He was pronounced dead at birth, but miraculously survived. Though he struggles with cerebral palsy, Christopher Coleman knows his disability was a gift from God.
Dr. David Jones untangled the slippery umbilical cord that had wrapped around the baby’s neck. It was a breech birth with twins, eight weeks premature, and the delivery was not going well. The fetal monitor indicated a dangerously low heart rate only moments earlier, and he knew one of the twins was
dying. He clamped the cord and suctioned the infant’s mouth and nose, hoping against the odds that he could kick-start life into the tiny boy, but there were no vital signs.
He glanced over to the nurses as they coached the 27-year-old mother through more contractions. He shook his head, but his eyes said it all. He placed the lifeless baby on a steel table at the back of the delivery room and mentally noted the time. It was 8:21 p.m., October 20, 1973. Christopher Coleman was pronounced dead at birth.
As a nurse placed a sheet over the tiny body, Dr. Jones turned back to the mother on the table. The second twin was coming legs-first too, but he knew this baby’s heart rate was more stable. “At least she’ll have one of them,” he thought.
Dr. Robert Wiener, a first-year resident at the hospital, hurried into the tension-filled delivery room. He was scrubbed and gowned, ready to assist. “What do you have?” he asked, as another nurse helped him with his surgical gloves.
“One dead, another almost out,” Dr. Jones answered, without looking up. The mother screamed through a final push as the second baby emerged. “She looks good,” he said, handing her to a nurse. But Dr. Wiener wasn’t watching. He was standing over the table in the back, doing everything he could to resuscitate the baby who had been declared dead.
Christal Coleman’s wails filled the room with the sound of new life. A nurse gently blotted the mother’s face that was dripping with sweat, but no one said much. Linda Coleman had heard the doctors talking. She knew one of her babies was dead. She sobbed, exhausted, while the twin that survived was being readied for the Neonatal ICU.
And then they heard it, almost in disbelief. There was a second cry from the back of the room. Christopher Coleman had been revived and was struggling for air. “My God, that baby’s alive!” one of the nurses gasped. The medical team rushed both babies to the critical care unit where they were hooked up to oxygen tubes and an array of beeping monitors.
Neo-natal specialists examined both babies thoroughly over the next three hours. Christal seemed fine, even though she weighed just over five pounds. But the doctors were grim-faced as they made their second assessment: Christopher had gone for at least fifteen minutes without breathing, and had undoubtedly suffered extensive brain damage. He was already in the grip of seizures that caused his tiny body to convulse. If he survived, he would be severely retarded and seriously crippled.
A team of doctors described Christopher’s brain injury to his mother later that night. Her son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a result of lack of oxygen to the cerebrum. It’s the largest portion of the brain, controlling higher mental faculties, sensations and voluntary muscle activity, they explained. Christopher would never walk, talk, move or even think for himself, the neurologist said.
“You should think about placing him in a facility that can care for the severely retarded. It would probably be best for him, and the rest of your family, too,” he said. “You need to move on with your lives.”
Linda Coleman wiped her eyes, swollen from tears and fatigue. Placing her helpless son in an impersonal institution was not an option she would ever consider. “I could never separate my twins,” she told the doctors. “They’re both coming home with me. No matter what it takes, I’m going to raise my babies.”
Her husband showed up at the hospital the next day. Their marriage had been strained for several months, but now it was rapidly fraying. He took one look at his frail son, surrounded by tubes and monitors, and turned away. A crippled and mentally retarded child was more than he could handle. He walked out of the hospital and out of their ten-year marriage. Linda and her seven children were on their own.
I remember the blank walls. I stared at them for hours while I sat, strapped like a prisoner in my wheelchair. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t move. All I could do was sit where the aides put me, usually facing the corner or off to the side where I wouldn’t be in the way. I got to watch what was going on in the small classroom now and then, but mostly it was endless hours of the wall. No one talked to me. No one even wiped my nose.
I was six years old, enrolled at the LeBlance Special Services Center in Louisiana, a state-run school for the disabled. It was an hour’s bus ride from home, but it seemed like a million miles away from my family who loved me. I cried inside. I just wanted my mama who had cared for my every need.
I sat helplessly, usually soaked in my own urine and mess. I often sit in my soiled clothes for an entire day, embarrassed and frustrated. I tried to express my needs for the toilet and I must have smelled terrible, but the teacher and her aides just ignored me. To the aides, my efforts to communicate were heard as mindless grunting. There wasn’t much they could do with me. They had other children to watch. To them, I was just a vegetable in a wheelchair.
An aide would take me outside during recess if the weather was nice. She would park me in a shady spot on the playground while the staff ate their lunches or sipped coffee. Then it was back to the wall—dirty, scuffed and devoid of anything stimulating, until it was time for the long bus ride home. I’m disabled. I deserve to be ignored.
Mom never knew how badly I was treated at the school. I couldn’t talk, so I couldn’t tell her what was really happening. The aides always explained my mess as “. . .an accident while he was on the bus ride home.” The only times the staff cleaned me up were when they knew my mom was coming for a visit, or when the principal stopped by the classroom.
Mom worked two jobs to provide for her seven children. We lived in a small, cramped mobile home in Gonzales, Louisiana. She would get us on the school buses by 7:30 in the morning, and then work all day cleaning homes and offices. I came home from school about 3:30 in the afternoon. Mom was always waiting to meet me.
As soon as the driver lowered me from the special education bus, Mom would wheel me into our home, clean me up and dress me in fresh clothes. She always had a hug and a smile for me, and she made me feel like a prince. Mom would fix dinner for all of us before heading back to work as a restaurant cook, where she worked until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. My brothers and sisters took turns caring for me while Mom was working. She came home every night exhausted, only to do it all again a few hours later. I don’t think she ever got much sleep, even on the weekends. We were all in church on Sundays. Mom was as devoted to her faith as she was to her children. Somehow, she kept it all together.
I was two years old when Mom first took me to the Association for Retarded Citizens near Baton Rouge. She brought me there every day for more than a year, hoping and praying for a miracle. The specialists discovered I wasn’t as mentally retarded as doctors feared. Mom was so happy to hear the news! When I was five, she enrolled me at an elementary school with a special class for handicapped students. It was more then 40 miles from home, but Mom drove it every morning and again every afternoon. Three afternoons a week, she drove me to a Cerebral Palsy Center for speech and physical therapy before heading home. We always stopped for a hamburger first; it was something special just for the two of us. In between all the driving, Mom worked at her two jobs.
I dearly loved my mother and I know she loved me, but in my mind mothers always love their children. That’s what she was supposed to do. I looked at the ways other people treated me to define who I was. I never felt I was worth much. I asked myself, what was wrong with me? Why was I born like this? What did I do to deserve this condition? Can’t anyone see who I really am behind this crooked, crippled body?
By the time I was six, I began to hate who I was. Life had given me a lousy deal. Anger and sadness churned just below the surface, but I couldn’t tell anyone because I couldn’t talk. No one – not even my mother – understood the feelings I had inside. That’s when Mom decided that the LeBlance School might be the best place for me. She trusted them. She thought the teachers were doing their job. She never knew how badly I was treated. Looking back, I know God’s angels were watching over me, even if the teachers were not.
I had been sitting in the corner for nearly six months. I was afraid this was what it would be for the rest of my life. The world out there will probably always see me as a cripple. They’ll probably think I’ll never amount to much. But I want to be somebody besides a kid in a wheelchair. I wanted to be the same as other kids!
By now, my twin sister Christal was well into the first grade in the public school. I watched her as she sat on the sofa at home, trying to read her books from school. I want to read too, I thought. And that’s when I began my midnight plan.
I waited until the lights were off, and all my brothers and sisters were asleep. While Mom was still working, I crawled from my bed and found my sister’s books. Then I made my way to the bathroom, turned the light on, and closed the door. As I lay on the floor, mesmerized by the books’ contents, I knew I had found my answer. “A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Cat, D is for Dog,” it read in one of Christal’s books. There were big pictures on each page. I studied each picture and tried to figure out what each letter was. Slowly, I began to see how it all fit together. I was learning to read!
I repeated my mission every night, lying on the bathroom floor with my sister’s books for several hours until I heard Mom come home. I crawled back to my bed and fell asleep, with visions of what I had learned dancing in my head.
When I finished Christal’s books, I looked around our home for anything else to read. I’m sure Mom thought I was a packrat after finding stacks of junk mail, old bills and statements in my dresser. I didn’t tell her why I was collecting all the stuff because I wanted to surprise her one day. But I was reading everything I could find.
As Christal’s books became more difficult, my reading skills improved. As her homework began to include math problems, I learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide. By the time Christal was in high school I was reading most of her textbooks from cover to cover. I devoured the contents of a set of encyclopedias we had at home. I was hungry to learn as much as I could about anything and everything. And still, no one in my family knew what I was doing in the hours after midnight.
The aides at the LeBlance School kept placing my wheelchair in the corner and ignoring me, but I didn’t even notice the blank walls any longer. I simply entertained myself by reflecting on what I had read the previous night, and I was always looking forward to what I might read next. My midnight mission continued for seven years.
Mr. Robinson was writing his name on the blackboard when a teacher’s aide wheeled me into the classroom. It was my first day back to the school after a summer break, and the beginning of my sixth year at the LeBlance Center. I was almost 12 years old. I liked our new teacher because he smiled and he liked his students. He wasn’t like my earlier teachers, the ones who looked at their job as just a job. Mr. Robinson was committed and caring. He wanted us to learn.
Mr. Robinson didn’t know I could read, but he sensed that I had a hunger for knowledge. It wasn’t long before he began investing more time in me than anyone ever had except my mom. He began reading novels to me during his class breaks, pausing to define each word. I hung onto everything he said. I tried my hardest to memorize the words and their meanings. At the same time, I was assigned to Miss Locket, the school’s new speech pathologist. She worked with me for several hours every week. Mr. Robinson and Miss Locket devoted countless hours reading books to me and encouraging my efforts to speak.
One night, when I was 14, I was sitting on the sofa watching the rain through the front window. Mom was in the kitchen getting dinner ready. A weather bulletin flashed across the television screen to warn about heavy thunderstorms in the area, and I slowly read each word aloud. Mom looked up in amazement. She rushed over to me, crying and laughing at the same time.
“Christopher, you can read! I knew it! I knew you could do it!” she cried. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she buried her head into mine and kept repeating, “Thank you, Lord, Thank you! Oh Thank you, Lord!” I had surprised her, all right. My brothers and sisters too. I just grinned.
I said goodbye to the LeBlance Center a few months later. I was nearly 15. Mom was determined to see me get the best education possible, and she enrolled me in another elementary school with a better special education program. The teachers tried their best to teach me basic living skills, such as counting money, arithmetic, and social skills, but I had already mastered most of them. Mom convinced the school to test my IQ, and the results showed I was reading and functioning at a 9th grade level. Elementary school subjects simply wouldn’t do, Mom insisted. I needed to be in a high school environment, learning subjects students my age needed to know.
The school administrators balked. They argued that placing me in mainstream classes would place an undue financial strain on the school’s resources. I would need a full-time aide, a special computer and special transportation. It wasn’t feasible, they said.
But Mom wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She was my biggest supporter and she fought the system with everything she had. I know she prayed for a solution, because six months after the administrators first refused, they relented. I was going to high school like the regular kids.
As I was wheeled through the front doors of St. Amant High School, I knew it was my opportunity to prove what I could do. But the teachers weren’t prepared for someone like me. They couldn’t teach me enough. One of them called me “the human sponge,” because I soaked up knowledge everywhere I went. My homework was finished before I left the school each day, and I studied my books for several hours at home every night. My grades were always at the top of the class.
I was in regular classes with dozens of students in each one, but I was lonely. The other students joked and laughed with each other, but they kept their distance from me. They seemed afraid to interact with someone in a wheelchair. I had no student friends except my sister Christal, but she was already a junior. So, I poured all my efforts into my studies, and made education everything to me. It helped take the sting of rejection away a little, but not completely. I was never going to be like the other kids no matter how good my grades were. To the students, I was still just a crippled kid who couldn’t talk normal.
As the years passed, my reputation as a serious student opened doors to even greater learning opportunities. Teachers were eager to have me in their classes. The administrators kept challenging me with college prep classes and advanced studies, and I was flying through them with ease. My dreams of being a real student had finally come true. On March 25, 1993, at the age of 20, I graduated with honors from St. Amant High School. I was ranked fifth out of 360 seniors.
The time for making the break from my home and all that was familiar to me was fast approaching. I knew I wanted to go on to college, but the reality of entering a whole new world was frightening. I was confident that I could do anything intellectually I set my mind to do. But there were things my body wouldn’t allow me to do – things the world I was entering would require. How am I going to make it? How is a crippled guy in a wheelchair going to survive out there in the real world? People won’t be able to understand me. I’ll be seen as a freak, I thought.
“How did you make it, Mom” I asked her one day. I reasoned that a woman who could raise seven children on her own, work two full-time jobs and maintain her sanity had the answers I needed. But my mom, my hero for my entire life and the one I looked up to all these years, would give no credit to herself.
“I didn’t,” she answered, quietly. “I would have walked out on all of you a long time ago. It was the Lord Jesus who gave me what I needed to stay here and raise my kids.”
For as long as I could remember, my brothers, sisters and I always went with our mother to church. In my mind, that was just something people did. Now, Mom was telling me the Jesus she praised and worshiped in church and talked to at home was a real person. She actually had a relationship with Him. He was her helper in her times of need. It sounded good to me. It felt right.
“It’s cool to be a Christian,” I said. If Mom was a Christian and we all went to Church with her, then we were all Christians too, I thought.
“Are you?” she asked. “I gave my life to God for the sake of myself, not my kids. You have to choose to give your life to God for yourself, Chris. I can’t do that for you.”
It was the most important question anyone had ever asked me. All that week I thought about my life and all that I had been through. Someone other than myself had to be in control, I thought. If Jesus weren’t the truth, I wouldn’t be where I was. The following Sunday my sister pushed me to the front of the church. I wanted what Mom had. I humbly asked Jesus to be Lord in my heart, too.
In September, as I entered Nichols State University’s pre-law program, everything seemed to be going well on the surface. But deep down inside I was uneasy. I had trusted God with my future but I hadn’t given him my past. I didn’t think anyone would ever like me for who I was. The memories of how people outside my family treated me in the past haunted me. I never thought people had treated me unfairly – I believed they were justified for what they said and what they did. I was a crippled kid who couldn’t talk or act like a normal person, and I deserved to be treated poorly.
In my new surroundings at NSU, I tried to cover up my disability. I tried to present myself in a way I thought others would love and accept. I wanted students and professors to like me, but I was afraid to be who I really was. I remember visiting a restaurant and feeling afraid to pick up my spoon to eat. I was sure I would make a mess and embarrass my friends. I was afraid to reach for a napkin because I might knock over a drink. I didn’t want anyone to see that I didn’t have it all together. There are always insecurities that come with a disability, and they had me bound up inside. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I didn’t want to be hurt again.
At the end of my sophomore year, I felt God urging me to do something more with my life. I wanted to move to Marietta, Georgia and finish my college education at Southern Polytechnic University. Mom didn’t like the idea, but she reluctantly agreed to help me get there.
“I don’t want my baby to move to Georgia. But if you want to know the truth, I can sit here and tell you all about Jesus, but you won’t ever know Him until you get out there and try Him for yourself,” she said. Mom was right.
After I moved to Georgia, I started doing things I never thought I could do. I was living in an apartment on my own, keeping up with my studies and cooking and cleaning for myself. I functioned fairly well for nearly two years. My grades were good, and I was well on my way to a college degree in technical communications. But as my college years were coming to an end, my life became a stressed-out mess. I was falling apart.
Jonathan Carter showed up for the last few months of school. He was to become my personal assistant. I knew God had sent Jonathan because I hadn’t been able to confront my fear of who I was, disabilities and all, until he came into my life. We were having lunch one afternoon at a small restaurant when I felt a sneeze coming on. I was afraid, because I knew my limbs would fly in all directions. I had no idea what might come out of my nose or where it might end up. Sure enough, that sneeze was everything I expected. Jonathan received his second shower of the day.
His kind words were not what I expected, but they were what I longed for all of my life.
“It’s okay,” he said, softly. The words came from Jonathan’s mouth, but I knew God put them there. It’s okay, I thought, as those simple words echoed in my head. I thought about everything that goes with being disabled. It’s okay that I can’t move my body the way other people move. It’s okay that I can’t speak as clearly as other people. It’s okay that I need help to do some things. God made me this way, I thought. And when He did, He put His stamp of approval on my life.
The challenges, heartaches, trials and unfair situations that I have faced in 33 years have enhanced my life. I no longer resent my wheelchair or my physical condition. In the Bible, it tells of Jesus meeting a man who had been blind since birth. Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus replied. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:1-3) I’ve found these verses to be no exception to my life. I’ve realized God uses my disability to prove His ability. It hasn’t been easy living a life in a wheelchair, but it has been a life of freedom rather than confinement. I can truly say that I have joy in my heart, and it was Jesus who put it there. I believe God is using me to bring glory to His name.
The doctors didn’t think I survived in that Louisiana delivery room 33 years ago. A white sheet covered my first moments, and I was given up for dead. I am so grateful that God had other plans!
Christopher Coleman lives in Acworth, Georgia, and speaks to Christian organizations, schools, workplaces and disabled groups throughout the world through “Empowered Ministries/Empowered Inc.”
Christopher covets your prayers