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'One of those miracles:' Nature Coast tennis player suddenly goes from wheelchair to walking

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Wed. April 7, 2010 | Izzy Gould | Email

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BROOKSVILLE — The sensation was something Brittany Barrett had not felt in almost three years.

Ht_320953_vrag_barrett_04 As her eyes began to open the morning of March 28, she felt tremendous pain in her feet. Barrett yelled at her boyfriend to move his legs before the magnitude of the moment struck her.

After almost three years of paralysis, Barrett suddenly had feeling down to her toes.

“I pulled the blankets off and I moved my feet,” Barrett said. “I just started bawling like a little baby, I was so scared. …I’m still waiting for someone to pinch me and wake me up.”

Barrett, an 18-year-old senior at Nature Coast Technical High School, became inexplicably paralyzed in 2007. Her condition — and apparent recovery — baffled friends, family, even her doctors.

“I’ve never seen something like this,” said Russell Bain, Barrett’s pediatrician for seven years, who operates his own practice at Babies and Beyond Pediatrics in Spring Hill and Trinity. “Every test was done in the world. She was completely paralyzed and now she can walk.”

Barrett’s decline began June 17, 2007, after she fell in the shower. She lost consciousness three times over a two-day span, then lost feeling from her neck to her toes.

Barrett spent two weeks in intensive care at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. She could not speak, see or hear, and her heart rate dropped substantially. She regained feeling down to the middle of her thighs before she was discharged, but left with no specific diagnosis.

“They weren’t sure if she had a seizure,” Bain said. “Subsequently, she could not walk. Her speech was affected. She kind of regressed into childhood with her behavior.”

For more than a year, Barrett, who had been a sprinter and a cheerleader, went from one doctor to another searching for an explanation. She even visited the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Shands in Gainesville.

“After all my knowledge, two neurologists, through the Mayo Clinic there comes a point where there’s no other test to be done,” Bain said. “There are diseases with unknown ideology. Why do kids get lung cancer and they don’t smoke? How far do you go to figure out why?

“Some things just don’t have a diagnosis.”

• • •

Ht_305221_vrag_barrett_03 Barrett embraced her new life, even finding success as a wheelchair tennis player. But she never abandoned hope she would walk again.

Michelle Barrett quit her job as a senior tax analyst in December 2007 to stay home with her daughter. The family, including Barrett’s four siblings, moved into a one-story Spring Hill home, giving Barrett more accessibility and mobility.

“Her mother gave up her life, quit her job, lost her house,” Bain said. “The kids sacrificed a lot. It was a real family effort.”

One day, her younger sister Chelsea was taking a group tennis lesson when Barrett was handed a racket by John Downey. His wife, Louise, currently coaches Barrett at Nature Coast.

Barrett had never played the sport.

“She was terrified,” Louise Downey said. “She wondered how she could play tennis and not walk. …Before we knew it she was comfortable with it.”

Barrett became somewhat of a local celebrity, rocketing to the No. 2 ranking in USTA Juniors, seventh by the International Tennis Federation. Her on-court success made her a top recruiting target for the University of Arizona, which has one of the nation’s well-established wheelchair athletic programs.

Wildcats coach Bryan Barten said he wouldn’t reconsider a possible scholarship offer just because of Barrett’s apparent recovery. He said the ability to walk doesn’t mean she can play tennis without a wheelchair.

The decision, however, might be out of his hands.

Barrett, who plays No. 2 doubles for Nature Coast, is considering stepping away from wheelchair tennis for good.

“Wheelchair tennis represents someone I was,” Barrett said. “I’m not that person anymore.”

• • •

Jodi Conter had heard about Barrett’s remarkable recovery from her daughter, Rachel, the Sharks’ No. 1 player and a teammate of Barrett’s in 2009.

Conter, known as “Mama Tennis,” attended every match, providing meals and transportation before Rachel graduated last year. So when she heard the news, she drove to school last week to see for herself.

“I saw her before I even got parked,” Conter said. “I looked over and I saw a tall blond and it just hit me, “That’s Brittany!’ It was exciting. I can’t imagine how she must feel. To see her standing and walking around was amazing.”

Conter remembered what a challenge it was for Barrett just to be on the team. Traveling to tournaments was a chore, as Barrett had to be transferred from her wheelchair to the van.

“She had to put a lot into being there,” Conter said. “Everyone wanted her there, but it wasn’t like someone running out from class, putting on their uniform and hopping in the van. …

“We take it for granted we can get up and walk somewhere. We did it today, we did it yesterday and we’ll do it tomorrow. To get that gift back, she will appreciate that always.”

• • •

Witnessing Barrett’s progress the past few weeks has been emotional for her boyfriend, David O’Quinn.
The couple dated in eighth grade before a typical middle school breakup. They both attended Nature Coast, but rarely saw each other because Barrett missed a good portion of her 10th- and 11th-grade years with home schooling.

O’Quinn, 18, eventually learned of Barrett’s paralysis, but it never deterred him from rekindling the relationship.

“That shocked me,” Barrett said. “It took a lot to realize people still looked at me the same way even though I’m in a wheelchair. That’s a big deal.”

In recent weeks, Barrett’s condition appeared to be improving. On March 26, when a friend punched her in the leg, she felt it.

Barrett saw Bain the same day. He tried to get her stand, but she couldn’t. On March 28 she was crawling on the ground when O’Quinn picked her up and suddenly she was standing.

She took her first steps at a friend’s house.

“I grabbed one leg, told her to lock this leg, release one, step forward,” O’Quinn said. “I wasn’t really touching her, I was guiding her. We did that for maybe 5 feet, turned around and went back. That’s how she first started walking. It’s pretty cool.”

• • •

Barrett skipped school the day after regaining her legs.

She wanted to test herself at the mall without a wheelchair or walking aid. By the end of the excursion she was exhausted and sore — and still standing.

“I was determined,” Barrett said. “I was walking the whole time. …I didn’t even buy anything. I just wanted to go into the fitting room and try on clothes. That’s all I did.”

Last week she was back at school “walking all day.”

“It was cool,” Barrett said. “I felt like a giant. …The thing that scares me the most is if someone pushes me I’m going to fall over. I don’t have muscle to keep me standing.”

Barrett visited Bain again Monday, his first look at the new Brittany. He said physical therapy will help her learn to walk properly. She’ll also see a neurologist. Bain said Barrett is able to walk without tripping and has normal reflexes. Her speech is normal as is her mental status.

“I would say she’s on the road to recovery,” Bain said. “…Obviously, it could regress again because we don’t know what the cause is. At the moment, to me, she is on her way. …

“It’s one of those miracles.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Staff writer Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@tampabay.com or (813) 421-3886.

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