Bauman is adopted, which vastly complicates his case. Born Kim Sung Duk in South Korea and taken from an adoption agency at age 3 by Steve and Elaine Bauman, who now live in Pine City, Minn., just north of St. Paul, Brian has never known the identity of his biological parents. Records of his Korean roots have vanished. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Steve Bauman, 51, a 3M engineer, says of the search for the hypothetical sibling who might save his son’s life. “Except you don’t know for sure there even is a needle.”

Remarkably, though, a potentially suitable donor has been found. And perhaps just as remarkable has been the outpouring of emotion for Brian from the people of South Korea—a nation that remains deeply ambivalent about its orphaned children and their adoption by foreigners. On Jan. 28., the Korean Broadcasting System aired a one-hour documentary about Brian, showing him at the academy and at home with his parents. The effect was galvanic. In the first week, KBS received 1,000 calls a day about Brian. “People over there tell us they thought Americans were taking in these kids as charity,” explains Steve Bauman. “They didn’t realize we love them as our own, that they’re part of our families.” The response was so frenzied that in three weeks the South Korean marrow registries almost doubled their entries—from 10,000 to nearly 19,000—which is striking, given traditional Korean taboos against blood and organ donation. “It’s a cultural thing,” says Hyun Sook Han, an adoption consultant. “You give up something of your body, you’re giving up something of your ancestors.”

Within days of the broadcast, the Korean search turned up a man who may be Bauman’s savior. He is Korean army Sgt. Suh Han-Kuk, 23, a cook who, though not a relative, is a close enough match that—depending on the results of further tests to be completed this month—he may have compatible marrow. With a nonrelated donor, Brian’s chance of survival is much lower, about 45 percent, so the family is holding out hope that a blood relative might be found. The documentary producer believes that he is on the trail of Brian’s biological mother and sister and says he has found a half brother (already proven not to be a match) and three half sisters. “The people of Korea gave up on Brian once, but won’t give up on him this time,” says Steve Bauman.

Ironically, Brian had until recently never shown much interest in the country of his birth. Elaine Bauman, 51, a nursing assistant, laughs when she remembers how she and Steve tried to take 5-year-old Brian to a Saturday-morning program to meet other Korean children. “He’d scream and scream,” she recalls. “He wanted to stay home with his brother and sisters and watch cartoons.” All Brian ever knew about his biological parents were the scant facts that Steve and Elaine could tell him: His father was a farmer with a family in rural Korea but spent winters in Seoul with Brian’s mother, who was single and 25 when she took Brian—clean, healthy and obviously loved—to an adoption agency.

On the day Brian arrived by air from Seoul, Sept. 7, 1977, the Bauman family (Steve, Elaine, daughters Becky, then 14, Sandy, 12, and son Doug, 4) was so taken with him that “we put him on the floor in his room, then all laid down around him, like a pinwheel,” Steve recalls. “No one wanted to leave.” Brian spoke no English, but within minutes of his arrival he had learned one fundamental: the word “cookie.” At age 9, he announced that he wanted to become an aeronautical engineer. “That’s how he said it—’aeronautical engineer,’ not just a guy who builds airplanes,” Steve recalls.

The passion for flight was more than a childish notion. During high school—where he earned straight As, was student council president and made varsity in three sports—he caught an Air Force Academy football game on TV. “I liked the prestige,” says Brian, who had always felt he had a debt to repay to the United States. “And I decided that was where I wanted to go to school and learn to fly.” Having survived the selection process, he found the schedule so demanding—with days starting at 6 a.m. and packed with academic and physical activity—that he occasionally reconsidered. “It was do or die,” he recalls of his freshman year. “I would call my parents and say, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ They would say, ‘Think about it,’ and then I would remember why I wanted to be here.”

Rather than lighten his load, he gave himself the additional challenge of taking on a double major—math and physics. “I got hooked on Mountain Dew and cappuccinos to keep me awake,” he says. But by last October, the exhaustion he was feeling was beyond even what overworked cadets experience. “I had no energy,” he says.

His fatigue has been compounded by Interferon treatments, which cause congestion, aches and fevers. The toll on his psyche has been even worse. Because of Brian’s leukemia, Air Force regulations forbid him from continuing his training as a pilot, and he cannot be commissioned as an officer. He now hopes to attend medical school and reapply to become an Air Force flight surgeon. “I think the hardest thing of all for him,” says Dr. Gibson, “has been reshuffling his dreams.”

If his health holds out, Bauman can put off all thoughts of donors and marrow until after May 29, the day he plans to fling his cap in the air with the other 999 members of his class and graduate from the academy. Then he’ll fly to Seattle for the transplant—from Suh or another donor, if a better one can be found. And there is one other item on his agenda: As soon as possible, Steve and Elaine Bauman are going to take their son to the land of his birth, a place they have never visited but for which they are eternally thankful.


VICKIE BANE in Colorado Springs, MARGARET NELSON in Pine City and ANDREA PAWLYNA in Seoul

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