Michael Leger, 14, School for the Blind student

January 01, 2001

Michael Robert Leger, who managed to swim and sing and laugh through a short life burdened by blindness, autism and recurring cancer, died Friday of lung cancer at his home in Annapolis. He was 14 and a student at Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore.

Michael was born in Lewiston, Maine, with cancer of the retinas. His right eye was removed when he was 8 weeks old and radiation therapy soon claimed the sight in his left.

Despite blindness and autism, he learned to speak and started to learn Braille at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., where Helen Keller was educated. He spent five years at the school.

Michael learned to sing songs; one of his favorites was "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." He also learned to swim.

"At first we were using the life preserver and then we didn't need them anymore," said his father, Daryl Leger. "He learned to go underwater and hold his breath. Sometimes he'd hold his breath for, like, a whole minute and just play and kick."

Michael continued making progress and seemed to be in good health when the family moved to Annapolis in spring 1999. Daryl Leger's job as a computer software engineer had taken the family to the area. Soon after the move, Michael started to limp. Doctors found bone cancer in his left leg. Michael underwent chemotherapy and had the leg amputated in May 1999. That hardly slowed Michael down.

"He always adapted," his father said. "When we brought him home from the surgery, the very next day he ... scooted on his bottom and his hands. It was just amazing."

He had no problem adjusting to a prosthetic leg.

"For a blind person to be running with a prosthetic leg is pretty amazing," his father said. Again, Michael's parents thought he had beaten cancer. But three months ago, doctors found two tumors on his lungs. His parents opted against putting him through more chemotherapy or surgery.

"We decided at that point for quality of life rather than quantity," his father said.

Daryl Leger said he and his wife, Elizabeth, are grateful that their son lived as long as he did.

"We were blessed to have him the 14 years," he said. "He loved us so much he didn't want to leave us.

"When he wasn't ill, he was an extremely happy, lovable kid. He had his favorite toy, a rain stick - one of those things when you tip it, you hear the pebbles running through."

Michael's parents had him cremated with the rain stick.

A memorial Mass will be held at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Mary's Church, 109 Duke of Gloucester St., Annapolis.

In addition to his parents, Michael is survived by his 12-year-old sister, Stephanie; and grandparents, Gerry and Denise Leger of Sabattus, Maine.

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