Cynterra Burnett was just going to the doctor for a birth control shot. Before the shot, a pregnancy test was required. It came back positive.
To be sure she was really pregnant, her doctor performed an ultrasound.
“He said, ‘OK, you’re having a bouncing baby boy,’” Burnett said. “And I was like, ‘What?’”
She had no time to prepare for what came next. Two weeks later, she went into labor.
“I was four and a half months pregnant,” she said.
Over the next seven years, Burnett and her son, Justin Douglas Jr., faced an uphill battle, through doctors skeptical of her son’s chance at life, years of physical therapy and emerging health problems. Now, their story is one of inspiration.
Justin was not her first child — in fact, Burnett had her daughter not long before and was planning on waiting longer for another child.
“The week before I had him, I had just had her first birthday party,” Burnett said.
Justin spent the first few months of his life in the NICU. When he was born, he almost immediately had to be resuscitated, unable to breathe properly, Burnett said.
Justin has been diagnosed with multiple conditions, including cerebral palsy, autism, memory loss and other developmental delays. Burnett said doctors were not afraid to tell her how slim her son’s chances at life were.
“So I kept on saying, ‘I need another referral. I need another referral. I need another referral,’” Burnett said.
Every day, she tried to get the help she and Justin desperately needed, until one day she met a social worker, Sheree Patrick, who sat her down and figured out exactly what they needed, Burnett said.
At the time, Justin was about 7 months old. Burnett would carry him in her arms, with his oxygen machine and heart monitor, while pushing her daughter, who was not much older, in a stroller.
Doctors were unsure of the benefits of physical therapy for Justin, his mom said. His cerebral palsy and weakened bones left him with no options for mobility beyond a wheelchair.
“But I said, ‘Well, hey, let me see. Let me get a referral and let them tell me that it wouldn’t work,’” Burnett said. “And I went to the therapy and the lady was just like, ‘I don’t know what we can do, but we can try.’ And I said, ‘long as you’re willing to help me try, then we are willing to come.’”
They started coming to physical therapy twice a week, and still go to this day, Burnett said. The progress was slow and left Burnett feeling frustrated. She started sitting in the car during her son’s physical therapy sessions.
“I used to sit there and cry, like, ‘Why me?’” Burnett said.
After about a year of therapy for Justin, Burnett was called in from her car because they wanted her to see something. When she walked in, she saw Justin using a walker for kids. It was progress.
“Every time they see him, they say, ‘We can’t believe we made it this far,’” she said.
They’re surprised Burnett made it, too.
“She said, ‘I’m gonna be honest with you. I never thought you had a fighting chance of making it,’” she said. “Because I was an emotional roller coaster.”
As Justin got older, his head circumference grew while his body did not, which affected his balance and made him prone to falling. Using a helmet sometimes, he was able to learn to catch himself through therapy.
One day, Justin told his mother he wanted to write a book about heroes with special needs. Now, he has two books. The “Dis-Is-Able” books include one about superheroes with special needs that is meant to encourage kids with special needs to accomplish what they want, and a coloring book that features kids with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other conditions.
Justin has also met the mayor. Last week, Mayor Sandy Stimpson met with Justin and Burnett in his office. Their interaction was posted to his social media.
Through all their good fortune, Justin and Burnett are paying it forward. They donated a portion of the proceeds from his book to the Bridge Program at USA Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The program was started by nurse Rene Sprague, who worked in the NICU when Justin was born.
They’ve also donated to the Ronald McDonald House. Local bookstores have reached out to host book signings.
Burnett notices a difference in the way people have responded to her and her son as the years have gone by and he’s improved, transitioning from a wheelchair to leg braces and not talking to writing a book.
“Those same people that told me that he wouldn’t make it are the same people now that are like, ‘Well, I’m sorry. Wow. Oh my God,’” Burnett said. “It’s OK. I’m not one of those parents that is gonna give up and take no for an answer, so I try to figure something out.”
Her experience raising Justin, through all the complications and hurdles and years of slow progress in physical therapy, has changed Burnett.
“It taught me not to lose faith and never give up and don’t take no for an answer,” she said. “At this point, if somebody says it can’t be done, I’m gonna figure out who can do it or who is willing to help me.”
The motive behind the “Dis-Is-Able” book, Burnett said, is to show families in similar situations that they don’t have to settle if someone tells them something isn’t possible.
“Go over and beyond. Do therapy, because other parents are telling me, ‘Oh, therapy doesn’t work’ and it does,’” she said. “I mean, he’s not running, but we’ll take walking.”
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