It was a dark day for Lisa Sexton and the fairy tale life she had dreamed of having. Told that her firstborn, Tyler, had cerebral palsy and would likely spend his life in a wheelchair, Sexton went home and closed all the blinds. In the dark, she mourned.
"I let go of a normal little boy," Lisa recalls. "I was mourning a broken heart. I was mourning the life I dreamed about: the white picket fence and two beautiful kids playing in the yard."
But 25 years later, the sun streams into her Palm Harbor dining room through open blinds as Lisa, now 48, holds a framed doctorate of medicine degree in her hands. The name Tyler Dean Sexton is etched in the center.
The child who was born 12 weeks premature, who doctors thought would die, who was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy and was expected to be blind and mentally handicapped, is today a medical doctor.
"What I dreamed for my life — if those things would have come true, it would have been a tragedy," said Lisa, her eyes glistening with tears. "I did not dream big enough. If I would have gotten that life, I would have missed out on the greatest gifts in my life. Having a special-needs kid made me have a servant's heart."
The young mother's mourning eventually turned to steely resolve. Lisa fought doctors who said Tyler, now 25, would never walk; fought insurance companies that denied him coverage; fought parents who let their kids make fun of the little boy with funny-looking legs.
Lisa and Tyler have penned a book about their journey, God Bless These Little Legs. The 110-page paperback doesn't gloss over the dark times, detailing Lisa's depression and guilt after Tyler's birth, her suicide attempt by overdosing on Xanax, and the moment she says she put Tyler's future in God's hands.
Tyler writes of God's will for his life and why he never gave up on his dreams of walking, scuba diving and being a doctor.
• • •
Tyler was born in February 1986 at only 28 weeks. As he was being flown to a hospital neonatal unit, his lungs collapsed. Kevin and Lisa Sexton were told their baby would not survive.
Tyler defied the odds and went home six weeks later. But as he grew, his parents realized something wasn't right. He didn't sit up or crawl or do other things babies his age did.
At 18 months he was diagnosed with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that affects balance as well as movement below the waist. His parents were told he would likely spend his life in a wheelchair. But young Tyler set out to walk.
"It was just embedded in me," Tyler said. "My parents instilled in me such a perseverance. If Mom and Dad say I can walk, then I can walk."
Physical therapist Michelle Larson started working with Tyler at age 3, which is when he received his first walker.
"Although he had a wheelchair, Tyler was very determined that he was going to walk," said Larson, 63. "He has always thought that way from the day I started working with him. He was always a glass-half-full kid."
But Tyler's balance was so poor that he fell numerous times a day, cracking a rib, breaking a wrist and several fingers. Other children avoided him because he would fall over and take them down, too.
When Tyler was about 5, Larson persuaded a reluctant Lisa to take him to an Easter egg hunt at a local park.
When the hunt began, all the children scampered to find eggs. Lisa watched as her son hobbled behind with his walker, an Easter basket swinging from it.
"Tears rolled down my face and I was mad because everyone else always thought they had the answers," Lisa said. "I knew this would happen, that Tyler would be left behind. I rushed to him to apologize and to take him home."
But when Lisa reached her son, he had a smile on his face. The other children had run so fast that their eggs spilled out of their baskets. Tyler picked them up and had a basketful.
"At that moment, God said to me, 'Hand him over to me and his basket will always be filled with blessings,' " Lisa said. "I sobbed in that field that day. And some 21 years later, Tyler's basket has always been filled with blessings."
• • •
Lisa and her husband, Kevin, met in elementary school in Waterloo, Ind. They've been married 27 years, but the stress of having a special-needs child almost doomed their union.
"Kevin and I had no idea how to carry this load together," Lisa wrote in the book. "He worked countless hours only to come home to a fresh stack of medical bills and a wife with unreasonable expectations. We had no time to spend on our marriage, our debt or ourselves."
A man of few words, Kevin, 47, looked forward to having a son to play basketball with. Instead, he used his energy to ensure that the medical bills were paid and that Tyler understood he could do whatever he wanted in life. Kevin taught his only son — the Sextons also have a daughter, Emilee, 22 — to hit a golf ball and shoot baskets, and he encouraged Tyler's interest in diving.
"He has shown me the attributes of a good man and has always encouraged me and backed my every decision, even if others thought it was crazy," Tyler said.
• • •
Tyler endured 16 surgeries and six weeks in a cast from the waist down. He learned to walk, but his poor balance still limited his ability to get around.
While on a high school field trip to Epcot, he saw a demonstration of a Segway Human Transporter, and by April 2004, he had one of his own. It represented freedom.
"I thought going to college I was going to have to be in a wheelchair to get around," Tyler said. "With the Segway, I could keep up with everyone and walk long distances with friends."
The following month Tyler met a man with the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Tyler explained his disability, his problems with balance, and his effort to remain independent.
When Tyler was 18, the Guide Dog Foundation brought him Danny, a 3-year-old golden and Labrador retriever mix specially trained to help Tyler maintain his balance. Danny became Tyler's living cane. Tyler holds Danny's harness and if he begins to tilt forward, the dog will brace to prevent him from falling.
Using Danny and the Segway, Tyler was able to attend the University of South Florida, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2007 with a degree in biomedical science.
His next goal was medical school. He applied to 25 and interviewed at five. Not one U.S. medical school would accept him. One interviewer was blunt: Tyler could never be a physician because people wouldn't want a disabled doctor.
Those words stung as badly as the taunts Tyler endured from others while he was growing up. But he found a way to overcome that barrier as he had all the others.
He was accepted at the University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine, founded in 1999 on a Caribbean island. There, he could pursue his longtime interest in hyperbaric medicine. He took his clinical rotations in U.S. hospitals, he said.
On June 3, he graduated with a medical doctorate in pediatric and hyperbaric medicine. Tyler will be able to provide general care to children and also treat divers who have decompression illnesses. He has taken and passed his medical boards and is interviewing for a medical residency. He is also an adjunct professor of clinical hyperbaric medicine at Sint Eustatius .
Rather than his disability being an obstacle to practicing medicine, Tyler says it "gives me credibility."
"I am an example that all things are possible, and I can tell a patient that I know how they feel and mean it."
Both Lisa and Tyler now embrace the opportunity to share their story of struggle and success.
"I've heard 'no' so many times," Tyler said. "No, you will not walk. No, you will not be a doctor. No, it can't be done, so give up on this dream. No one has the right to say you can't do something. Every day that we live, we have a chance to have a positive impact on someone's life."