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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

A Hopkins psychologist, Margaret B. Pulsifer, is traveling the country to test 58 hemispherectomy patients, whose ages now range from 15 months to 37 years. She has tested 40 so far and is scheduled to visit Beth this month.

She's found that left hemispherectomy patients have a little more trouble with language; right hemispherectomy patients have greater difficulty with visual memory, she says.

"But these kids carry on with almost-normal lives," she says. "It's amazing the brain and spirit are so resilient."

After the Ushers returned home in 1987, Kathy recalls trying to purge their lives of reminders of what Beth now would never do.

"She'd taken ballet lessons with her cousin," says Kathy, 43. "She'd wanted to be a dancer. After the surgery I remember coming home and throwing out a lot of things associated with ballet -- a music box with a dancer on top."

Gradually, Beth's parents came to appreciate what Beth was and could become and to forget whatever she was not.

Brian, previously a football coach at the University of Connecticut, switched to admissions work as Beth recovered to cut down on travel. Kathy devoted her evenings to walking Beth through her homework. Brian Jr., two years older than his sister, became her defender at school.

The family watched as Beth explored her physical possibilities, often on vacations on Martha's Vineyard: good at volleyball and badminton, terrific at table tennis; a natural swimmer; hopelessly unbalanced on a bike.

They watched as Beth refined her wit, from a little-girl trait to a kind of camouflage. "She says, 'I'm going to make you laugh, so you don't focus on my physical problems,' " Kathy says.

To a striking degree, her personality was unmistakably that of the healthy 5-year-old before the first seizure. But the elements were reshuffled, some fading, some emerging more prominently.

"Part of how she is, is who she is," says her father. "Part of it is the seizures and the surgery."

Compassion became a defining feature of her personality. "She was a very caring, loving, funny person before," her mother says. "She's even more so now, because she has less in her life absorbing her energy. She doesn't have the ballet, the soccer, the active social life. She's had great success with helping people."

There's the autistic 6-year-old ("bright red hair and bright blue eyes," Beth recalls) who never communicated until Beth worked with him at summer school, standing beside him as he drew letters on the blackboard and pronounced their names.

There are the school friends who call at night to report anxieties, slights, embarrassments. Beth talks with them through dinner, through favorite TV shows, refusing to hang up until she has made them laugh. At lunch, she makes a point of sitting with kids who are alone -- the new, the handicapped, the ostracized.

There's her science teacher, Edmund J. Smith, who struggled for weeks to get control of an unruly class. Beth handed him a note of encouragement one day last fall that kept him from giving up. "To me, she's been a godsend," he says.

And there are her parents, who find the tables turned as Beth counsels them about troubles at work. "She doesn't get bogged down in the garbage the rest of us do," says her mother, recalling how Beth helped her cope with a difficult colleague.

From time to time, a parent of a Rasmussen's child awaiting surgery visits the Ushers for advice and solace. Sometimes the visitors cannot quite disguise their disappointment at hearing of Beth's arduous therapy and seeing her permanent handicaps.

"It's tough when they come before surgery," says Brian Usher, 44. "They're looking for a magic, happy ending."

Yet the Ushers understand the other parents' feelings. They have themselves been on a journey.

"Before, I thought, I'm settling for this with Beth," Kathy says. "Now, I really do feel proud. I really love the individual Beth has become. We're a very, very close family, and I don't know if we would be like this if this hadn't happened."

Beth Usher moves independently through the corridors of E.O. Smith High School, greeting and being greeted, but never quite joining the knots of adolescents enthralled with themselves and their relationships.

Her first two years in high school, her brother and her cousin and close friend, Rebecca McCarthy, were there for support. In the cynical, conformist world of high school, they incorporated Beth into their circles of friends.

Now she's on her own, and her brother, a freshman at the University of Connecticut after spending a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, worries about her.

"I think it's harder to be different when you're a junior in high school," he says. "There's a lot more pressure to act a certain way. Everybody wants to look cool, often at other people's expense."

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