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Hagerstown girl continues to astonish doctors

November 29, 1996

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Donna Joy Watts celebrated her fifth birthday Friday, defying the grimmest predictions from doctors for yet another year.

Afflicted with rare multiple brain disorders, Donna Joy was supposed to die at birth, or shortly thereafter. But Hagerstown residents Donald and Lori Watts resisted suggestions that she terminate her pregnancy and refused to give up on their daughter.

Lori Watts' book, "God's Child," is on the way. She said she hopes it will help parents whose children suffer from holoprosencephaly, a disorder resulting from incomplete cleavage of the two hemispheres of the brain. She added that her advice already has helped a Denver couple whose 2-year-old son has from similar ailments.

The Wattses dedicated their lives to caring for Donna Joy, often ignoring doctors' advice when it conflicted with their own experience.

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Lori Watts was told early on that even if her daughter survived past the first year, she would never be able to walk. That's because she is missing the part of the brain that controls walking.

But Donna Joy was indistinguishable from her three sisters at the Four Points Hotel Friday as she raced across the room to open her presents. Hotel officials donated a ballroom for her party.

Lori Watts said she also was told her daughter would probably not be able to eat because she could not suck or swallow.

"Now she eats Big Macs," Lori Watts said.

Doctors whose dire predictions have been foiled time and again are at a loss for an explanation.

Donald Watts has only one: "It's just a miracle from God. We had to fight for a lot of things. My wife and I did a lot of reading. We made a lot of medical decisions."

One of the first decisions was to ignore doctors' forecasts that eating would be impossible.

Lori Watts invented her own baby formula when her daughter could not keep down fluids. She mixed bananas with rice cereal and baby formula. She then fed her child one drop at a time with a syringe.

Donna Joy's fifth birthday - which by mayoral proclamation is now officially Donna Joy Watts Day - is a medical as well as an emotional milestone. Medical experts now believe she has a relatively good chance to survive and continue developing.

"She is very astonishing," said Dr. Prafull Dave, a neurologist. "She is very astonishing. This is not something we'd generally anticipate."

Donna Joy's disorders will present constant challenges. But she now can talk and interact normally. She can count to 20 with help and recognize some letters and sign language.

Besides medical science and the family's ingenuity, another healing force was necessary - actor Scott Bakula. The former "Quantum Leap" star's voice appears to be the only thing that can calm and focus Donna Joy.

Lori Watts said her daughter suffered a complete regression when she was about 2. She lost all the skills she had acquired and her parents feared she was dying. Then, accidentally, a tape of a "Quantum Leap" episode in which Bakula sings "Somewhere in the Night" had a miraculous effect.

Lori Watts said they play an eight-hour tape of music by Bakula almost daily. Donald Watts said they've tried other music and other singers.

"It has to be him," he said. "Nothing else works but him."

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