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W.Va. girl coming to grips with loss

April 10, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - As 9-year-old Lindsey Connelly gingerly walks through Berkeley Heights Elementary School, her mother's hands supporting her torso, students perk up. Many wave and smile at Lindsey, forgetting their classmate can't see.

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Chrisy Connelly stands behind Lindsey, propping up her daughter under each arm. Lindsey takes slow, shaky steps but proves later that she can still muster a powerful hug.

Lindsey is wearing a red T-shirt under her overalls and beige moccasins. Her chain necklace has a "best bud" charm on it in honor of her closest friend, Emily.

A round dark blue hat covers Lindsey's head, which is marked by long surgical scars. Lindsey doesn't mind removing her hat, but she'd rather keep it on in public. She says she's thinking of getting a wig. Her mother rolls her eyes.

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"Not for outside, when I play, but out around town - not at church," Lindsey says. "It's for people who don't know I have my head shaved."

It has been six months since surgeons removed a cancerous mass from the base of Lindsey's brain. She lay face down on the operating table for 13 1/2 hours that October day, then underwent a second operation later on.

"She couldn't walk, speak or see when she woke up," Chrisy Connelly said.

The blindness is permanent.

The absence of speech, known as "cerebellar mutism," lasted two months.

One day, Lindsey started mouthing words. Her father, Tim, a physical therapist, coaxed her into saying "ahhh."

"I said, 'ahhh,' " Lindsey recalls. "He said, 'Add a mom to it.' I said, 'Ahhh-mom-mom.'"

Lindsey learned that she needed that extra 'ahhh' to get her going, like a verbal running start.

During an interview at the Berkeley Heights school, she gently chastises her mother for monopolizing the conversation. Now, as before her surgery, Lindsey has plenty to say, and will take on any question that's posed to her.

"I have to get up (and say), 'Well, God can't give me my vision ... but in the long end, I have faith."

It was difficult being unable to see her Christmas presents, Lindsey says, and there are two adult joys she'll miss above all others: "I can't see my babies and I can't drive."

She takes pleasure in other accomplishments - washing dishes, moving furniture, finally being able to pray on her knees instead of while lying in bed. She will begin a therapeutic horseback riding program this month.

"The cancer has been a pebble in our shoe," Chrisy Connelly says. "The vision loss has been the traumatic part."

The Connellys moved to eastern Berkeley County from a small rural town near Altoona, Pa., about 11 months before Lindsey's surgery. They set out for North Carolina but settled on West Virginia because they loved the people.

Chrisy Connelly was teaching three of her children - Lindsey, 12-year-old Sarah and 6-year-old Billy - at home. Elizabeth, now 3, was home, too.

Chrisy Connelly said she decided to enroll Lindsey and Billy at Berkeley Heights because they were having speech problems.

The day Lindsey was scheduled to meet with speech therapist Becky Gamble, Chrisy Connelly called to say the family was in Morgantown, W.Va., for Lindsey's surgery.

Lindsey had been experiencing headaches, dizziness and sinus problems starting that summer, and she was short on energy.

On Sept. 29, on a trip to the bank, Lindsey was uncharacteristically disruptive, her mother says. "She kept trying to push into a room. She's not like that."

Afterwards, Lindsey couldn't remember what had happened. The family suspected that she had a minor seizure, and took her to City Hospital to get two MRIs. The tumor was spotted on the first MRI.

Lindsey says she turned the experience into good-natured ammunition against Sarah. "I said, 'Sister, I have a picture of my brain. We don't have a picture of your brain. You can't call me a no-brainer no more.'"

"Any more," her mother corrects.

Lindsey smiles and sniffs.

"She's very much aware of the losses she's sustained," Chrisy Connelly says. "There are periods at home where we have to have a good old cry."

But those times are rarer than some might think because there is plenty of reason to stay upbeat, mother and daughter say.

The Connellys are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Martinsburg. They say their faith has carried them. "God still has a special plan for me," says Lindsey, who is in the middle of a 52-week daily chemotherapy program and has had radiation treatment, as well.

More surprising has been the graciousness of the school staff and students, Chrisy Connelly says.

Becky Gamble, the speech therapist, says the special education department decided to start a campaign in November called "Lindsey's Hope." They asked students to bring in spare pennies for her. The goal was $600 by Christmas, or about $1 per child.

On the first day, there was a cacophony of clanging coins. "We heard the money jingling in their pockets," Gamble says. "It was like Jingle Bells."

That first day, the students contributed $541.04, and the altruism didn't let up.

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