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Conyers mother strives to provide special needs son with proper services

Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- Marilyn King shoots a few baskets with her son Kareem Harper at their Conyers home.

Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- Marilyn King shoots a few baskets with her son Kareem Harper at their Conyers home.

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Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- Marilyn King shares a lighthearted moment with her son Kareem Harper in their backyard

Conyers resident Marilyn King is the primary caretaker for her 31-year-old son Kareem Harper, who is brain injured. Partially paralyzed on his left side and legally blind, Kareem requires assistance each day. King helps her son get dressed in the morning and cooks him a big breakfast. Because he takes a lot of medication to control seizures, a nutritional start to the day is important.

Then she leaves the house to work her full-time job at a medical supply company in Covington and a van comes by the house to pick up Kareem and take him to a day program.

When King arrives home in the late afternoon, her son is already there. After dinner, they play some basketball or watch a movie. She assists with his bath and breathing treatments, and by 9 p.m. he's in bed.

King's day doesn't end there. She is earning her college degree online and works on school projects until midnight, sometimes 1 a.m.

"You can't have a testimony unless you've been through a test," said the 52-year-old King, a devout Christian. "There are many times in life I felt like I wasn't going to make it."

King's journey into motherhood began at age 20 when she got pregnant while attending college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She got married and returned to school in a nursing program in metro Atlanta. Her husband at the time lived elsewhere, so she depended upon family and baby sitters to care for her son, born in 1981, healthy with no disabilities.

In December 1982, King's life forever changed. Kareem, 15 months old at the time, had a seizure resulting from either a head injury or a brain infection, King said.

Doctors at Egleston Hospital told her to pray for him to live past the first 24 hours. Then they kept Kareem in the hospital in a coma for more than a month, while they reduced the swelling in his brain.

"We brought him home semi-comatose with a feeding tube," said King.

Kareem re-learned the sucking reflex and figured out how to drag himself across the floor in a crawling motion. By about 3 years old, he had caught up to an almost average developmental level, accomplishing milestones like potty training and speaking.

Still, King said his behavior changed dramatically after the brain injury. Her mild-mannered child had transformed into a more difficult to control little boy, due to the brain trauma.

"I lost the child I had initially and that has been (and will continue to be) a traumatic ordeal for the rest of my life," King said.

King enrolled her son in a variety of government-funded pilot programs for disabled children, and he entered special education in the school system.

His learning plateaued, and Kareem cannot write or read, though he knows a few sight words. His memory is good, King said.

"We call him Mr. Verbal University. You can give him the grocery list and he'll remember it," King said.

King said her marriage became a casualty of the stress of parenting Kareem.

"What I learned later in life is that the marriage foundation is very hard to maintain when you have a special-needs child," King said.

As Kareem attended Pine Street Elementary, Memorial Middle School and Rockdale County High School, King worked full-time to support them both.

After he graduated from high school, Kareem enrolled in a few group homes and boarding schools but none of them worked out because he couldn't follow a schedule independently, King said.

For the last four years, he's attended Our Place, a day program for adults with disabilities, located in Rockdale County. King also takes Kareem to a respite home in Rockdale, Haven House, one weekend a month.

"We can't think beyond the daily routine," King said, who hopes to finish her college degree this summer.

King acknowledges that being a mother to a special-needs child is challenging. She said she worked hard to let go of the anger she felt after Kareem's brain trauma.

"It's been happy times and sad times," King said.

She encourages all parents of special-needs children to make sure they find the services that are best for their children.

"You have to keep searching. That's your job as a parent," King said. "I'm always on the prowl for the next best thing for him."

King said she is very close to her son, describing their relationship as "best friends."

"One of the things he always tells me is that some day I want to grow up and marry a lady as pretty as you are," King said. "He just makes my day sometimes."