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An unimaginable toll

April E. ClarkGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson
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DENVER – Wearing only a diaper, 6-year-old Chaz Israel-Olson sits in his hospital bed banging his tiny fist on his forehead.He looks up at his mother, Jerri Israel, with teary, dark-chocolate eyes. Chaz’s actions communicate he’s not feeling well on this warm Sunday evening at The Children’s Hospital in downtown Denver.He’s constipated and not enjoying it one bit.”Chaz, I don’t know what to do,” Jerri says. “I just feel terrible. It makes me miserable.”Jerri speaks in a low, comforting voice, asking him to flash one of his signature “Chazy” smiles. She lightly blows on his face and runs her French-manicured nails through his fine brown hair. With a soft mother’s touch, Jerri massages Chaz’s rock-hard belly, then rubs his small face and bony chest hoping to halt the crying.”Does that feel better?” she asks.He nods his head yes. Then he smiles.Chaz is surrounded by an ocean of stuffed animals, like Winnie the Pooh and Clifford the Big Red Dog, who wears a red bandage like the one Chaz wears on his left arm. And toys that play “How much is that doggie in the window?”His 5-year-old adopted sister, Sequoia, takes a break from watching “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” on the Disney Channel in the hospital bed next to him to comfort her older brother.”Rock a bye baby on the treetop, When the wind blows the cradle will rock,” she sings. “When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come Chazy, cradle and all.”Even at 5 years old, Sequoia realizes the focus must be on Chaz.Sequoia always sings “Rock-a-bye Baby” to Chaz to help him feel better.No matter how much she sings, Sequoia can’t cure Chaz of the muscular dystrophy that ravages his body’s muscles.Or the osteoporosis that weakens his bones.Or the heart and lung diseases that have nearly killed him.Chaz will always be sick.Holding a black-and-white, polka-dotted stuffed chicken toy, he moans and starts to cry again.”What’s happening now?” Sequoia asks. “How’s he doing? Mom is he doing OK?”Jerri turns away from Chaz’s bedside and takes a few steps with her back to him, trying not to cry.”It could be worse, right?” she says.Even the less serious of Chaz’s symptoms tear at his mother’s emotions.

Jerri is petite and blond, and doesn’t look her age.At 50, she holds the weight of raising two children – one chronically ill, the other perfectly healthy and always wanting to be the center of attention – on the shoulders of her thin, 5-foot, 412-inch frame. She stays strong for Chaz and Sequoia by rarely breaking down into tears in front of them. She’d rather turn away or cry in private.Even when the stress of being a single mom takes her to the edge.Hers isn’t a story about the pain of divorce or parental-rights disputes. She tries not to dwell on how she ended up a single mom after divorce within a year of adopting Chaz and Sequoia.She just is one.Such is her reality. And she takes life one day at a time.On this day, she climbs up into Chaz’s hospital bed so they can cuddle. He makes a frustrated face, more interested in watching the small TV pulled close to his bed flashing colorful cartoon images. He starts to fuss, shaking his head from side to side.”You’re not being very affectionate today,” she says. “Do you want to go home?”He nods his head yes.Once Chaz feels Jerri’s soft touch on his face, he relaxes. Every so often, he grins and his dimples appear. His smile reveals what most 6-year-olds consider victory – two missing front teeth.But Chaz is not like other 6-year-olds.He doesn’t speak, and never has, and can only say “I love you,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome” and “I’m sorry” in sign language. He’ll never complain about doing his math homework or feel the pressure of a spelling bee. His developmental disabilities prevent him from learning to sing the alphabet or “Rock-a-bye Baby” to his sister when she’s feeling sick.Jerri has always longed to hear Chaz speak.”I used to dream he could talk,” she says. “I haven’t had one of those in a while.”She thinks maybe Chaz said her name during the holidays. “I swear he said ‘Momma’ on Christmas Day,” she says. “We were opening presents. It was like the best Christmas present ever. Then he said it again and hid under the coffee table.”Life has its bittersweet moments.

In December 2001, two people came into Jerri’s life that would change her forever.And she would travel thousands of miles to meet them.One was a 4-month old infant girl with jet-black hair and dark eyes. The other was a 17-month-old baby boy who couldn’t hold his head up or crawl.The children were living in a Cambodian orphanage in the capitol city of Phnom Penh. Chaz was abandoned at birth, and someone brought him to the orphanage after finding him along a side road.Life has always been a struggle for Chaz.Although they were more than a year apart, both children weighed about 9 pounds.”They were both tiny tiny,” Jerri recalls. “They brought out Sequoia first. Then they brought him out and he couldn’t hold his head up, he was drooling.”From the moment she held Chaz for the first time, Jerri sensed something was not right.Despite what the adoption agency had reported in health records, a representative had told Jerri that Chaz was crawling around, even talking.”It was clear everything was not fine … she baldfaced lied to me,” she says. “There are times when I’m so resentful and angry. It’s not like the adoption is all innocent. They said he was developmentally on track.”Even if she hadn’t physically given birth, Jerri still had a mother’s intuition.Within the next two years, it would prove to be reality.”By midsummer of 2003, all the major diagnoses started coming in,” Jerri says. “He was almost 3. Every time I’d take him in to the doctor, there was something new.”Muscular dystrophy. Osteoporosis. Two different chronic lung diseases. Elevated liver enzymes. Sleep apnea. Cataracts. Heart disease. Sensory integration dysfunction. A perforated right eardrum.Life has always been a struggle for Chaz.Since his adoption, Chaz has had 11 surgeries. Four alone have been on his eyes.Jerri believes Chaz wouldn’t be alive today if he remained in Cambodia.”They virtually have no care there,” she says. “Cambodia is so poor.”Chaz has been airlifted to Denver on four separate occasions. Somehow, though, he always seems to pull through and survive – a miracle in Jerri’s eyes.”He’s an anomaly,” she says. “It’s just amazing to me how a child can have so many disorders.Through every episode, Jerri has remained by Chaz’s side.”I’ve had pastors tell me, ‘Well, God must trust you,'” she says.



Jerri has what she calls “hospital back.”She’s stretching her lumbar muscles, sore from standing over Chaz’s bed. For the last 30 days, that view has dominated her life.Chaz’s room is on the fourth floor of The Children’s Hospital. Just a few weeks prior, he was on the second floor – the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, or PICU for short. A month has passed since she nearly saw Chaz die in the emergency room of Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.The day was Saturday, March 31, and Jerri had gone to work out at the Hot Springs Athletic Club. Her mom was baby-sitting the kids when fluid entered Chaz’s lungs and he was unable to breathe. She called 911, and Chaz was rushed to VVH.Jerri beat the ambulance there.”He was in complete distress,” she says. “His lips were purple, and I stepped back and thought, ‘He’s going to die.’ This was the third time, but this time, it seemed so real.” Chaz’s heart rate plummeted to dangerously low levels.”It dropped to 34, 33, 32, and they said OK, we have to do CPR,” she says.Once he was stabilized, Chaz, Jerri, two Flight for Life Nurses and a pilot flew from the Rifle Airport to Centennial near Denver. Jerri – who hates to fly – was still wearing her workout clothes on the plane ride.From Centennial, Chaz flew in a helicopter to The Children’s Hospital in downtown Denver. Because of weight restrictions on the aircraft, Jerri had to take a cab.”I was all upset and crying and the driver was this guy from Jamaica,” she says. “He asked me my name and where I was from. Then he said, ‘So tell me, Jerri, do you believe in God?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘God will help you.'”Faith helps keep Jerri grounded. She frequently speaks with her pastor in Glenwood Springs. It helps her cope.At the hospital, both of Chaz’s lungs collapsed. He was placed on a ventilator. There was talk of a tracheotomy, which meant Chaz would always need a ventilation machine to breathe.All along, he was alert, crossing his arms in front of his chest – signing “I love you.” “The day I found out they were going to do the ventilator, I was just sobbing,” she says. “I couldn’t even breathe. It was like I was paralyzed.”It was an agonizing time for Jerri.For two weeks, she struggled over the decision to put in the trach, or take him off the ventilator.Taking him off the ventilator would mean Chaz would die.The future isn’t good.Because he has so many diagnoses, Chaz can never be a candidate for heart or lung transplants. His quality of life had to be considered. Jerri, her ex-husband and her family met with an ethics committee of doctors at the hospital to discuss Chaz’s fate.It’s a nightmare decision no parent wants to be faced with.”I just didn’t want to make that decision,” she says. “I was afraid. It was pretty overwhelming – I was pretty upset. I just sat on it for two weeks and didn’t make any decisions.”But the decision was put on hold. Chaz’s condition improved, and he started breathing on his own. He’s been moved out of the PICU.For now, Jerri can concentrate on bringing Chaz home.And bringing a little normalcy to her children’s lives.

Contact April Clark: 945-8515, ext. 16601aclark@postindependent.com


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