Teacher touched by students' show of support

By JUDY JENKINS, Gleaner Columnist
November 30, 2003

Gleaner photos by Darrin Phegley
Henderson County High School teacher Jennifer Carrico is suprised, as she walks into Beth Ann Shuler's child development class where a baby shower had been planned for her newborn son, Keegan, who was born with spina bifida. 

As a young mom, Jenny Carrico knows all about constantly untied shoe strings. 

As a music teacher in Henderson County High School's Humanities department, she knows all about instruments with strings. 

And as the startled recipient of special gifts from a group of caring teens, Jenny knows all about heart strings. Hers have been tugged to the point that it's difficult for her to talk about these kids without crying. 

"Something like this changes your perspective," she says. "Sometimes you can get a little jaded, being a teacher. This really makes you think twice." She finds it hard to believe that the teens would make such an effort for someone they barely know. 

A week ago, they presented her with $1,000 to help with medical expenses incurred by Keegan, the son born to Jenny and her husband Stephen on Sept. 23. The youths also had a baby shower for Keegan, who already has had three surgeries for problems related to spina bifida, a birth defect in which part of the spinal column doesn't fully develop and the spinal cord nerves in the affected area are exposed and unprotected. 

As of Thanksgiving Eve, the day this column was written, Keegan remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of St. Mary's Hospital. His parents and grandparents and 4-year-old brother Jacob were hoping they would get to bring the infant home on Thanksgiving Day, or at least by this weekend. 

Keegan's spinal opening has been surgically closed, and the great news is he's not expected to have any problems with mobility or his cognitive abilities. The baby with the strawberry blonde hair and pronounced personality already is reaching for things and thoroughly charming his nurses. 

A youngster with particularly good taste, he shows a preference for classical music. "They play music for him all the time," Jenny said, "and he loves the lullabies and classical" selections. 

Keegan, who weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces at birth currently tips the scale at 9 pounds, 4 ounces. 

His biggest problem right now is breathing difficulties related to his vocal cords. One vocal cord is paralyzed and one has been swollen, and that caused respiratory problems that required a "trach" tube to help him breathe. 

"He'll come home with two monitors, a suctioning machine and humidity machine," said Jenny, who added that her younger son "is definitely a high maintenance baby." On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, Jenny and Stephen were staying in a St. Mary's homelike setting where they took care of Keegan and learned to operate the equipment he needs. 

Jenny hasn't been able to teach since the first month of school, when she was ordered on bed rest by her doctor. She has, however, been back to County High several times to visit, and two weeks ago she talked to Beth Shuler's Child Development Class about spina bifida. 

These students, who were touched by what the Carrico family has experienced, took it upon themselves to raise money to help with some of the medical expenses that aren't being covered by insurance. They went to different classes to collect everything from pennies to folding bills, and they bought gifts for the baby whose name was featured on a banner in Beth's class. 

Jenny had been asked to come back to the class, but she had no idea what they'd done. When she entered the doorway and saw that large banner, helium balloons, presents and refreshments, the red-haired Union County resident clasped her hands over her mouth. 

The students gave her a special memory, and the certain knowledge that there are plenty of kids in this 21st century with "really good hearts."

Gleaner photos by Darrin Phegley
Carrico holds her other son, Jacob, who is 4, during the shower.