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bob maginnis - 12/2/01

December 27, 2001

Can you help this child?



Every parent of a teenager worries. Will they be popular? Will they succeed in life? Why do they want to pierce their eyebrows?

Sandra Hill worries about her son Brandon, too. From 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day, she cares for a 17-year-old who is not only profoundly retarded, but also has cerebral palsy and scoliosis, a medical condition in which the spine is abnormally curved.

In January, doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital will try to correct that with an operation that will insert a steel rod down the center of the boy's back.

The surgery will mean that Brandon will be able to sit up straight. But it also means that his mother won't be able to bend him, as she does now, to lift him into the bathtub. What the family will need is a specially-designed shower stall and chair, so that they can lather him up, then rinse him off.

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There's not room for that in the family's existing home, located in a rural area west of Hagerstown. Their tiny five-by-five-foot bathroom must be enlarged, at considerable cost, and the family is asking for help.

They'll get a lot of it from the Maugansville Ruritan Club, according to Jay Stouffer, chairman of the club's Social Concerns Committee.

Stouffer visited the home to assess the needs and said this week that the club is spearheading the project. Not only have Ruritans lined up donated labor, they've also set up a bank account to receive donations for material. The account will be overseen by member Jerry Shank, Stouffer said, to make sure cash is spent only for legitimate needs.

"Walt Wharton, he's volunteered to oversee the project, volunteered his time and labor," Stouffer said, adding that Paul Bowers will donate his backhoe and labor to dig the footers for the new room. And then there's the shower and the chair.

"Some of that equipment for the handicapped is pretty expensive," Stouffer said.

Hill confirmed that, saying the shower chair is $300, while the legs for it are $295.

"I don't like to ask people for money, but we have to do it, and the money that gets donated goes straight to handicapped equipment. I'm not out to take people's money to buy cars or minks," she said.

One reason the family can't afford to do the project on their own is because Hill must be with her son constantly, except when another caregiver steps in to give her time to go to the grocery store, or do other chores. That's been her routine for the past 17 years.

"He was born in 1984 and he's my only one," she said.

The soft spot on the baby's skull closed up too early, she said, so they took the child to be evaluated at the Kennedy-Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

"They determined that he was profoundly retarded and had cerebral palsy seizure disorder," she said.

Asked about their reaction to the news, Hill did not talk about any grief the couple might have experienced.

"Well, there wasn't a whole lot that we could do. He started going to the Marshall Street Center. He also has grand mal seizures, which started when he was a year old," she said.

Although his motor skills are those of a 9 to 12-month-old child, Hill said that her soon seems to understand certain things.

"He'll give you a look. Once in a while he'll say 'yea' and he does look at you when you talk to him," she said.

"He's a very happy boy. He doesn't watch TV a lot, but he likes to listen to the radio," she said, adding that while the boy can eat some foods, all of it must be pureed.

Because of his spinal curvature, Hill says Dustin likes to curl up "like a little baby, in a little ball."

Because she's only five feet tall and 105 pounds, lifting the teen is tough, and will be impossible in their current bathroom once the steel rod is inserted in his back.

Hopefully she won't have to do that. Stouffer says the contractor hopes to break ground next week, and the money they're seeking will go for materials they can't get donated or for the handicapped equipment.

If you've raised teenagers, you know that they sometimes need more help than they want to admit. But most of us don't have to bathe them, change their diapers or grind their food into mush so they won't choke on it. Most of us are more blessed than we think.

If you'd like to give thanks for what you've got by helping this family, go to any Home Federal bank branch and make a donation to the Brandon Hill Building Fund.

If you'd like to learn more about the Ruritan Club, Stouffer's chapter meets on the third Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at their community building, next to the Maugansville Elementary School on Maugans Avenue.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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