We've read the headlines and savored the feel-good from these
miraculous happy endings. A visit to the Children's Habilitation
Center in Harvey will tell you the rest of the story.
"Many of these children are the ones who aren't going home,"
says Georgann Karontonis, a consultant at the medical center that
is home to more than 60 children who need subacute and transitional
That, in layman's terms, means kids who need 24-hour
ventilators, tracheotomies, feeding tubes and IV therapy. They are
preemie babies, infants who didn't thrive, kids with chronic lung
problems. Many are kids who, through some sort of mishap, lost
oxygen flow to the brain long enough to cause problems that can't
Welcome to a mysterious place that exists under the radar of the
common family life the rest of us live. Many of their stories
deliver a powerful safety memo, as CHC staff pediatrician Dr.
Pamela Nickson dispenses a passionate warning about
innocuous-seeming things in daily life that are hard for parents to
see as dangerous-a hot dog, a grape or popcorn.
"This is the other side of what happens when you have a normal
healthy baby for nine months and one minute of tragedy," she
Among kids who go to emergency rooms for choking, almost 60
percent were food-related, according to U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission data. Hot dogs, cheese sticks and chunks, hard
candies, gum, nuts, grapes, carrots, popcorn, marshmallows and
peanut butter are the most dangerous threats. Kids get all sorts of
small round things-coins, balls and balloons-caught in their
Nickson's also the doctor for the toddlers who were shaken, left
alone in a bathtub, fell down the stairs, or unlocked the gun
Accidents are among a wide range of mishaps that can create
medically fragile children. Some of the children who live at CHC
were the victims of abuse so severe-starvation, battering,
neglect-that their bodies never will recover.
Many are babies born with serious conditions, like Myka'-le, who
had a stroke inside his mother's womb. After an exhaustive battery
of testing, his mother's doctor concluded she was "just that one in
a million moms who is going to have a baby with a whole bunch of
There are infants born perfect to parents who did nothing wrong,
but now look ahead to who knows how many years of unanswered
questions and irrational guilt.
Some of the children eventually will go home. But a lot of them
When Nickson looks in the rooms at CHC she sees beyond the
tubes, the monitors and tracheotomies. She see the cribs that look
like cars, the stuffed toys, the Snoopy blankets.
"I see happy, healthy playful children in an altered state," she
says. "Our job is to make life as normal for them as if they are
normal for life."
Tariel was an adorable baby girl, the kind you'd see in a
Pampers commercial. And mom, Tamela Martin, couldn't have been
With a 2-year-old son Nathaniel and 6-month-old Tariel, Tamela
felt the Martin family was perfect. Complete.
Tariel looked especially darling all dressed up for church one
morning in October. Tamela bathed and dressed her. Then, with a
kiss, she laid Tariel in her crib for a nap and set off to fix
breakfast for the rest of the family.
"When I went back and picked her up, she wasn't breathing,"
Her husband, Omar, started CPR while she dialed 911.
"We thought she had died," her mother says. "It was
unbelievable. We went away with everything fine and came back a few
minutes later and she was gone."
Doctors revived and saved Tariel after the near-SIDS incident.
But her heartbeat and breathing stopped long enough to leave Tariel
with long-term disabilities. She needs a ventilator to breathe and
a feeding tube to eat. She doesn't talk or communicate.
"The first time my husband saw her, he cried," says Martin, a
manager for the federal government. "It's one of the few times I
can really remember him actually crying."
Her parents, of Blue Island, believe Tariel, now nearly 10,
recognizes their voices when they visit her at Children's
Habilitation Center. Lately, Omar, a quality assurance worker in
the chemical industry, has been the one to keep the vigil of
visiting Tariel. Over the years, church friends have continued to
call, blow out birthday candles and to pray.
"It's very heartbreaking to face," Martin says. "For a long time
I blamed myself, if I had something to do with this. Finally, I've
resolved it with the help of prayers, and the support of my family
and my pastor."
Tariel goes to school at CHC, where teachers help her touch and
experience different objects, colors and sizes. They do art
projects and watch movies. Her grandfather still maintains a Bright
Star college fund with Tariel's name on it.
"I keep praying some day she will come out of the state she's
in," Martin says. "I would love to see her healed. I keep believing
God can do anything."
Little Janiyah couldn't use words to talk to her grandma.
But Shirley Weathersby heard her loud and clear. "Where have you
been?" those big brown eyes asked. "Why haven't you come to see
Janiyah came to Children's Habilitation Center when she was 9
months old after doctors removed a growth that may have been a
separate fetus growing in her neck. Fetus in fetu, it's called-a
very rare abnormality that happens in only 1 in 500,000 live
Weathersby went to see Janiyah several times a week at first.
But, as the months folded into years, more and more time passed
As those years melted away, Janiyah thrived and overcame many of
her physical limitations. Janiyah was one of the lucky ones,
doctors told the family. She would be able to come home and live a
relatively normal life.
But it wasn't that simple. Janiyah's parents were "not able to
provide a stable home," Weathersby says.
Her mission became clear the day her son Jimmy pleaded Janiyah's
case. "I had to get her home," says Weathersby, who in her 50s,
thought she was all done with raising children.
Little did Weathersby know, as she started learning the things
she'd need to know to care for Janiyah in her home, that she was
granting her son a last request. Jimmy Robinson died in a shooting
not long after.
"I see my son when I look at Janiyah," she says. "She looks like
him and her whole attitude is like him. It's like raising him all
over again with her."
Janiyah's attitude is a sunny one.
She attends second grade at McNair Elementary School, enjoys
after-school programs and is looking for a place to take dancing
lessons. Janiyah, 7, talks about wanting to be a doctor when she
"I love you, I love you," she says cheerfully, over and over, as
her grandma talks on the phone.
Even though doctors tell them he is in a "vegetative state,"
Myka'-le's mom and dad can tell when he's happy.
"In our opinion, he knows us and our friends," says his mother,
"We had to learn his way of communicating," she says. "When he
is happy, the ventilator readings that measure his breaths per
minute go up."
Now nearly 2, Myka'-le (pronounced Michael) was born after he
had a stroke in the womb at just 35 weeks.
When the oxygen stopped flowing, it injured both sides of his
tiny brain. He can't keep his airway open to breathe or swallow
food. His feet and arms are deformed.
None of which ever-so-slightly dims the love his parents,
Katelynn Cossman and Jorge Dickenson of Hoopeston, feel for their
"beloved little boy."
Just 19 and 21, they spent the first year of Myka'-le's life at
St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria grooming to go home.
After multiple surgeries, Myka'-le graduated from the neonatal
intensive care unit and finally became an "Almost Home Kid."
Once they got home, though, it was difficult to find reliable
in-home nurses. It fell to the young parents to provide
round-the-clock nursing care for their baby. It was taxing, but
they maintained their "whatever it takes" attitude.
But it was a financial, not physical, hardship that doused their
dream of keeping Myka'-le at home.
Children's Habilitation Center looked like an ideal place for
him. The difficulty in finding a ride limits their visits to once
or twice a month.
"Day by day, we don't know when he's going to pass. It could be
tomorrow," Katelynn says. "We're just happy for the time he's still
here and hope we can bring him home in time."
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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