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SELF-MADE MIRACLE

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Graduating high school has special meaning for one proud family

By Ann Doss Helms
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

This story was originally published May 19, 1998. We are re-publishing it because Shelley McIntosh got to meet Cam Newton today at training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.

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One night many years ago, Pat McIntosh awoke feeling certain that God had healed her baby.

She couldn't wait 'til morning for the miracle she had prayed so hard for. She padded into her daughter's room, woke up the 2-year-old and pulled her up to a standing position. "Honey, the Lord has healed you," she whispered.

And even after she let go and little Shelley fell limp on the bed, the mother stood there, waiting.

Shelley didn't walk - not that night, not ever. She has never spoken a sentence. Never been able to draw her mother a picture.

Talking about her daughter today brings tears to Pat McIntosh's eyes. But they are tears of pride and joy.

Shelley McIntosh, 18, is an honor-roll student at East Mecklenburg High School. She just attended her senior prom. She'll graduate June 5 - not with a certificate of attendance, mind you, but a real and hard-earned diploma.

The part of Shelley's brain that relays messages to her body was devastated at birth, but the part that thinks and feels is just fine.

And her parents, Allan and Pat McIntosh, learned a lesson that would serve many families well: You can waste a lifetime mourning for what you wish your child had been. Or you can make the most of what she is.

Dark days, sleepless nights

"This will either tear your family apart or bring you closer together."

That's what the specialists said when they told the McIntoshes their youngest daughter had cerebral palsy.

Shelley had been deprived of oxygen at birth. She nearly died. But when she perked up and pushed the tubes out of her nose the next day, with everyone at Hickory Grove Baptist Church praying for her recovery, Pat and Allan believed they'd gotten a miracle. The doctors said she would be fine.

A few months later, her parents knew that wasn't true. This was their third child. They knew what a baby should be doing by now, and Shelley wasn't doing it. She couldn't grab a toy, couldn't sit up.

Shelley was 9 months old when the diagnosis came, bringing with it a shotgun blast of ugly possibilities: Blindness. Deafness. Mental retardation. Epilepsy.

Time and tests began ruling those out, one by one. Allan and Pat could look into their daughter's brown eyes and see that she was bright, alert and loving.

But the physical picture was bad. First steps, first words, control of her hands - Shelley's brain couldn't make her body do it.

For the parents, there were dark days and sleepless nights. Pat read and reread Bible passages about faith and healing, pinning her hopes on a cure. But even as that hope crested, it was crushed. The truth sank in as Pat stood by her daughter's bed that night, waiting for a miracle that wouldn't come. Silently, she returned to her own room.

The next morning, she told her husband what had happened.

"Pat, " he told her, "we don't need to test God like that."

From that point on, they stopped wishing and started living.

Childhood memories

Shelley's sisters, Kristi and Allison, were 4 and 6 when she was diagnosed. They don't remember much about the bad times. They always knew their little sister was different, and they stood ready to take on anyone who gawked or teased.

At home, they played and fought like all sisters do. Kristi once broke Shelley's arm. Shelley scratched Allison's cornea. They all laugh about it now.

"She has never used her handicap as an advantage, " says Allison Cooper, now 22 and married.

Nor do they dwell on luxuries they gave up. Allan makes a good living as a UPS supervisor, but raising a disabled child is expensive. When Pat was home with the children - she's in business administration at Clariant Corp. now - money was tight.

What the sisters do remember is all the times Shelley insisted on keeping up with them. Rides at Carowinds. A tanning bed. A skating rink. Even with her family's creativity, it didn't always work. But she had to try.

Recalling those adventures, Shelley's mother chuckles and chides her a bit: "Now, Shelley, there's a few little limits."

Shelley is laughing so hard she has a hard time focusing the laser light strapped to her head on her DeltaTalker, a computer that speaks in a female voice, relaying the words and phrases she keys in. Finally the beam hits the key she wants:

No

She flashes a smile at her mother.

Navigating high school

Shelley made her way through special classes in Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools - Billingsville Elementary, Randolph Middle School and East Mecklenburg High.

Because she has better control of her head and neck than her hands, she learned to type and use a calculator with a stick strapped to her head. The DeltaTalker let her produce words that people could understand.

Pat Blackwell, who teaches the orthopedically handicapped students at East Meck, remembers Shelley's smile when she entered 10th grade. High school can be a tough time for kids with disabilities. Blackwell sees a lot who withdraw or cop an attitude.

Not Shelley. She came in beaming every day.

Even for a professional, communicating with Shelley was tough. Blackwell started with yes-or-no questions. The big breakthrough came when she tested Shelley's math skills. This kid knows her stuff, Blackwell realized.

The next question was whether Shelley would try to pass the competency exams required for a diploma. Blackwell told Shelley what she tells all her students: "It will be very hard work to do this."

For Shelley there was no question. She would go for it. It took all day and part of the next to finish the math exam, but she passed it on the first try. She flunked the reading comprehension section, though.

That got her down for awhile, but she just worked more at home. Her junior year she passed, and it was hard to tell who was most excited - Shelley, her parents or her teacher.

With that behind her, Shelley was ready to enjoy her senior year. She insisted on going to the prom May 9. Her dad was her date, decked out in a rented tux. Shelley was glowing in a blue silk taffeta dress with rhinestone accessories.

"I'm going to shine my pickup truck and we're going to look good going in, baby, " her dad teased.

All the excitement has given Shelley a bit of senioritis, her parents and teacher say. But there was one project she couldn't ease up on: Her senior exit paper. Choosing a topic was easy; Shelley hopes to take college classes on fashion and get a job in the industry. Her mother helped her research and prepare a paper on 20th-century fashions, with a focus on Princess Diana.

Seniors have to present their papers to judges. Slowly, carefully, Shelley programmed a three-minute speech into her DeltaTalker. That morning she tried it out for Mrs. Blackwell and the class. It was perfect.

Then she went before the judge, Robin Francis, head of the school's exceptional children department. The laser beam that operates the talker was dead.

Blackwell dashed back to the classroom to get Shelley's head stick. It's harder and slower, but she could push the buttons with that - if she didn't get too nervous. Anxiety can cost Shelley the little muscle control she has.

Francis, the judge, could see sweat trickling down Shelley's face as she aimed the stick. It worked. She delivered her computerized speech and answered the judge's questions with the talker. "It was an inspiration, it truly was, " Francis said.

That afternoon, when her mother asked how the presentation went, Shelley didn't mention the technical troubles. She got right to the important part:

She got an A.

About Cerebral Palsy

What is it? Cerebral palsy is a condition caused by brain damage in the womb, at birth or in early childhood. It is characterized by problems with muscle control. Possible symptoms include lack of control over movement, speech problems, impairment of sight or hearing, and mental retardation.

Who has it? An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 children and adults in the United States have cerebral palsy. The degree of disability varies widely. Some are mentally retarded, while others have high intelligence. Some have very little control over their bodies, while others can carry on most normal activities.

What causes it? Causes include illness during pregnancy, premature birth, insufficient oxygen during birth, infections that attack a newborn's nervous system and head injuries in early childhood. Cerebral palsy is not hereditary, not contagious and not progressive.

Is there a cure? No, but people with cerebral palsy benefit from speech and physical therapy, as well as education and technology that help them make the most of their abilities. Medication, braces and surgery are used for some people.

Many cases can be prevented through good prenatal care, avoidance of drugs and other harmful substances during pregnancy, testing and treatment for Rh incompatibility between mother and baby, and good neonatal care for premature and high-risk babies.

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