Liam Story

The Daredevil Within

When he was born, not many people gave little Liam a chance. But a bunch of 5K marathons, many miles of downhill skiing, and an armful of Special Olympics gold medals later, the world has finally caught on–Liam will not be denied.

He starts out as a dark speck on a field of white. If you squint you can just make him out. Gradually, the form of a teenage boy on skis takes shape and, before you know it, Liam McElhatton is just a few feet in front of you, skidding to a halt, a spray of snow wash kicking up as his skis bite into the terrain. He’s clutching the handlebars of his modified accessible ski equipment, flanked by; volunteers and recreation therapists. His breath comes out in short, icy bursts and his face is red from the bite of the wind. But the kid is glowing.

Deirdre, Liam’s mom, sprints up to him, shrouded in layers of cold weather gear (apt for early March on the top of Waterville Valley). “Did you love it?” she exclaims, as she places her two gloved hands on her son’s pink cheeks. “Was that fun?”

Liam can’t voice his pleasure, but his face says it all. His eyes dance and a smile pushes up into the corners of his mouth as he looks back at his mom. His message couldn’t be clearer if it had been splayed upon a 100 foot LED billboard in Times Square:

“Mom, you have NO idea!”

————-

Smurf blue.

That was the first thing that came to Deirdre’s mind when she was holding her newborn baby.

All babies are a little blue, but this kid is Smurf blue.

It was February 3, 1999, and Deirdre McElhatton had just given birth in the company of a nurse who was, as she recounts, “sweating bullets.”  Which is not a surprise—the baby had a heart rate of 42 bpm and the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.

After the briefest of introductions to her child, Deirdre saw her baby Liam whisked away to the NICU. She wouldn’t hold her son again for five days.

“He was like a rag doll,” she says.

Liam skiingLiam’s challenges are diverse and profound: he has a Down Syndrome diagnosis to go along with a severely underdeveloped brain that affects his motor planning (the ability to conceive, plan, and carry out a skilled, non-habitual motor act). Add to that his severely underdeveloped muscle tone, and Liam brings a unique set of circumstances that requires a strict, relentless regimen of physical activity.

And from the get-go, Liam’s respiratory system wasn’t efficient. Chronic congestion plagued his ability to function. Constant interventions, including chest physical therapy, and careful observation were necessary to maintain respiratory airways and prevent chronic infections.  

“His brain just doesn’t have the horsepower to keep his muscle memory going,” Deirdre says. “So, for him, being active is more than a way of life—it’s a fight for survival.”

She is not trafficking in hyperbole when she says that. When he was much younger, Liam’s GI tract was constantly under siege from his diet. His physician and family had to play the

process-of-elimination game, phasing out the specific foods that irritated on his digestive system. And, the beating his lungs took from his weakened musculature presented the ever-present specter that looms over Liam to this day: pneumonia.

“If Liam goes on a ventilator, he’s not coming off,” Deirdre says. “He is as active as he is to prevent the pneumonia that’s going to kill him.”

“His brain just doesn’t have the horsepower to keep his muscle memory going,” Deirdre says. “So, for him, being active is more than a way of life—it’s a fight for survival.”

Keeping Liam fit and in motion slows that ticking clock. When he was 11-years-old, he completed a 5K walk in the Hamptons. Every year, Liam participates in an annual marathon in Disney World. When Liam enrolled in Crotched Mountain School in 2013, Deirdre signed him up for Crotched Mountain Accessible Recreation and Sports (CMARS), where he plugged into the winter sports offerings. At first he wasn’t too keen on the cold, but after some exploratory sessions with snowshoeing, he graduated to skiing.

“Liam is a jock in a body that doesn’t cooperate,” Deirdre says. “In his heart he is a daredevil and if you can make something fun, Liam is your man.”

Thanks to Crotched Mountain’s crack team of recreation therapists and some nifty adaptive ski equipment, he was bombing down the slopes of neighboring Crotched Mountain Ski and Ride in no time, ultimately, at the age of 19, competing in the state winter games for New Hampshire Special Olympics.

“We’re on borrowed time,” Deirdre says. “We just want every day to be meaningful. Here, there is community and he is loved.”

————-

Liam nods at his mom after his run, and then skis off with his staff, ready to hit the lift for his next descent. He would go on to win medals in the Giant Slalom, the Slalom, and the Super G—all of them gold.

But that’s tomorrow, and one thing that Deirdre has learned from those first days when her newborn son teetered on the edge of life, is you can’t ever lose focus of the here and now; every day is a gift.

She waves to her son as he sits on the lift chair, his skis dangling in the open air, ascending the mountain. Deirdre dutifully takes her position at the bottom of the slope and watches, waiting for the shape of her boy as he crests the horizon.

SIGN UP FOR OUR E-NEWSLETTER

Get the amazing stories of Crotched Mountain sent directly to your inbox!

 

CHANGE A LIFE TODAY

VOLUNTEER
DONATE
Volunteer
Donate
2018-08-14T11:15:57+00:00