Hickory girl won't let physical problems handicap her

November 01, 1992|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

If Hickory's Holly Engler had not overcome life-threatening brain surgery when she was 2 years old, her actions would seem typical for a youngster eager to celebrate her 12th birthday on Thursday.

She is an extraordinary child, an overachiever, an inspiration to those who know of her successes.

Surgeons spent 14 hours removing a brain tumor. Radiation therapy and two strokes within a month after surgery took away her sight, her long brown curls, damaged her growth hormones and caused scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.

But her strong will to live and radiant personality remained intact.

"At first, doctors said she would die," said Dottie Engler, Holly's mother. "She had to learn to walk and talk all over again after each stroke. It was only last year that I finally decided she was not going to die."

Holly's omnipresent smile and non-stop chatter helped eliminate that fear and her daily words and deeds keep it from


Consider these visitor's notes:

Holly groaned loudly to protest her father's joking suggestion that the family skip having a party for her.

She spoke excitedly of dressing up as Catwoman for Halloween and delighted in clapping her hands to scare a visitor with her sound-activated ghost hanging on the fireplace.

She teased her father that he should remove the ghost before Santa Claus has to come down the chimney at Christmas.

A new pair of pierced earrings, she said, would make a perfect birthday gift.

Last month Holly took the lead in the first St. Ignatius Church youth bike-a-thon for charity. Totals are not final, but Holly earned almost $600 of the $2,000 pledged for the benefit of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

As the event's top fund-raiser, she won a new bicycle. Instead of accepting the bike, however, Holly donated it to the kids at St. Jude's. She prefers the old tricycle with a wobbly wheel, a crooked seat and rusty handlebars that her mother bought for $15 at an antiques auction. It was the same cycle that she rode in the bike-a-thon.

For a blind child with multiple handicaps, it's a perfect match.

For Harry and Dottie Engler, the irony of her effort is not lost. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases.

The medical problems have affected her ability to learn. Holly functions at about half the level of most children her age. She spent nine years at the Maryland School for the Blind before entering Harford County's Inclusion Program at Southampton Middle School this year. The program allows her to attend school with with sighted sixth graders and addresses her special needs.

Holly's toughest challenge will be mastering Braille. If she can do that, said Mr. Engler, it will open the door to so much more.

She demonstrated her exceptional long-term memory to a visitor. From among more than 400 audio tapes, one was randomly selected. After hearing perhaps three seconds of the introductory music, she correctly identified its title.

She determination inspires her classmates and friends.

"The other kids [at the bike-a-thon] had ridden 50 laps [about six miles] and then stayed to cheer Holly on," said Doris Wheeler, one of the event coordinators.

Noting her obvious prejudice, Mrs. Engler said she expected Holly to do three or four laps.

"It didn't matter how many laps she did, but she was going to have to do them on her own," said Mrs. Engler. "I was very surprised -- and proud -- that she held on to complete 25."

Mr. Engler was not so surprised.

"We just try to treat her like a normal child and let her experience as much as she can," he said. "She even drives the [lawn] tractor sometimes," he said, explaining that Holly rides the tractor while her parents give her directions.

"Not the big one," said Holly. "I drive the little one."

"And don't ever tell her she can't see, said Mr. Engler. "She'll tell you she sees with her hands."

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