8-year-old typifies courage against cerebral palsy

March 23, 2007|by a sun reporter

The dream was the most vivid Rebecca Andrade remembers ever having. There was a young, slender and attractive girl walking along a beach.

"I knew this was going to be one of my kids," says Andrade, who was pregnant at the time. "She was going to be fine, but she was going to have some difficulties. I don't know where this came from, but I just knew it."

Today, she says she believes the dream was a prophecy of her daughter, Kelli, one of twins born Jan. 29, 1999.

The girls were born prematurely, and their survival was a matter of poor odds. Karli, the larger of the two, weighed 25.5 ounces. And Kelli was 20.5 ounces -- so tiny that she "fit in the palm of my hand," her mother recalls.

Soon, Kelli was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination.

In the succeeding eight years, Kelli, a first-grader at Stevens Forest Elementary School, has made remarkable progress, and tomorrow evening she will take center stage at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to present a bouquet of flowers to country legend Emmylou Harris, who will headline a concert on behalf of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland.

Kelli and Lucas Haselman from Carroll County were chosen for the honor by officials of the Cerebral Palsy's Delrey School in Catonsville, her mother says.

"She's always happy, with a smile on her face and puts forward her best effort," Rebecca Andrade says. "Lucas is the same way."

A sweeping smile forms on Leonard Andrade's face while discussing Kelli's advancement, but it disappears just as swiftly when remembering the winter of 1999.

The Columbia couple had their first child, Kara, four years earlier. But this pregnancy was different.

Rebecca Andrade had severe high blood pressure -- "the numbers were off the wall" -- and her blood would not clot. The slightest prick resulted in excessive bleeding.

"She was very ill," Leonard Andrade says. "I didn't know if she'd make it."

She was transferred from Howard County General Hospital to University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. When her condition worsened, physicians concluded they had to deliver the babies, even though it was three months early.

"It was touch and go," says Leonard Andrade, 55, a carrier with the U.S. Postal Service. "The first 72 hours were scary -- you didn't know if they're going to live or die."

The babies remained hospitalized and on oxygen for months and each required several blood transfusions, their father says.

Unable to bring them home, Rebecca Andrade placed in their incubators tape recordings of her voice and of classical music. "I wanted them to know who I was," she says.

Karli was permitted to go home after two months, Kelli four weeks later. Before her release, though, physicians discovered what resembled "three little pin pricks" on the base of Kelli's scull.

Even when the girls were released, both remained attached to heart monitors 24 hours a day for six months.

"It was great having them home," says Rebecca Andrade, 49. "But I wondered, `How an I going to do this?'"

She managed, she says, with considerable assistance from relatives and friends.

Karli's development was normal. But Kelli's baby cries were so faint as to be almost inaudible, and she was late to crawl, her parents say. An MRI later revealed that part of Kelli's brain was dead, although physicians said the extent of her illness would not be known until she was 2 or 3 years old.

Her parents say they never experienced anger or resentment that their daughter was ill. "I still had a calm about me," Rebecca Andrade says. "My attitude was, `We'll find the best solution to deal with it.' Part of her brain was dead, but you could see the brightness in her eyes. It's not the worst it can be."

The family lived in a three-level townhouse in Baltimore County, and the home increasingly became unsuitable. That, and the parents' displeasure with school officials' approach to Kelli, ultimately prompted the move to Columbia.

Kelli's development was impaired, and she "would hop like a bunny" to get around, her mother says.

Kelli was placed in a special-education class when she was enrolled in preschool, but her parents believed that Baltimore County school officials were not adequately attending to her needs.

"They were providing speech, physical and occupational therapy," Rebecca Andrade says. "But there is a limit to what the public schools can do. It wasn't enough. ... We kept saying, `Let's work on the physical, so she can deal with the world.'"

One school official told the Andrades that Kelli's hopping was "adequate" to move around.

Physicians at the medical center recommended that the Andrades consider placing Kelli in the United Cerebral Palsy's Delrey School. But public school officials opposed that, insisting that their services were sufficient, Kelli's parents say.

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