AVON — John Sprenger walks into the family living room, his oldest daughter, Breanna, in his arms. He gently places her on the chocolate-brown couch and shakes his head as he realizes where her attention is focused.
There’s a catalog nearby for American Girl dolls, and his daughter is eyeing it up. His girls already have a sizeable collection of the pricey dolls — most of which have been gifts, he’s quick to point out.
“I think you have enough for now,” he says.
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Little brother Chase bounds into the room. He is carrying one of the dolls, letting it dangle at his side before flinging it on the table in front of the couch.
“She even has a doll that looks just like her,” he said with a giggle. “This is the Breanna doll.”
The plastic and cloth doll doesn’t have Breanna’s same smile — a bright, natural grin that creeps across her face and makes her eyes crinkle in the corners. But the bodies of the real Breanna and the doll are the same: no legs, no right arm and a left arm with three fingers.
“So, what do you tell people when they ask you why you don’t have any legs?” a reporter asks.
Breanna has heard the question too many times to count.
“I just tell them I was born this way,” she says before starting to sing the lyrics of a Lady Gaga song.
“I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way,” she sings loudly while bouncing up and down and moving her arm to the beat in her head.
Carrie Sprenger laughs as she watches her daughter — forever the entertainer — go through her routine. Breanna doesn’t always answer with such sincerity, Carrie Sprenger notes.
“She likes to tell stories, too, like she was in a high-speed train accident, a shark bit them off or she was attacked by a unicorn,” Carrie said. “It doesn’t bother her because she knows who she is.”
Breanna adds with her trademark giggle: “Or, I’ll scream and say ‘Oh, my God, where are my legs?’ That is the best one.”
Laughter is commonplace in the Sprenger house, and it often is sparked by Breanna. She loves life too much not to laugh, she says.
“I’m just an ordinary girl,” she says. “I’m just like every other girl. I do what every other girl would do. I love to dance. I love Justin Bieber, and I love cheerleading. People should know don’t ever underestimate a person that has a disability because they will prove you wrong.”
A Valentine’s Day to remember
On Valentine’s Day in 2001, Carrie lay on the examination table at St. John Medical Center, her very pregnant belly covered with a cool jelly so a technician could peek at the baby inside.
She and John were hopeful they’d learn the baby’s sex as they were heading to the stores to register after the sonogram, and Carrie recalls clearly she was thinking of that trip when her world shifted.
It came suddenly: The technician who was moving the wand across her midsection stopped and gasped.
“All I know is she got up and left the room very quickly and a doctor came in,” Carrie says, tears flowing as she recounts the visit even after a decade has passed. “He didn’t say anything and then they left the room together. I could still sort of hear them talking and I heard them say she doesn’t have any legs.”
Carrie calls that moment the before-and-after juncture in her daughter’s life. The turning point, so to speak, that would set the couple on a journey filled with doctor’s appointments and surgeries, uncertainty, joy, sorrow and every other emotion in between.
“But now we are at the good part,” Carrie said one Tuesday evening shortly after the new year. She was seated with her feet kicked up on the loveseat.
“We haven’t had a surgery in almost two years and now we get to let Breanna just be Breanna, a 10-year-old girl who is in the fifth grade. A normal kid,” Carrie said.
Getting to this moment in time was not easy, nor was it expected.
Carrie returns to the retelling of that day in February 2001 with both a smile on her face and tears in her eyes.
“It’s still sort of like a dream. I know what I heard, but John didn’t hear as much,” she says. “The doctor came back into the room and told us to go home and wait for a call from our doctor.”
But they stuck to their plan — driving instead from the appointment to Babies R Us to start a baby registry.
“I was sobbing the entire time,” Carrie says. “It was my way of saying everything was going to be OK. If I register for this baby, everything was going to be OK.”
When they got home, eight messages were waiting on the answering machine from their doctor, each telling them to call back immediately. He told them briefly what was suspected, and said they needed another more advanced ultrasound. It was scheduled for the very next day.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we got there,” Carrie said. “We just wanted to know everything. This was our baby. Our first child — it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
So one day after Valentine’s Day, one day after registering for all the must-have gifts for new parents, Carrie and John learned that their daughter had far more life-threatening issues than her missing limbs.
“She had so many problems. She had a hole in her heart, a hole in her brain, problems with her veins, a herniated diaphragm and her stomach was missing,” Carrie says. “We knew at that point she had no legs and just one arm, but to hear everything else just knocked the wind out of us.”
Making a family complete
Carrie takes a deep breath, wipes tears from her eyes and looks around the living room of their home, which is filled with pictures of their family, now a cheerful family of five.
Even the fact that they are in the house on a quiet street in a development in Avon is because of Breanna.
It’s the only ranch-style home on the street nestled beside larger two-story homes where other children can run from the basement to the second floor with ease.
But the Sprenger home was designed and built with Breanna in mind. There are no stairs. The halls are wide enough for a wheelchair , and no room is inaccessible to Breanna.
Even the bathroom Breanna uses has motorized steps that come out at the touch of a button. They allow Breanna to carefully pull herself onto the counter so she can brush her teeth.
Breanna’s bedroom — the one she shares with her younger sister — has pink and purple walls with girly accents. Breanna is in there on this day rifling through her dolls, joined by sister, Paighten, 7, and the laughter floats to the living room as each girl tries to outdo the other in the telling of how they came to possess each doll.
Carrie’s moment of reflection doesn’t last — John peeks into the room with his hands shoved into the pockets of his blue jeans.
“I think they are taking every doll out,” he says, adding that Chase, 5, has joined the fray in Breanna’s room.
Carrie learned she was pregnant with Paighten just as the couple was moving from Elyria, where they lived when Breanna was born.
“We thought it was just going to be Breanna,” Carrie says. “We built the house so she can have a wing to herself and then Paighten came along. I guess God knew we needed that third bedroom ‘cause there was Paighten and then came Chase.”
Carrie says she was somewhat fearful when she learned she was pregnant a second time, but she trusted God and got reassurance from her doctor.
“They told me I had more of a chance of getting hit by a plane walking down the street then it ever happening again,” she says. “We did all of the genetic testing we could on Breanna and eventually they just told us it was one of those rare things they could not explain.”
Together the three kids complete the Sprenger family, turning their house into a sometimes very loud home. John and Carrie wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They gave us the option to, you know, terminate the pregnancy,” Carrie says, going back to Breanna’s birth. “We talked about it. We cried. We talked about it some more and talked to our pastor. But in the end, we decided that God gives a heartbeat, and only God can take a heartbeat away. I wasn’t going to be the one to do that.
“As soon as we saw that first ultrasound, she was our daughter and we were going to keep her for however long we had her. We decided that whatever will be, will be.”
Now, Paighten and Chase are helpmates to their older sister when she needs it and nagging siblings when she doesn’t. They laugh and play together without as much as a word about the differences between them.
“We were in Applebee’s the other day and Chase just blurted out that a man at the next table didn’t have a foot,” Carrie says. “I couldn’t help but laugh. I said ‘Yeah, and your sister has no legs and only one arm,’ and he was just like ‘Oh, that’s right.’”
Longest pregnancy in history
At first, John and Carrie didn’t tell too many people about what was going on with their first daughter.
Close friends and family knew, but Carrie says she just smiled politely when other people congratulated her and handed her delicately wrapped gifts for the baby.
“We got a lot of socks. I mean, everyone bought us socks,” she says. “What could I say to them, but ‘Thank you?’ ”
Pastor Gary Schroeder listened to the couple a lot during those difficult months. Now, the pastor of a church near Youngstown, Schroeder has known John and Carrie for years. He was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, a church of roughly 200 families in Avon Lake, that John started attending when he was 16.
Schroeder married John and Carrie in the sanctuary, and was very encouraged when John told him he planned to raise his children in the church.
“How do you minister to someone facing a difficult pregnancy? That is a good question and all you can do to tell them they need to keep trusting God and turning to him rather than turning away,” Schroeder says. “God has known about Breanna since before she was conceived and he was going to accomplish his purpose through her and through her family.”
Carrie said they hang on to their faith as they went about the pregnancy the best way they could.
Each ultrasound appointment started with a prayer for good news.
“We had so many ultrasounds, I lost count,” Carrie says. “It became routine for us. We would go to an appointment and hope for the best. And, every time we went to a sonogram, we got a little bit of good news.”
First, they learned the hole in Breanna’s brain was gone — it had resolved itself. Another showed the hole in Breanna’s heart closed up, the veins had formed and her blood was flowing properly.
“But all the while, they keep telling us not to get our hopes up because she didn’t have a stomach and had a hole in her diaphragm,” Carrie says. “We keep hearing all these stories of how she wasn’t going to make it. We went to the funeral home and planned her funeral. We picked out her casket.”
Carrie said the day before the couple’s scheduled delivery, they stayed home alone. They wanted to quietly and privately say goodbye to their daughter.
“John put his head on my stomach and cried,” she recalls. “We were finally at the end of the longest pregnancy in history and we just cried. It was so hard. But I don’t know what it was. Something in me told me to pack a bag. I had all these baby gifts I got from everyone that I would just stare at for weeks, and I decided to pack some of them in a bag.”
The next day, a warm summer day in July, John and Carrie arrived at Fairview Hospital at around 6 a.m. They came alone, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Throughout the day and night, all of their family and friends came to the hospital because they simply didn’t know how long they would have with the baby.
The hospital put the family up in a private labor and delivery suite on the other side of the floor — away from the cries of healthy babies and joyous parents.
“The doctors said we could invite as many people as we wanted and they would let her stay with us as long as possible so everyone could see her,” Carrie says.
Breanna was born at 9:59 p.m. on July 6, 2001. She weighed just 4 pounds and was 12 inches long and let out a tiny wail after entering the world.
Carried said she was just numb looking at her daughter. John, meanwhile, was an emotional wreck. He couldn’t decide between tears of sorrow or fierce protection of his baby girl.
“I didn’t cry,” Carrie says. “I didn’t want to feel anything. I was waiting for the worst, but hoping for the best.”
Schroeder said he remembers looking at Breanna and praying over her with her family.
“God has always been with Breanna,” he says. “We just prayed that God watched over her and grant her parents grace as they dealt with whatever was to come their way.”
At about midnight, the nurse came for Breanna. Alive and stable, the nurses decided to do some of their normal post-delivery duties.
“They wanted to clean her up and get her settled before bringing her back to us,” Carrie says.
Not long after they left, the phone rang. A nurse from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was on the other end.
“I don’t know if you call it a mercy feeding, but they told me they fed her some formula and she took it,” Carrie says. “And they told us to brace ourselves because she had used the bathroom. Something went in and something came out. For months, we were being told that she didn’t have a stomach and her digestive system was not intact.
“They told us she wouldn’t be able to do any of that, and they called to tell us she was drinking and going to the bathroom,” Carrie said.
Breanna was doing what newborns do — only that was one of the vital life functions that doctors thought Breanna wouldn’t be able to do.
STORY CONTINUED IN TOMORROW’S CHRONICLE-TELEGRAM.
Follow Breanna Sprenger on Facebook.com/teambreanna. Updates are posted regularly about her goals of becoming a U.S. Paralympic swimmer.
Team Breanna is looking for company sponsorship and/or company and individual donations.
Donations would need to be made out to “Team Breanna” and can be sent to Team Breanna, P.O. Box 422, Avon, OH 44011.
Donations are also accepted at any Huntington Bank. Checks need to be written out to “Team Breanna.”
Team Breanna is holding a fundraiser noon to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 at Coleone’s Pizza, 2424 Ridgeland Drive, Avon. Mention “Team Breanna” and she gets 25 percent of the sales that day.
- Reporter Lisa Roberson’s column about meeting Breanna
- Day 2: Coming tomorrow
- Day 3: Coming Tuesday
- Day 4: Coming Wednesday
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.