'Angels,' Special in This World; Down Syndrome Fails to Dampen Young Spirits

Article excerpt

Byline: Maggie FitzRoy

Wade Pritchett almost died when he was born. He had inhaled amniotic fluid in the womb and his mother, Kristi Pritchett, caught only a glimpse of his face before a nurse whisked him away so doctors could suction the fluid from his lungs.

One of those doctors took a closer look at little Wade's features and went to see Kristi Pritchett. She told her that her son probably had Down syndrome, a genetic condition caused by a chromosomal abnormality. The syndrome, which annually affects one in every 800 to 1,000 newborns, frequently causes low muscle tone, an upward slant to the eyes, a deep crease across the center of the palm and mental disabilities.

For Kristi Pritchett, the future suddenly looked uncertain. But 15 years later, she's never forgotten what the doctor, who is from Asia, told her next.

"She said, 'In my country, it's considered a blessing to the family to have a child like that, that they will prosper,' " Kristi Pritchett said.

"It's so cool because that's exactly what it's been like for me. He was an angel that was brought to me. He's special."

Kristi and Wade Pritchett of Neptune Beach will join hundreds of area families Oct. 15 for the Buddy Walk at the SeaWalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach. The annual event, sponsored by the Down Syndrome Association of Jacksonville, strives to raise funds locally and nationally for education, research and advocacy programs. It also aims to promote awareness, acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome.

People with Down syndrome have increased risk for some medical conditions including congenital heart defects, respiratory and hearing problems and childhood leukemia. In the past, the life expectancy for those with the syndrome was low. But with medical advances, those conditions are treatable and many now lead healthy lives.

The chance of children being born with Down syndrome increases with the mother's age. But since younger women are more fecund, about 80 percent of children with the syndrome are born to women under 35.

Medical advances offer pregnant women and their families a crystal ball of sorts. Early screenings and tests can diagnose Down syndrome with reliable accuracy. Upon learning they will have a child with Down syndrome, some women choose to terminate the pregnancy. Others choose to research the condition and plan for a future they never expected. The Down Syndrome Association of Jacksonville wants to offer those women hope and help.

"Our mission is to help individuals with Down syndrome realize their potential and abilities so people will realize everyone has their own value and contribution to make to society," said Debbie Revels, the association's coordinator, who helped found the association 16 years ago.

Revels, who has an adult son with Down syndrome, said the association offers prenatal and newborn packages to new moms, with information about the syndrome and contact information in the First Coast community. The association serves about 450 families in northeast Florida and southern Georgia.

Many children with Down syndrome will walk the Buddy Walk. Some, like Wade Pritchett, Rankin Lee, 6, and Alexa Morici, 14, are from the Beaches.

A MILLION FAVORITES

This is Wade Pritchett's first year at Fletcher High School, the school his cousins attend, the school he has always dreamed would be his school.

An only child, he lives with his mom and his cat, Boots. Kristi Pritchett has always been single and moved to the Beaches to be near her siblings when Wade was 3.

She was 29 and living in Miami when he was born after what she said was "a perfect pregnancy." A routine test at 4 months indicated everything was normal.

After Wade was born, she worried he wouldn't live at first, but his lungs cleared and they went home from the hospital. About a week later, when she was breast-feeding him, he turned "a funny blue color. …