First in a seven-part series
Teachers at Northwest School of the Arts have kept a close eye on Christina Nixon.
She has osteogenesis imperfecta - brittle-bone disease. She's fractured 70-plus bones over her 18 years. Sometimes an action as simple as pushing a door can cause a break.
When it happens at school, she keeps quiet. The teachers would call her folks. Her folks would take her out of class.
And that's the last thing she wants.
Fracture after fracture, “I pretty much just come to school,” she says with a grin. “Gotta keep livin' life.”
More than 6,700 students are expected to graduate from 29 public high schools in Mecklenburg County in the days ahead. Hundreds more will march – or have already marched – out of other campuses, public and private, around the region.
Few have endured as much as Nixon, who has required so much medical care that her parents joke that their case helped finance a new wing at the doctor's office.
But most who meet her soon conclude that what's extraordinary about Nixon isn't the frailty of her body but the strength of her will. When she fractured bones in her wrist during one writing test, she kept scribbling.
“I could see (the pain) in her eyes,” says Barbara Wesselman, a teacher who helped persuade her to stop. “She can be broken in four places and you won't know it. She'll finish what she's doing.”
Georgia Nixon calls her daughter “a spitfire” whose stubborn streak helps in her battle against the genetic bone disorder that affects up to 50,000 Americans.
“People say when they're having a down day and she comes in and you can tell she's hurting but she tries to put a smile on anyway, you tend to look around and go, ‘What do I have to complain about?'”
Finally, a diagnosis
Nixon seemed normal at birth. She weighed 5 pounds, 6 ounces, small but full term. She had sleep apnea and a grayish tint to the whites of her eyes.
Those were danger signs for brittle bone disease, but no one recognized them.
By the time she turned 10, it seemed she was breaking some body part every other week. Georgia and Spero Nixon figured their middle daughter was a klutz.
But the fractures kept coming. A specialist in Washington, D.C., finally gave them the diagnosis. The family learned people with the disease can break bones in the midst of seemingly harmless actions, or they can trip and fall and not break a thing.
Today, Nixon can't walk long distances. She uses an electric wheelchair to avoid getting jostled in crowded school hallways. She's suffered hearing loss in both ears, so she uses hearing aids, lip-reading skills and interpreters.
None of it dampens her disposition or terrier-like drive. She's given speeches to doctors and nurses, offering them advice on caring for osteogenesis imperfecta patients. She's launched toy drives for hospitalized kids and volunteered at a homeless shelter.
She teases and jokes with her teachers and doctors, her grin revealing a silvery crescent of braces.
“When she's around, it's always fun, a good time,” says Michelle Carelock, her rehabilitation counselor. “Even when she's going through hard times, I've never seen her complain.”
She graduates from Northwest with a 3.4 grade-point average, having excelled in honors classes and in college courses at Central Piedmont Community College.
She has enjoyed many of the same things other seniors have. She's helped with costume design and lighting for school theater productions – even while sporting slings.
She works a part-time job as a ticket-taker at a movie theater. She's even got her own car. Her parents know a wreck, even a minor fender-bender, could be catastrophic.
But they also know their daughter. This is the same kid who recently tried a pottery class, despite the obvious risk to her fragile hands and arms. She did it with her arm in a sling from a previous injury.
So, Spero and Georgia let her have her grandmother's Toyota Corolla. Whenever she drives, she's under orders from her mother to call when she gets where she's going.
“Christina says you can't live with fear. You've got to keep doing it,” Georgia Nixon says.
Christina's been accepted by four colleges and has chosen Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach. She wants to study marine biology with a minor focus on pre-med.
Her parents are scared. That's a three-hour drive away.
But they've always told her to keep testing her boundaries. Don't assume you can't do something. You weigh the risk, they've always said. If you want to try it, we'll back you.
True to their word, they're letting her go.