May 6, 2004
Kevin Fuson has a grin that doesn’t know when to stop. He also has enough energy to power at least a decent sized neighborhood. He is happiest when moving, preferably up high or upside down. He has a memory most adults would kill for and is about as bright as kids come. This 11-year old also has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that makes it difficult for him to understand emotions and everyday social interactions.
Parenting a special needs child is by definition a challenge, but Kevin’s mom, Tammie, faces a myriad of challenges on her own. She is a single mom who left an abusive marriage while pregnant. When Kevin was four, they lost all their belongings in a house fire. She survived the floods and fires in Grand Forks. And two years ago, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic and progressive disease which forced her to leave a job she truly enjoyed, and live every day with chronic pain and reduced mobility.
“I’m not looking for anybody’s sympathy,” said Tammie, who comes to life with a take-charge attitude and a passion for doing what’s right for her son. She prides herself on being a tireless advocate for her son, basically taking a “mama bear” attitude towards parenthood, always ready to charge in and make sure her son is safe, or actually, being treated in a educationally appropriate manner.
She has become a parent-expert on Asperger’s and sports an extensive library of books on the issue, including children’s books to help her son understand his own limitations.
While she knew Kevin had special needs when he was a baby, it wasn’t until third grade that he was given an official diagnosis.
She starts the school year by explaining her son’s abilities and limitations to his teacher. She also appreciates the support she gets from school staff, especially counselor Jodi Reichensperger and Dean of Students Scott Chiabotti, who have both stepped in to get to know her son, who in turn trusts these two teachers when things get too hard for him to handle on his own. Kevin earns good grades and is a voracious reader. He excels at math but does get bored with repetition in the classroom.
“When he gets bored he gets in trouble,” Tammie said with a sigh.
From there to here
Tammie was born on the Grand Forks Air Force Base and grew up in a small town near Grand Forks. Her mother, Kathryn, is the daughter of Helen and Clarence Folstad, and grew up with a large extended family in Tower-Soudan.
After Kevin was born, Tammie went to college in Grand Forks, studying business and accounting at the Aakers Business College. She then moved to the Duluth area, to be nearer her parents, who had moved when her mother was offered a job with the Environmental Protection Agency in Duluth. While in Proctor, her house burned down. It was three days before Kevin’s fourth birthday.
“We lost everything,” she said, “plus all my paperwork.”
Little did she know that replacing her college transcripts would become another ordeal. After completing a temporary job, she decided to move back to North Dakota, several months later, the floods and fire hit Grand Forks, burning down the college, leaving no records of her degree.
“All I could prove was that I owed my student loans,” she said with a laugh, “I had to go back to each of my professors, and rebuild my transcript class by class.”
Luckily, her home in Fargo was not flooded, but she still can remember the sights and sounds of the flood, and the sandbagging efforts she helped with.
In the summer of 2001, Tammie and Kevin moved to Tower-Soudan. Tammie had started having some health problems, not yet diagnosed as MS, but she knew she needed to be nearer her family, in case she became ill and couldn’t care for Kevin.
Diagnosed with MS
Less than a year after moving to Tower, Tammie ended up in St. Mary’s Hospital with a diagnosis that would change her life.
“I couldn’t lift my leg,” she said. Her disease has progressed quickly, though she has now gone a year without a major attack. The MS has left scars on her brain stem which create pressure on her spinal cord. The pain that results from the pressure can be relenting, and is not relieved by traditional painkiller medication.
Tammie describes her pain as similar to the feeling that you get in the winter, when your hands get really cold and when you touch or bump them there is a burning and stinging sensation. Her pain often extends from her back down into her feet. She now takes two types of medications normally used to prevent seizures, which brings the pain to a tolerable level.
“It’s amazing what you get used to,” she said.
Her physical limitations forced her to give up her full-time job at the Como Gas office in Tower, a job she really misses. She has just purchased an electric wheelchair and will be getting a lift for her van, to use when it is too painful to walk.
“I loved being on Main Street and seeing everyone come in and out,” she said. She now gets social security disability and medical assistance. She estimates her monthly prescription drug bills at $2,500 to $3,000.
Tammie said her family, especially her mother and grandmother, have been a great help, stepping in with Kevin when her illness leaves her too tired or in too much pain to go out. She also counts on her faithful dog, a long-haired Chihuahua named Rocky Road, who goes just about everywhere with her, and refuses to leave her side when she isn’t feeling well.
She and Kevin live in the Lakeview Apartments in Tower, which makes them neighbors to her grandmother Helen. She said the seniors in the apartments seem to enjoy having a boy around.
“It’s kind of cute to watch him visiting with them,” she said. Being in town also gives Kevin the opportunity to visit friends, one of whom lives nearby and is a frequent companion.
Tammie tries to keep active in their church, Immanuel Lutheran, and
said between herself and the grandmas, Kevin never misses a week of Sunday
School. She also keeps busy with their large extended family. Her mother
hosted an Easter dinner for 20 last month.
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