The Low Down on Down syndrome

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When the vice presidential debate came to a close October 2, the families of both candidates filed forward and gathered on stage to greet each other and the attending crowd. I suppose I passed a quick judgment on them as their images went out to the huge television audience, and, at the same time, I felt pangs of sympathy for anyone thrust in the limelight where the media’s unquenchable thirst-to-be-first-to-inform thrives by showing and telling all.

I was most drawn to little Trig Palin, a bundle resting against his sister’s chest. I knew he has Down syndrome, and, though I felt sorry about his condition, I considered how fortunate he is to be born to a family who is probably able to deal with his situation better than the average family and, hopefully, provide him with every advantage.

In contrast, I was forced to recall my own experience concerning Down syndrome. Sixteen years ago, after our daughter Kathie was born, I shared a hospital room with a girl half my age. Her new daughter had a pretty round face and lots of dark hair compared to my second daughter who, like her sister, had nothing more than a halo of blond peach-fuzz.

Something registered with me about my roomie’s baby. Her head was slightly disproportionate from what I considered usual. It did not hit me what was wrong until a nurse walked in, pulled the divider curtain between our beds while several of her family members gathered beside her bed, and through the curtain I heard a doctor and nurse explain that her new baby had Down syndrome. I was overcome with empathy.

Earlier I picked up on the fact that these new parents were not married and this pregnancy had been an accident. The young dad and his mother were there showing their support, but these teen parents looked ill equipped to deal with any baby, let alone a Down’s baby. The young mother sobbed when the baby’s condition was announced and I lay my head back against my pillow and cried with her. Why, oh why?

Down syndrome occurs when an individual has three, rather than two, copies of the 21st chromosome. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with Down syndrome.

One in every 733 babies is born with Down syndrome. There are more than 400,000 people living with Down syndrome in the United States. Down syndrome occurs in people of all races and economic levels. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades — from 25 in 1983 to 60 today.

Quality educational programs, a stimulating home environment, good health care, and positive support from family, friends and the community enable people with Down syndrome to develop their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

Researchers are making great strides in identifying the genes on chromosome 21 that cause the characteristics of Down syndrome. Many feel strongly that it will be possible to improve, correct or prevent many of the problems associated with Down syndrome in the future.

October is Down Syndrome Month. More information is available at the National Down Syndrome Society. Their helpline is 800-221-4602, Monday through Friday, 9-5 EST.

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