18 October 2009

Challenges don't hold boy back

By Denise Richardson

Staff Writer

ONEONTA _ Kieran Jennings and his classmates at Valleyview Elementary School took a math test Thursday.

The pupils picked up pencils. The room grew quiet with concentration.

Kieran, 8, carefully wrote answers on a sheet from a workbook, as his peers at nearby desks recorded and checked figures and sums.

The quiz time was a short spell in a morning busy with reading, writing and listening activities in the second-grade classroom.

Kieran, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches to walk, kept pace with the schedule. He readily moved around desks, chairs and tables, and from one academic assignment to another.

"He puts forth a lot of effort," Judi Visnosky, his teacher, said. Kieran is among 12 students in her class. At the beginning of the school year, Visnosky said, she moved a table to make room for Kieran's wheelchair, but otherwise there has been little need for other accommodations.

He is treated just "like everyone else," Visnosky said. Kieran is part of the group, she said.

He sits on the floor with classmates during reading time, participates in question-and-answer sessions and plays in gym class.

Coping with the challenges of cerebral palsy seem an accepted part of daily challenges for Kieran, who said his favorite class is gym.

His physician, Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, said he hopes the sight of crutches and wheelchairs used by children with CP will "melt away," and that people will grow to know Kieran and others as individuals with goals, desires and other human attributes.

Keirstan and Tom Jennings, Kieran's mother and father, are among parents, physicians, physical therapists and children's advocates who signed up

for the Bassett-Columbia Symposium on Cerebral Palsy, held at The Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown on Friday. The program, organized by Dutkowsky, was designed to provide updates on available treatments and venues to discuss the effects cerebral palsy has on individuals and their families.

Cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that have an impact on a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture. The condition is caused by an injury to parts of the brain, or as a result of a problem with development, the CDC said. Often the problem happens before or soon after birth.

Dutkowsky, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Bassett Healthcare, said the condition is an injury to transmitters, or the motor part, of the brain. CP must never be confused with mental retardation, he said, and most people with CP have normal intelligence.

According to the CDC, one in 278 births in the United States results in a child with CP.

More infants with low birth-weights are being saved through skills of medical staff, Dutkowsky said, and the result is a growing number of individuals with CP in schools, work places and communities. Research also is advancing treatment for CP, which gives hope to families and patients, said Dutkowsky, an associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University. His seminar topic at the symposium focused on how children with CP make a transition into adulthood.

Bassett Healthcare and NewYork Presbyterian, the hospitals of Columbia and Cornell universities, were symposium sponsors.

Early diagnosis, early intervention

Kieran was born prematurely and spent two months in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center, his parents said, and he battled fungal meningitis.

Physicians were "very careful to not say" Kieran had cerebral palsy, Keirstan said, but a physical therapist confirmed the condition when Kieran was 6 months old. Tom said he remembers the milestone when a pediatric developmental neurologist said his son wasn't mentally disabled; Kieran was 10 months old, he said.

Keirstan said the fact that she and Tom were teachers in the Oneonta School District helped them feel confident about the support and instruction their son would receive.

She teaches art, and Tom is in his second year as a principal at Schenevus Central School, after having taught social studies at Oneonta High School. Before Kieran started school, each parent took two years off work to be home with Kieran and give him the hours of daily physical therapy he needed.

The Jennings said they remembered when Kieran asked about how long he would have cerebral palsy.

Kieran one day asked, "When I'm in second grade, will I have CP?" Yes, his father replied. Third grade? Fourth? Yes. Yes.

Keirstan said she was holding back tears. Tom told Kieran, "You'll have it all your life."

After a thoughtful moment, Kieran asked if they could go to Ruffino's Pizzeria for dinner.

Kieran attended pre-kindergarten at Greater Plains Elementary School and kindergarten and first grade at Valleyview. His parents said his teachers and the school staff worked hard to make Kieran's academic and social experiences successful.

More second-grade lessons

Teaching assistant Marilyn Bailey is an integral part of Kieran's community. She said she meets Kieran as he gets off a school bus in the morning, is nearby most of the day to help with academic and physical tasks and sees him to the bus after school. When he needs help, she is there. She is a partner in relay races, she said, and they sing in the elevator when no one else can hear them.

"He's just a delightful child," Bailey said. "He has a sense of humor. ... He's very agreeable,"

In the classroom, Kieran has a chair with wheels on the back legs. When at his desk, he uses a seat belt to prevent falls. He will walk, using crutches, to move about the classroom, and a wheelchair always is nearby for use in case of an emergency.

Kieran has trouble with zippers, she said, and he is rather easily distracted. Sometimes wanting to help him is a natural inclination, she said, but the greater goal is teach him to do things for himself and develop skills to further the independence he already is showing,

"He's very independent, but he's still learning," Bailey said. "I'm just there `in case.' ... I'm still learning to work with him."

Hard work leads to success

Tom Jennings said, with a smile, he wants Kieran to become an "alpha male." Jennings said he hopes his son becomes ambitious, self-sufficient and is happy. His son must continue physical activities throughout life, he said, and he is wondering about weight-training and future sports participation. His mother said she hopes Kieran will go to college and "finds a job he loves."

Kieran already has gained self-confidence that grows from facing and succeeding at challenges every day, Tom Jennings said.

"Hard work trumps talent _ every time," he said. "He's learned that if he doesn't quit, he'll succeed."

That earned success is an important lesson that some adults haven't learned, the Jennings said. They also attribute Kieran's success to the work of physical therapists who refused to let him quit.

Liam Jennings, 9, a fourth-grader at Valleyview, said his favorite activity with Kieran is to "run around and wrestle."

"Kieran is the best brother," Liam said.

Tom Jennings said Kieran is a hard-worker, empathetic, kind and inclined to play well with other children.

Skyler Payne is a classmate who enjoys spending time with Kieran, the teachers said.

Skyler, 6, said he and Kieran like to play with Matchbox cars and color.

"We also love Monster Jam and Transformers," Skyler said. They play catch, and Skyler said when they play tag, "I walk slow." Kieran is a "100 percent" friend, compared to others who are "99 percent," he said.

"He really is a good friend to me," Skyler said. "And I am really a good friend to him."

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