It Takes a Village
On April 13, 2008, Tyis Conner went into labor four and a half months into her first pregnancy. Her son, TyShawn Lewis came into the world weighing just one pound five ounces and measuring 12 inches long. “They told us babies born that small have little chance of surviving,” Tyis remembered. Miraculously TyShawn pulled through and defied all the odds.
“He came out right at the viable gestation age where his lungs had developed just enough. We knew by how premature he was that there were going to be complications to contend with in the future,” said Tyis. TyShawn remained in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) until the end of September that year. Tyis was right by his side the entire time while juggling two jobs and nursing school.
TyShawn’s initial vision diagnosis was Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a condition that causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina. The growth caused the retina to detach rendering TyShawn legally blind. Doctors treat ROP with oxygen and too much can cause complications such as cataracts or glaucoma. Unfortunately, TyShawn developed cataracts due to this treatment.
In December 2008, he underwent three eye surgeries to remove his cataracts, performed by the highly trained and experienced ophthalmologist Dr. Sherwin Isenberg, who also serves on the Center’s Medical Advisory Board. The surgeries were successful, and today TyShawn’s low vision does not prohibit him from participating in the life of an active eight-year-old boy. He can maneuver around his environment without a cane and wears glasses to aid his vision. He is learning to read using a Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) and 22-point large-print.
In addition to vision challenges, Tyshawn was born with a hole in his heart due to prematurity. Surgeons closed the hole with a clamp the size of a paper clip, and it remains in his heart to this day. More complications followed as TyShawn got older. After a bout with meningitis, doctors diagnosed TyShawn with sleep apnea at 14 months. The doctors removed his tonsils, which remedied the problem, and provided both Tyis and TyShawn with a much-needed regular sleep pattern.
Around the time TyShawn turned three, his medical conditions began to stabilize, and Tyis sought to integrate a more structured educational routine. The local Regional Center advised Tyis to initiate the process of transitioning into a formal school environment. “He had a lot of sensory needs we wanted to address,” Tyis said. “He would regularly tap his fingers and other objects around him. He would also arrange his toys in a perfectly straight line across the entire house.” Tyis, a registered nurse by trade, believed the behavior might be reflective of autism.
The family found the Blind Children’s Center in 2011 after visiting several other schools recommended by the Early Intervention Regional Center. Tyis and TyShawn immediately felt at home when they arrived at BCC. The welcoming staff and professional structure assured Tyis this was the right place for her son.
Not long after TyShawn enrolled, characteristics of autism became apparent to the Center’s teachers and Director of Education and Family Services, Dr. Fernanda Armenta-Schmitt. The staff proceeded to facilitate assessments and began to implement strategies to address his behaviors effectively.
In November 2012, Tyis took a step in a new direction accepting the position as BCC’s nurse. “In my professional life, I identify problems and try to solve them,” said Tyis. “I do believe my ability to stay organized and take care of people helped me in addressing my son’s medical needs.”
It was hard for both her and TyShawn for the first few months in her new position at BCC. Whenever he saw his mom at school, he wanted nothing but to be with her. “The teachers played an incredible role in helping me to let go and give TyShawn his independence. I learned to stop babying him and let him do as much as possible on his own,” she remembered.
“It does take a village to raise a child,” Tyis continued. Working as the Center’s nurse not only provided her with parenting tools and close relationships with the teachers, but it was also a way for her to give back to the school that helped her son during such a developmentally-important time of his life. “The resources I gained from the Center were invaluable,” she recalled with deep appreciation.
After two years in the program, TyShawn began to show remarkable progress. He started communicating verbally with his mother and his teachers, the first of many significant milestones. “The teachers at BCC have a theoretical and a practical background,” Tyis said. “They pushed TyShawn to communicate his feelings through speech, and they succeeded.” Today TyShawn loves talking about his ideal car, a Ford Fusion, and of course Pokémon.
Outside of BCC, Tyis is fortunate to have the support of TyShawn’s grandfather, two uncles, and her longtime boyfriend. “My son has a lot of positive male role models in his life right now,” Tyis said. “They play football and rake the leaves in the yard; he gets a lot of love from everyone in the family.”
Despite his myriad of health issues, today you would never know it if you saw TyShawn out on the playground. He is a happy 2nd grader who is growing and learning every day at the Blind Children’s Center. Although Tyis faced a tumultuous road from the beginning, the professional staff at BCC has addressed each challenge with patience and care. Tyis remains a constant guiding light in her son’s life, finding success in the small strides he makes every day.
In September 2017, TyShawn will transition into 3rd grade at his local public school. Tyis is grateful for the support of the BCC staff that have prepared her for the process. After attending BCC for nearly five years, TyShawn has adopted a successful routine that works. “Our goal is to keep the momentum going he picked up at the Blind Children’s Center,” Tyis said, “and carry that with us into the future.”