When 3-year-old Liam Kenrick was left blind and deaf by bacterial meningitis last year, his parents held onto the hope that a surgery would eventually restore his hearing.
Shortly before Christmas, they received the devastating news that the surgery he underwent earlier in the year had failed. Casey and Sandy Kenrick now are waiting to see if one last ditch medical option is available to their son. In the meantime, the family continues to move forward with their lives, grateful their son is alive.
"It's different than we planned, but it's still going to be good," said Sandy. "Liam is happy and he's smart."
Liam was a healthy, talkative 2-year-old when he came down with what appeared to be a common stomach bug on Jan. 3, 2012. Visits to his doctor raised few alarms. He was tested for strep throat and bladder infection; both tests were normal. His blood, which might have shown a bacterial infection brewing, was never tested.
Over the course of two days, Liam developed a fever and began to worsen, Sandy said. His family returned him to the doctor, who eventually referred him to the emergency department at Rapid City Regional Hospital. There, a doctor suspecting meningitis began the antibiotics that probably saved Liam's life, Sandy said. He was eventually flown to Sioux Falls and officially diagnosed by a doctor there with meningitis.
Attempts to save hearing
Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord due to an infection, can cause brain damage, loss of limbs, deafness, blindness and death.
While the antibiotics saved Liam's life, the damage to his brain couldn't be undone. He survived his 11-week ordeal, but his hearing and sight did not.
Doctors had hoped Liam might regain some of his hearing through a cochlear implant — a small electrical device surgically implanted in the ear. He underwent surgery on his right ear in April. At first, it seemed to be restoring sound to him, Sandy said. Over time, it became apparent that the surgery had failed. Later the couple learned that a surgical mistake may have occurred, Sandy said.
Due to the meningitis, the ear drum in Liam's left cochlea had hardened, making a successful cochlear implant surgery on that ear unlikely. Sandy said doctors are exploring the possibility of drilling through the solidified cochlea to insert the device, but the odds of success are not good.
Since returning home from the hospital in March, Liam's life has moved forward in so many ways despite his hearing and sight loss, his mother said. He become a big brother to Fin, now 8 months old. He celebrated a birthday. And in September, he started school at Meadowbrook Elementary.
For three hours each school day, Liam works with a team of educators from the Rapid City school district.
A world full of friends
Sandy said her son loves school. As they prepare to leave the house, she hands him his backpack to signal their destination. He always gets excited, she said.
While he can identify his parents, he refers to most everyone else as his "friend." When he arrives at the school each morning, he holds out his hands and says, "my friends," Sandy said.
Though Liam had a healthy vocabulary before the meningitis, he has lost about half of the words he once knew due to the deafness. Sandy said eventually, he will lose all of his speech if his hearing isn't returned.
But he has adapted well to sign language. "He knows lots of signs already," she said. "He's been picking up on stuff so fast."
On a sunny morning in late December, Kenrick sat on the floor of the Meadowbrook lunchroom with Joe Harrison, a teacher for the visually impaired. Harrison guided Liam's hands over small sticks taped to a page and then over the Braille word for "stick" at the top of the page. Next, Harrison makes the American Sign Language sign for "stick" beneath Liam's small hand.
Liam flipped to another page. A red mitten was taped to the page. Liam tapped his hand, signing "What's that?" Harrison repeated the drill.
When Liam's attention waned, the pair moved on to other treasures — an abacus for counting and a toy for learning hand coordination.
Growing increasingly frustrated, Liam arched his back and tossed books and toys aside. Harrison decided it was time to walk. The two took a red walking cane — twice as tall as Liam — and started down the Meadowbrook Elementary hallway. At one point, Liam reached up, pulled off his hearing aid and placed it gently on the floor.
Harrison smiled. "He didn't throw it," he said, noting that keeping the device on a 3-year-old's head is a challenge in and of itself.
Community support strong
Eventually, Liam and Harrison reach the preschool classroom door. Harrison showed him how to open it and Liam entered, joining his classmates on the play rug. Pushing his forehead along the carpet, Liam moved from place to place. He stopped when encountering a classmate, usually to give them a hug.
Harrison said at first he couldn't step away from Liam for fear he might fall. But the boy has become more stable and independent each day.
"He's a smart little boy," Harrison said. "It's a big personal tragedy. Deafness and blindness. If you really think about it, it will scare the socks off of you. But this family has just been awesome."
Harrison said Liam's teachers work every day to give him the greatest chance at success in life. "We can't ever make it the same, but we can make it the best it can be," Harrison said.
Sandy said the support from teachers, family and friends has been overwhelming. The Kenricks still have boxes of diapers from a community diaper drive held for the family in April. Sandy said she wants all of those people to know that Liam is doing well and they are grateful for the help and the prayers from the community.
Sandy, standing with Fin on her hip, admits it difficult to accept that her son may not ever hear again. She tears up recalling the recent phone call from the doctor. But she still sees a bright future for her son. If an additional surgery is successful for him, that's wonderful. If not, Liam will be OK, she said. The family will be OK.
"The story is not done for Liam," Sandy said. "Life goes on."