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An Extraordinary, Ordinary Girl A decade after radical brain surgery, Beth Usher, now 17, has made a miraculous, inspiring comeback.

April 13, 1997|By Scott Shane|| TC | Scott Shane|| TC,SUN STAFF

She is an in-between figure in the neat classroom, a bridge between the kids and the teachers who run the program. At 17, in a baggy sweat shirt and jeans, she looks a couple of years younger, brown bangs framing red cheeks and a full set of braces. Her manner is tentative, self-consciousness masked by wisecracks: her parents are "turning white"; her hobby is "causing trouble."

She recalls, hazily, the seizures that consumed two years of her life: a feeling of dizziness, a fall, a right leg and arm that "would not listen to me," she says. "It wasn't as painful as it was scary."

As the children clatter into the room, Beth stands by and gives them high-fives with her good left hand. One little girl stops and reads haltingly the inscription on Beth's Snoopy sweat shirt. "I love life," it says.

"Do you?" the girl asks.

"I really do," Beth replies.

As the kids raucously gather to go outside, Beth tries a trick to keep them in order. "Count backward from 100," she says, setting off a determined chorus.

On the playground, Beth joins a game of freeze tag, able occasionally to catch a kid despite her slight hobble. But when a boy wants his shoe untied and retied so he can dump the sand out, she calls to a teacher for help. She only recently mastered the laborious skill of tying her own shoes with one hand, she says.

In a sense, Beth's surgical recovery continues today. Its beginning might be dated from 1 a.m. one morning in March of 1987, as she emerged from the monthlong coma that followed her surgery. "Dad. My nose itches me," she said, proving she had not lost the ability to speak.

After two months at Hopkins, there were two more months in Newington Children's Hospital near her home. Then there were several tedious years of physical therapy, as she regained the ability to walk and run. Previously right-handed, she had to learn to write, eat and do other tasks with her left hand.

For a while, Beth had word-retrieval problems, saying, for example, "that thing that keeps rain off your head." Eventually Beth learned to self-cue by associating pictures and initial sounds: she would picture an umbrella, remember the "U" sound, and recall the word.

Her parents played rhyming games with her, sat beside her as she did her schoolwork, taught her math and geography by playing imaginary travel games with the maps on the wall.

In the first years, every headache would panic her parents. But she's never had pain in her left brain cavity, which filled with spinal fluid immediately after surgery.

Once, she had to return to the operating room. In 1991, Beth's physical therapist diagnosed curvature of the spine, which doctors said might be related to muscular weakness on her right side. When the orthopedic surgeon declared she'd need a major operation for spinal fusion, the Ushers were overwhelmed.

"I'll never forget it," Kathy Usher says. "We were devastated when we walked out of his office. We couldn't talk. We were driving in silence. And Beth said, 'Come on, guys. It's not like I have to have more brain surgery.' So we went out for ice cream, and joked about 'What's it going to be next?' "

That has been Beth's mode for 10 years: cheering her parents through her own trials. "I've put you through so much," she tells them.

At the age of 12, she wrote a booklet for children entering the hospital. Titled "The Sun Can Come Out Again, or: How I Got Rid of Something Bad!" it was dedicated to "two special doctors" whom she credits with saving her life, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and neurologist John M. Freeman.

Beth's account of seizures and surgery is followed by her 50 rules for hospital survival. Along with predictable cheerleading are maxims with an edge -- "Pretend you're asleep when people you don't like visit you" (No. 6) and "Make your brother or sister wait on you in the hospital -- it's the only time they will" (No. 19). Some are purely practical, such as No. 33: "Bring your sneakers instead of slippers. I think slippers are slippery in the hospital."

The booklet's second dedication is to Fred Rogers, the gentle sovereign of kids' public television.

It is not distant hero-worship. Beth had written to Mr. Rogers before her surgery; after the operation, when she was comatose, he flew to Baltimore, spent an hour in Beth's room at Hopkins, talking to her and introducing puppet characters. Her eyes were open, but she did not respond.

Having prohibited the hospital from publicizing his visit, Mr. Rogers flew back to Pittsburgh. Beth learned of the visit only later, through her parents' snapshots.

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