December / 2000
The View from Plum Lick

Gift of the Shriners
by: David Dick

Michael Comer is a 17-year-old farm boy from Indiana. For the past 14 years, he's been coming to Shriners Hospital for Children in Lexington.

When he was 3 years old, Michael and his older brother were playing follow the leader behind their grandfather's riding mower.

Michael was run over.

"I lost half of my knee and three of my toes," says Michael, who can't remember the actual day when the accident happened.

"About ten years ago I used to have all kinds of nightmares until I got some therapy."

Michael got more than therapy. Thanks to the Shriners Hospital for Children he received a new kind of left leg and knee. The accident "cut half the growth plates out of my knee, which made my leg grow crooked. So they killed the rest of the growth plates in my knee, so my leg doesn't grow as fast. About every five years or so they have to go in and lengthen my leg to make it catch up with my good one."

Three times, after "growth spurts," surgeons at Shriners Hospital have lengthened Michael's left leg.

"They go in and they put a device in your leg and then they go in and cut the bone and, as that bone grows back-it's a very soft bone that re-grows in there-and they just stretch that."

"Is it very painful to have it done?"

"I have a very high pain tolerance."

Michael will be home this Christmas with his mother and father, Pam and Duane Comer. Their 300- to 400-acre family farm produces corn, beans, cattle, and pigs.

Michael's favorite food: his mother's creamy beef and macaroni followed by elderberry pie. President of his Future Farmers of America club at his high school in Greensburg, Michael wants to be an agricultural diesel mechanic.

"Tell me a little bit about your mother and father."

"I think they've been supportive in the right way. Dad usually lets me fix stuff that's wrong at home."

"How is your walking affected?

"It hasn't really affected me that much. I do everything. Sometimes I do even more."

"And the three toes that are gone?"

"They're just gone."

"No problem with balance?"

"No, they say you don't need toes for balance. If you don't have fingers they'll take toes and make fingers with them."

"How tall are you now?"

"I'm about 5-10, 5-11…if I have a growth spurt I'll just come down here and they'll put a lift on the bottom of my shoe and make it taller so that my legs will be even."

"And your roommate, Juan, from Guatemala? How is he?"

"He's 18 years old. He has prostheses for an arm and leg. He was run over by a train."

Shriners Hospital for Children in Lexington does over 2,000 special pediatric orthopedic procedures a year at no cost to the patient. A network of 22 Shriner hospitals throughout North America is funded entirely through the Shriner endowment fund, a philanthropy that has made a big difference in the life of 13-year-old Emily Grace Highley of Bath County.

Daughter of Pam and Eric Highley, Emily was born with scoliosis, an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine. An eighth-grader, she's had 16 surgical procedures, including the insertion of a metal rod in her lower back. Before Christmas, another rod was planned for her upper back. "I'd be bent over without the rods," she says, smiling. Last October, Emily was wearing a "halo" with a 25-pound weight to keep her neck and back straight.

"How long have you been coming here?"

"Ever since I was 3."

"What is your career goal?"

"To be a small-animal veterinarian."

"Will you get to go home for Christmas this year?"

"Hopefully."

Tinsel on your halo for Christmas, Emily Grace Highley! And may all children and their parents everywhere experience the joy of this season of love.

David Dick was a retired news correspondent and University of Kentucky professor emeritus, and a farmer and shepherd. Read more about him at www.kyauthors.com.