Desperate Measures

Tim and Emilie Sherrod, parents of twin autistic boys, will do anything to find a cure -- even spend $14,000 to inject their sons with a hormone from pig entrails

Drenched in sweat from head to toe, 3-year-old Tate Sherrod writhes and moans as his pale blue eyes flash with terrified distress. Nurses in the Grapevine office of Dr. Constantine Kotsanis try to keep Tate still by wrapping his small body mummy-like in a blanket, with only one slender arm left free. Even being straitjacketed can't keep the boy from thrashing violently as Kotsanis inserts an intravenous needle into the boy's forearm, which itself has been immobilized by being lashed to a small board.

The needle must remain in place for five interminable minutes for an experimental but potentially life-altering solution called secretin to seep into his veins. But with one powerful twist, Tate yanks his arm away from the doctor, and the needle comes sailing out. The doctor tries again, this time assisted by two nurses, who restrain Tate on the examining table. Tate's mother, Emilie Sherrod, looks on helplessly as her son continues to struggle. Not until the procedure is finished and the nurses remove the blanket does Tate finally settle down.

But even when it is over, Emilie cannot relax, for Tate's twin brother, Ty, will immediately undergo the same treatment. True to his nature, Ty, the more passive of the two boys, does not resist as much, though his face contorts with the same mixture of dread and panic.

A neonatal nurse at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, Emilie figures she should be hardened to the shrieks and struggles of youngsters whose bodies are under assault from modern medicine. But when your own child is being poked and prodded, she says, it's different, tough for even the most seasoned nurse to sit helplessly by as her child cries and thrashes uncontrollably.

The most frustrating part of it all is that Emilie and her husband, Tim, cannot explain to their sons what's going on. They cannot make their sons understand that they are doing this for their own good. Nor can they truly comfort them, for the boys recoil at their parents' touch.

Ty and Tate Sherrod live in their own insular worlds, in which they seem to understand little, interact with no one, and speak not at all. They suffer from an affliction that affects 500,000 children, and the numbers are rising. The boys live in a prison called autism, and their parents are searching madly for the key that will set them free.

That is why, a few days before Thanks-giving, the Sherrods drove from their home in Richardson to Kotsanis' Grapevine office. He is one of only a handful of physicians in the country willing to provide their sons with a scarce, unconventional therapy called secretin that is being touted as nothing short of a miracle in treating autism.

The Sherrods' Dallas developmental pediatrician, Dr. Elaine Ellis, however, has warned them that they are wasting their time and money. But how can you put a price on hope? What parent wouldn't pay to see the light in their children's eyes once again, to get a hug from a kid who's stopped hugging altogether; how much would they be willing to spend to be able to tell their children that everything is going to be all right, and make it be true?

Tim and Emilie Sherrod didn't plan on having children so early in their marriage, but five months after they wed, Tim's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Tim wanted to give her a grandchild before she died, but the twins were born six weeks after she passed away.

Although a month premature, Tate and Tyler were born perfectly normal. Then, eight weeks later, Tate developed pneumonia, which required him to be hospitalized for a week. With no family in town--Tim is from Lubbock, Emilie from Wichita Falls--the couple had to take shifts, one staying with Tate in the hospital while the other looked after Tyler at home.

Tate got better, but over the next few months, Emilie had to give him regular breathing treatments with a machine that blew medicated vapor into his young lungs.

"It seems like our life never really recovered," Emilie says. "There always seems like there is a crisis."

Shortly after Tate left the hospital, Tim, an accountant by trade, lost his job with a big accounting firm. He had just taken time off to tend to his dying mother, and his bosses were not understanding about how much time he now needed to devote to his sons. He decided to become a residential real estate broker, which gave him more freedom but took a toll on his income.

Despite Tate's early illness and Ty's repeated ear infections, the boys progressed right on schedule during their first year. By the time they turned one, they were uttering their first words. They could identify facial features and play patty-cake--timely hitting those simple, endearing milestones parents often take for granted. The Sherrods were no exception.

Ty and Tate were the type of babies who inevitably stopped traffic in supermarket aisles. With their straight, silky blond hair, saucer-sized pale blue eyes, and shy smiles, they captivated strangers wherever they went.

In the spring of 1997, when the boys were 16 months old, Emilie began to notice certain things about the twins' behavior that troubled her. They rarely, if ever, smiled anymore and stopped talking altogether. Though the boys were never good sleepers, they began waking frequently and would shriek through the night. Nothing seemed to calm them. During the day, the boys were becoming increasingly more difficult to control. They whined incessantly, wouldn't play with their toys, and ran aimlessly through the house, pulling things out of cabinets and climbing on countertops.

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