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Simply Able

July 10, 2008 10:34 AM

“Tough times never last, but tough people do."

For 16-year-old Brittany Barrett of Brooksville, just north of Tampa, that single quote says it all. As a teenager, her life thus far has unfolded like an actionpacked, suspenseful big-screen drama — with the cliffhanger ending yet to be revealed. Unfortunately this isn’t the movies, it’s reality for the former track star and cheerleading captain who suddenly suffered a tragic paralysis in June of last year. Rather than dwelling on the unfairness of a young woman struck by a condition that doctors still can’t explain, Brittany has somehow found an incredible strength to follow her dreams while helping others accomplish their own in the process.

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Brittany is a special young lady that made history this month when she competed at the USTA Jr. Team Tennis Summer Section Tournament in Lakeland, Aug. 1-3.  She was the first-ever junior wheelchair tennis player to compete with “able-bodied” players during any USTA Jr. Team Tennis tournament in the state of Florida. Yet, just last year, Brittany could have been one of those able-bodied players.

The incident occurred almost a year ago when Brittany hopped in the shower while babysitting her younger siblings: Chelsea, 13; Chase, 14; and Andrew, 11. She passed out in the shower, awaking to the pitter-patter of water on her face, and then moved to grab her towel. She passed out again in the bathroom. Running to her aid, Chelsea, Chase and Andrew called 911, ran to get their neighbor who was a registered nurse and called their mom. After a hospital visit that night, Brittany was able to go back home.

The next day, she passed out again and was rushed to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg where she was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for a week, then another week in a regular room. 

In an excerpt from Brittany’s online journal by her mother Michelle, who is a single parent, she wrote, “She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t see (her eyes couldn’t open and she couldn’t see anything), her heart rate was in the 40s (more than half what it should be). She couldn’t move or feel from her neck down, she kept having spasms throughout her body but couldn’t control them because she couldn’t move or feel anything.” 

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Brittany underwent two EEGs, EKGs, an Echocardiogram, two CAT Scans, four MRIs, three Spinal Taps, had blood drawn 2-3 times a day for two weeks, and was connected to numerous machines. While in ICU, she saw every specialist possible, including a cardiologist, neurologist, infectious disease specialist, ophthalmologist, and a number of other specialists.  When Brittany left the hospital, she had regained feeling from the thighs up, but was still paralyzed from the thighs down. Even after a year of rehabilitative therapy and daily doctor visits, doctors have not be able to provide a single diagnosis or explanation.

“This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” her mother Michelle said. “But the hardest thing is not knowing.  Our whole life has changed with Brittany’s injury.” 

Michelle had a similarly traumatic incident four years ago when her youngest daughter, Chelsea, was in a cheerleading accident in which she fractured her skull, experienced bleeding in the brain, and suffered brain damage and short-term memory loss.  “We had to re-teach her everything,” Michelle said. “My girls have a special bond because they have both been through something traumatic. At first it was Brittany’s turn to support Chelsea, and now it’s Chelsea’s turn to support Brittany.”

Keeping strong as a family, with sibling support, is what has allowed the Barretts to come out on top — even after Chelsea’s accident, even after Brittany’s misfortune, and even after Michelle lost her job in December because of the  time it took to care for Brittany.  “Without them being as close as they are, I don’t think we would have made it as a family,” Michelle said. 

Another big reason Brittany has pushed forward is because she found tennis. 

Last October, grace intervened in the lives of the Barretts in the form of two tennis saints named John and Louise Downey.  While watching her sister play from the sidelines for a few classes, Coach Downey came over, put a racquet in Brittany’s hand and said, “Brittany, it’s time you play.” He wheeled her over, fed a tennis ball, “...and she just fell in love with it from day one,” said Downey, tennis coach at Nature Coast Technical High School. 

“At that age, to wake up and you can’t walk, and to go a year not knowing why this happened,” Downey said, “there are no words really to describe it. However, tennis has given her an avenue out of that situation.” 

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For Brittany, tennis knocked down the wall between handicapped and able-bodied.  “Once I knew I could get a ball over the net, I knew that my life was not over and that I could do things, just a little differently than other people,” Brittany said. 

Brittany now plays tennis regularly with her sister, balancing it with schoolwork through the Hospital/Homebound Program, except for her World History course which she takes first period at Nature Coast Technical High School.  The simple experience of hitting a tennis ball for the first time in her life set off a whirlwind chain of events, including meeting two-time U.S. Paralympian member, Karin Korb, during a No Limit Sports event sponsored by Shriners Hospital in Tampa.  She also attended Korb’s Disabled Divas Camp, dedicated to “empowering young disabled women to look good, feel good and play good.” And thanks to a grant from the Make a Difference Foundation in Clearwater, Brittany now has a customized tennis wheelchair like her friend and idol, Ms. Korb.

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Hoping to attend a wheelchair tennis training camp in California later this summer, Brittany’s goals continue to grow. She wants to play tennis five times a week and turn pro, aspiring to compete at the 2012 Paralympics Games in London. She aims to become a pediatrician when she gets older and expects her foundation, called Brittany Barrett’s Foundation for Disabled Children and Teens, to help young people lead a better quality of life simply through assisting with their needs. Whether it be obtaining a sports wheelchair or paying for medical bills, the foundation itself is dedicated to raising funds, public awareness, and quality of life for children and teens living with life-altering disabilities.


“Because God has thrown a curveball at me, I feel this is God’s way of having me help others,” Brittany said. “Just because something has happened to you doesn’t mean that your life is over because you can still do things you want to, you just may have to do them differently.” 

Coach Downey says his pupil has no limits to what she can accomplish.  “Brittany is an amazing girl and she has a heart of a lion,” Downey said. “I do believe that once she sets her mind to something there is not going to be a lot to stop her.” 

People (and events) are put into our lives for many reasons, and Brittany and the Barrett family remain an inspiration. It is safe to say that many an older person has struggled greatly when faced with such a condition, and one may ask how someone so young can deal with something so traumatic.  “Tough times never last,” Brittany answers. “But tough people do.”  Now that is a motto to live by.

 

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