September 23, 2014

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Part 2: Breanna Sprenger, the extraordinary ‘ordinary girl’

AVON — John and Carrie Sprenger’s newborn daughter was sipping formula and wetting her tiny diapers.

That’s what newborns are supposed to do, but their daughter — whom they named Breanna — wasn’t expected to do so.

While other couples spend their time readying for a baby by painting and decorating a nursery, the Sprengers instead were planning a funeral and picking out a casket. They hadn’t even bought a car seat for their daughter’s ride home because doctors had told them she likely wouldn’t be going home.

More photos below.

They certainly didn’t expect doctors to tell them anything other than what they had been hearing for weeks and that was that their daughter was going to be born with no legs and just one arm and wasn’t going to live long after birth.

But Breanna was doing what doctors said she wouldn’t.

“They told us she needed more tests and an ultrasound so they could figure out what was going on with her,” Carrie Sprenger says. “We didn’t know what to think, and I don’t think they knew either because no one was expecting her to be so stable. It was ‘OK, she is here. What now?’ ”

John and Carrie Sprenger never took the time during their pregnancy to dream about Breanna swimming, dancing or telling jokes and then laughing at the corny punch lines like she does today.

They could not foresee the little girl who on a cold day this past December would be waiting at the French Creek YMCA in Avon for her swim lesson, just like dozens of other kids her age.

At that lesson, Breanna is wearing a navy blue swimsuit with green stripes on the side and she fidgets as her mother talks. The feisty 10-year-old girl is a ball of energy as she waits for the moment when she can get in the pool. She can barely sit still in her motorized wheel chair.

“People think we put some kind of floatation device on her or that she uses something, but this is all her. When people see her swim for the first time, they are truly amazed,” John says.

Right on cue, swim instructor Kim Audibert walks into the small waiting room that is full of other parents and kids waiting for lessons. She walks over to Breanna and grabs the hot pink goggles from their perch atop her head of blond hair and places them over her eyes.

“OK, are you ready to go?” she said. “Today we are going to work on lap turns and your freestyle.”

Breanna is all of 27 pounds and Kim carries her to the pool, heading for the farthest lane.

She places Breanna on the edge of the pool, kneels down to eye level and gives her student for the next 30 minutes a few more instructions.

“Stay off your back,” she says. “No backstroke today.”

Breanna giggles as she agrees to the game plan, and Kim places Breanna in the water.

This used to be the point where Carrie’s heart would drop.

“She’s not buoyant. She sinks right to the bottom,” she says. “I used to jump every time they did that. You know that mother in me has to protect her.”

But it’s been several years since those first heart-stopping moments. Swimming was recommended by her physical therapist as a way to strengthen Breanna’s small body. Now, it’s so much a part of her life that Breanna dreams of being a U.S. Paralympic swimmer and one day winning a gold medal.

“It took her a year to stop going in circles,” Carrie says. “We call it spin out. She would swim a little then go in circle after circle.”

Now, Carrie sits on a bench by the foot of the pool like every other parent. Her heart doesn’t stop as Breanna uses the only fingers she has — three on her small, but very strong left arm, with their nails painted a shade of bluish green — to grab the edge of the pool and steady her self.

In an almost fluid movement, Breanna dives deep into the water and uses her arm to propel herself through the water.

Flip, stroke and breathe.

Flip, stroke and breathe.

Audibert walks the length of the pool, never taking her eyes off Breanna.

“She’s a ham. Most days she talks so much she can barely swim,” Audibert says. “She just talks about everything going on in her life and she is always so full of energy.”

Life going by in a blur

Carrie sits back as her daughter swims and continues to tell the story of how miracles have happened every day in their lives since Breanna arrived.

“The first surgery Breanna had, she was about two weeks old,” she said. “We found out by then that she did have a stomach. You know that hole in her diaphragm? Well, her stomach had somehow pushed its way through that hole and was hiding behind her lungs. The doctors said it was like someone grabbed Breanna and shook her up because her insides were all over the place. They had to go in and fix everything.”

Breanna has had 18 surgeries, including hernia repairs, the reopening of her stomach and a colon resection in which eight inches of her intestines were removed. Doctors took out a part of her lung and surgically separated her webbed fingers so she could write. She has had four hip surgeries and two eye surgeries.

Breanna can rattle off some of her medical history herself. She knows the Cleveland Clinic very well as it was the place where 16 of the 18 surgeries were performed.

“When I am there, I’m like the tour guide,” she says. “People get lost, and I say, ‘Come with me. Let me show you.’ It is like my second home.”

The first two years of Breanna’s life were full of nearly endless trips to the doctor. She was almost 4 weeks old before she went home for the first time and then it was only for a short while.

“Those first two years are a blur. I think we blocked them out or we can’t remember because we were on autopilot,” Carrie says. “We were just focused on getting through each day. We were in school, working, waiting for Medicaid, trying not to lose our house and just focusing on Breanna. People we know have these stories to tell that we just can’t remember even though they say we were there. I didn’t even call to cancel the funeral arrangements. My mom had to do that.”

John and Carrie quickly assembled a team of helpers and the hodgepodge group of family, friends and caregivers took on the moniker Team Breanna. The goal of the group was simple: to love Breanna and help her through life the best way they could.

Glenda Pendergrass, 70, says she remembers the first time she laid eyes on Breanna.

Days earlier, she had answered an ad for a home child care provider placed by the Sprengers. Breanna was 3-months-old and they needed help.

“I walked in the door of their house, back then they lived in a two-story home in Elyria,” says the small woman with a grandmotherly demeanor. “Carrie was holding Breanna and she and I talked for a while. I didn’t even know then that she didn’t have any legs.”

John gave Pendergrass a tour of their home and Breanna’s nursery, and then he asked the most important question.

“John said, ‘Do you want to hold her?’ That was what I was waiting for,” Pendergrass says. “He placed her in my arms and a tear come down my face. She was so precious. That’s what I saw before I even realized she didn’t have any legs.”

The caregiver, who has five children and 18 grandchildren of her own and calls herself a professional at raising children, says she didn’t see a disability then and doesn’t see it now.

“Her and I have a very special bond,” she says. “I have loved every minute of every day with her. I have always told her you can do anything. Don’t say can’t. You just have to stick with it.”

The couple’s church family at Calvary Baptist Church in Avon Lake also rallied around them, creating a protective cocoon of people who would cook meals, throw baby showers and hold fundraisers to get Breanna the things she needed.

Someone like her

A story about the church’s efforts to raise funds for Breanna’s needs gave them more than just financial assistance.

It was several years after Breanna’s birth when John and Carrie learned of an older girl in Seattle who is built just like Breanna — right down to the same shade of blond hair.

“It was an article or news story or something about Breanna,” Carrie said. “We were selling Breanna Bears through our church to raise money when I got this e-mail from this woman named Joyce who said my daughter was her daughter’s twin. I responded back ‘Where are you?’ ”

The e-mail came from Joyce Wheeler, the mother of Kayla Wheeler, who was born with the same congenital amputations as Breanna. Kayla is now 15 and is a gold-medal swimmer.

The resulting friendship between the families has proved valuable.

“Breanna learned how to hop from Kayla. She learned how to get up from Kayla,” Carrie says. “All the physical therapy in the world and just three days with Kayla and Breanna learns so much. Kayla is Breanna’s equal and she can do a lot. Looking at her is like looking at my daughter’s future. We know she will end up doing whatever she wants. She just has to work at it and do it her way.”

Breanna beams when she talks about Kayla.

“I’m just like her,” she says. “I’m going to be on the U.S. Paralympics team like her, too. I’m going to be on the swim team.”

To be on a swim team with children who are just like her would be priceless for Breanna.

She loves her swim team at the Avon YMCA and competing against other kids, but she has never come in first place.

“Right now, I just want her to swim against other disabled children,” Carrie says. “If you look on the swimming website that ranks swimmers, she is 289 out of 289.”

John agrees.

“Every single time she swims, she gets a standing ovation, and people cheer her on, but it will be different when she gets to swim with other kids like her,’’ he says.

Breanna’s first opportunity to see what its like to swim with others like her will come next month when the family heads to Colorado so Breanna can participate in the Jimi Flowers Swim Classic, named after the well-known Paralympics coach who died in 2009.

“I’m too young to be a Paralympic swimmer because you have to be like 14, but this is where you get noticed,” Breanna explains. “You don’t decide you want to be a Paralympic swimmer. They have to ask you to join. That is what they did with Kayla.”

Beyond gold medals, Breanna has other big dreams — goals that make her parents cringe because it includes leaving home.

“I’m going to move to Tennessee and help save cancer children,” she announces as a matter of fact. “Tennessee is where the St. Jude Children’s Hospital is, and I really want to go there. But I can’t even go to visit until I am 14, so that is what we are going to do for my 14th birthday.”

Breanna’s career goal is a perfect fit for the nationally known hospital. She hopes to become a child life specialist so she can help kids in the hospital.

“You are there to keep their minds off being sick, all of the treatments and everything they are going through,” she says. “You shift the focus from being sick to fun. Sometimes the kids have to go through a lot. I know.”

STORY CONTINUED IN TOMORROW’S CHRONICLE-TELEGRAM.

Help out

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.

Read more:

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.

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