Unbroken: Andy’s Triumph

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(Author’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series, inspired by the incredible life of Louie Zamperini, the hero of the bestselling book Unbroken, and on the right-to-life and the will to live it).

The psychological realities and repercussions that the “pseudoscience,” called eugenics, left behind a scarred and scorched earth after the Japanese signed the surrender aboard the USS Missouri in September of 1945.

Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken doesn’t end like Angelina Jolie’s movie playing across the world in theaters right now. In a true sense, when Louie Zamperini finally comes home to the states after a three-year, World War II nightmare as a POW in the Pacific, the bad dreams, the demons that haunted his soul, just began to destroy him. It is only when Louie comes home that he really becomes broken. And it’s not pretty.

It never is. When the greatest generation was welcomed back to flag-waving back-water towns and post-war celebrations in cities across the nation, the real battle had just started – the one for a man’s soul. The unseen enemy took careful aim and slowly squeezed the trigger: a side dish of white rice at a restaurant or a car’s muffler backfiring on any given day. It’s difficult – no it’s damn near impossible to go from mayhem to Mayberry and Main Street.

America was tired of war. It craved normalcy. Victory was secured and it was finally time to move on. Yet this is never true after any war. Instead, for combat veterans, it’s an open invitation, an unlocked gate between hell and earth; because the folks at home who did not live behind the bars of the asylum know nothing about the madness. And it’s maddening to hear screams no one else can.

Incorrigible

At one point in his life Andy was a normal kid growing up in the early 1980’s. He ran. He pedaled his bike. He played ball. He got into mischief. He laughed and didn’t particularly like girls except for his sister. Andy reminded me of Louie Zamperini at his age: he was incorrigible.

But then the cross came. Andy’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident. His mother lost it and became an addict. One day, Andy, age five, trying to be both mother and father to his little sister, nearly burned the house down cooking spaghetti. Then the authorities took over. It was at this tender age that Andy presented signs of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). He was tested and it was confirmed. It was incurable. His sister was taken in by maternal grandparents. But, what was to be done with Andy?

He was sent to a hospital for over a year and needed to use a walker to get around. This didn’t stop him from being a boy. Hailing from New York, walker or no, he was hell-on-wheels and enjoyed playing pranks and causing as much ruckus as possible. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay at the hospital forever. The state of New York needed to place him somewhere.

He was sent to live at the Woods Schools, in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a residential facility for children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. There were other children with Duchenne at Woods, and Andy would be among his peers, some older, some younger. But it wasn’t easy. Andy readily made friends only to see their health deteriorate. Andy was a bright boy. He knew what was in store for him. Like his friends who he watched die.

One day, as my sister, Patty, a teacher, was walking into the cafeteria at the Gardener Education Center at Woods Schools, she heard a commotion. A blue-eyed, blond-haired boy was making a fuss. One of the workers was insisting the boy drink the milk on his lunch tray. The boy wouldn’t budge. His face was like a stone wall and the standoff continued. Finally, the boy decided to end it, but on his terms. He flipped the tray up into the air. The tray, the food, and the disputed milk went flying. Patty walked over to him. “Hey, are you all right?” She didn’t think he would even look at her, such was the stoic determination etched on his face.

It was Andy.

Slowly, the stone face collapsed into a pile of rubble and he turned his misty-blue eyes toward hers, his lips quivering. “What’s wrong?” she asked, gently.

“It’s my eleventh birthday,” he said, emptying his heart, tears freely flowing now. “And no one even said ‘Happy Birthday’ to me.”

Patty immediately fell in love.

“Impasses”

In July of 2007, an article explaining a case study appeared in “ACTA MYOLOGICA,” a French medical journal. It quoted the French President of the National Ethics Consultation Committee: “Dare we say: France sets up, step by step, a Health Policy constantly coming closer and closer to Eugenics. We are not far from the ‘impasses’ in which one had begun to become involved at the end of the 19th century.”

The article was enlightening because the “New Eugenics” debate is juxtaposed accurately with the next quote:

“I belong to the first generation of women who have campaigned for abortion and freedom of fecundity. The taboo of sex has been overcome and we do not want to be submitted to the taboo of death” (2007) C. Hury, Secretary General of the Association for the right to die with dignity (ADMD).

Eugenics, underwritten by the Unites States government, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, adored in academia, and presumed as dead as Louie Zamperini was, after his plane crashed in the Pacific during World War II, is alive and well in modern America, wearing the monikers of “mercy killing,” and “the right-to-die.” It is just as much a nightmare now as it was when Major Leonard Darwin delivered his address to the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921 under a banner with the logo “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.” The major, the son of Charles Darwin, pleaded for the “elimination of the unfit.”

We are certainly passed the impasse of eugenics today. It’s in full swing. Abortion is as rampant as a method of not just birth control, but birth selection. Custom babies are here. Euthanasia is now a part of our life. Can this trend truly be reversed? Or is there too much money behind it, too much brainwashing already accomplished, too much noise in our lives that we no longer have ears to hear?

And yet, it seems science is in a race against itself. My son, Connor Galloway, Vice President, Rare Disease Center of Excellence, at Connexion Healthcare, shared this:

“Medical research has advanced light years in the past ten years as far as DMD. I encourage you to read up on Rare Disease Day, coming up soon in February, and the larger patient advocacy and rare disease groups like The Parent Project, CureDuchenne, The Jett Foundation, and Global Genes. Patients and their families are taking back control of their futures with respect to quality of life and their risk/benefit ratio when it comes to new treatment options. In recent years, as these patient advocates become stronger, louder, and raise more money to lobby congress and the FDA – they are having a direct impact on the future of treatment and quality of life for Duchenne patients.”

A Life Worth Living

As Andy’s body succumbed to his disease, little by little, over the next decade or so, he went through major and minor health threats. To correct his spine, a rod was placed in his back. The walker was traded in for an electric wheelchair. The only digit on his frame he could master was his right thumb. But, he was truly back to being hell-on-wheels. Never did he ever lose his boyhood penchant for fun and mischief. The boy grew into a man and he faced his next and greatest challenge with as much manly dignity and grit as he did all the others. In order for him to continue living he needed a tracheotomy and ventilation. He could have this procedure done or he could die.

It was a no-brainer. Andy wanted to live. At one point, as he lay unconscious after the operation in his bed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), I walked into his room and saw my sister, Patty, in tears and smiling at the same time. Andy had his arms stretched out horizontally; his legs were atop of each other with his ankles crisscrossed. My sister and I didn’t have to say anything to each other. He was Christ. He was holding up his cross. And he was doing it for us.

Andy spent the rest of his life with my family. My mother, who never took in stray cats and dogs, because she never really liked them, had no problem taking Andy into her home. He was already family.

Was life a burden to him? Patty explains: “Andy did have many discussions with doctors and nurses regarding his illness and quality of life. There were many times in the last few years of his life in which he had to give his end-of-life directives. Andy was clear. He believed he was very viable and enjoyed a good quality of life with friends and his adoptive family. He requested all extraordinary measures. He never prevaricated. He was just plain determined to enjoy his life. He never saw the wheelchair or any adaptive equipment as anything more than tools. Andy was asked, and consented to meet with other children and parents facing a similar decision to get a trach/vent or die. He demonstrated to others a quality of life that some could not understand. For Andy it was really very easy. He said it many times: ‘if I could just stay this way and can move this thumb, I’d be happy.’ He never gave up.”

Both Louie Zamperini and Andy struggled after they came home – Louie to California and Andy to his adoptive home in Pennsylvania.

And they both dreamed. In dreams you are either trapped or you are free.

Patty and I would take night shifts watching Andy, acting as care-givers since we were both trained by CHOP to provide for his needs. At night, when Andy was sleeping, he communicated with the invisible. Like Louie, Andy would call out in his sleep and talk to persons unknown. Louie’s dreams, however, were filled with vengeance and hatred, he sought to kill his tormentors, he wrestled with his demons, he screamed although no one could hear him, like the silent screams of aborted babies across the world today.

Andy, who had already forgiven his persecutors, lured the souls he talked to in the middle of the night into private conversations. I don’t know if he was talking to his mom or dad, his sister or other members of his family, maybe he was sharing old times with his lost friends who suffered with him, perhaps he was conversing with an angel or with God Himself.

But, they were nice talks. I know because I heard him giggle and laugh. Perhaps, in the way dreams go, he was just exercising his legs, running free with them, like Louie did at the Olympics in Berlin, in 1936. Running for the pure sake and fun of it – finally, running free.

Next: Evan’s Triumph

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