Graduate defies odds, flourishes in wheelchair


Send a little applause Dustin Gill's way tonight. When the kids from Centennial High School, in Howard County, line up for graduation this evening, Dustin will be there, against all odds.

Send a few bouquets his way. Dustin's earned them. Got straight A's this year, learned a bunch of new computer skills. Went to the Farewell Assembly and the Senior Prom. Send a lot of admiration his way.

When the kids assemble to march into the auditorium at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Dustin will roll in on his wheelchair. For the last 12 years, since he was 5, he's been unable to move from the neck down. He uses a ventilator to breathe. And he's spent his senior year taking class work at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital, where he's getting therapy.

That's where he was over the weekend, sitting in his wheelchair, decked out in Bermuda shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, skimming over some stuff on his computer and thinking about going to college in the fall.

You should see him on this computer. He writes stories, plays games, keeps an electronic bulletin board, communicates with other computer hotshots, reads, studies, types out the various interests in his life. He's got this tube in his mouth, and he blows into it using Morse code, little dots and --es that translate into letters in the computer.

He's zipping along right now, moving from the bulletin board to this story he wrote last December, about some guy who tries to wreck every child's Christmas but doesn't get away with it. There's another story, too, which won Dustin a school prize a couple of years ago, called "The Cat That Ate Columbia."

He's been using computers since he was 6 years old. Once, individuals like Dustin, those cheated by nature or circumstance, were relegated to dark corners. They became society's afterthoughts. Those days are gone, and Dustin Gill is the proof.

"There are times," he says, shifting his wheelchair around his room, surrounded by his computer, his boom box radio, his television set and his bed, "when I say, 'It's too much.' Yeah, I feel that way sometimes. But, you know, you just have to do the work. I want to show people I can do it. And I want to show myself."

He's been doing it since that day in Pasadena when he and a friend were crossing the street, and a car came, and it struck Dustin and left him paralyzed. Years of therapy, years of learning skills previously unimagined, have followed, and years of sitting in classrooms while someone took notes for him, years of reading from books while someone turned the pages.

He's endured. In many ways, he's flourished, and become a role model for all those overcoming their own troubles and asking, Why me?

"Why me?" Dustin echoes. "Yeah, you think about it once in a while. But you try not to do it too often."

Mostly, he thinks about things other 17-year-olds think about. Likes to go to rock concerts, wants to see "The Flintstones" at the movies. Went to his senior prom, at Martin's West and thought it was "pretty neat" catching up with classmates he hadn't seen for a while.

Spends a lot of time on his computer, not much watching TV because "there's nothing decent to watch," and wonders what to major in when he gets to college. Likes ancient studies, archaeology.

Outside his room at Mount Washington Pediatric, there are others like Dustin. Most are small children, with chronic lung diseases, birth defects, physical disabilities, neurological disorders.

Dustin goes through therapy every day, trying to maximize his physical abilities. But his mental abilities are sharp, and inside his head, he's created an entire universe.

"I feel like I'm ready to take on the world," he says. "I mean, I'm not sure exactly what I want to do yet. That's the question they ask you on your college application, and I didn't know exactly what to answer. But I'm ready to see what's out there."

"What's your biggest wish?" a hospital employee ducking her head into Dustin's room asks him now.

"If I'd never gotten hit by a car," he says, and laughs to deflect any self-pity. "But really, I guess I could use a new computer, one with those new hard-drive mega-lifts."

He starts using language that sounds futuristic. It's where his head is, somewhere out there in the future. He deserves the future. Send a little applause Dustin Gill's way. He deserves that, too.

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