December 13, 1999 12:00 PM

Ten-year-old David Dow was having the time of his life. Vacationing in Las Vegas in March 1995 with his extended family, the Ohio boy had already visited the Hoover Dam and was eagerly anticipating seeing Zion National Park. But as the clan—including his stepfather, older brother, uncle and maternal grandparents—congregated in the lobby of their hotel for the trip, David threw up. Figuring it was just a stomachache, his mother, Carol Dow-Richards, stayed behind with him and let him nap in their room. When David woke up an hour later, however, his right arm was shaking and he was mumbling unintelligibly. Dow-Richards thought he was fooling around. When he didn’t stop, she told him, “David, I’m going to dial 911, and you had better stop this nonsense before the operator answers.” But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

At Valley Hospital, David went into a full-blown seizure. When she saw tears streaming down his nurse’s face, “That’s when I knew we were in big trouble,” remembers Dow-Richards, now 43. After hours of testing, an angiogram finally pinpointed the problem: Like nearly 1,400 youngsters in the U.S. every year, David had suffered a stroke. “I just didn’t expect what I saw when I got to the ICU,” Dow-Richards says. “He was totally paralyzed on the right side. He tried to talk, and he couldn’t. I mean, it was really bad.”

Her voice breaks. Almost five years later, the pain is still there. After two intricate brain operations, three months in hospitals and thousands of hours of rehab, the bright, active boy who planned to be a doctor like his father can speak only in short, halting sentences. He has a limp and can just move his right arm and fingers a little. And yet, through David’s willpower and his mother’s persistence, the now-15-year-old has managed a recovery that has astonished his doctors.

When David could no longer express himself through talking and writing, he found new ways of communicating by becoming a computer whiz. Unable to use his right hand, he learned to write with his left—and not only write, but to paint with watercolors well enough to have his work appear on book and magazine covers, greeting cards and Good Morning America. “He is a true inspiration to us all,” says Kenneth Misch, one of the pediatricians who treated him in Las Vegas. “I am not sure I could show the same amount of courage and fortitude.”

Doctors traced David’s stroke to Moyamoya, a rare disease that clogs blood vessels in the brain. Back home in Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, after his first neurosurgery, David could only stare out the window and watch as his friends whizzed by on their bikes. Months later, even after he recovered enough movement to give up his wheelchair, David remained so frustrated by his inability to use or comprehend even the simplest words (a condition known as aphasia) that he would kick his mother hard enough to leave bruises. “The wheelchair was easier to deal with,” says David. “The aphasia is much harder because I had to relearn talking, writing, spelling, everything.” Adds his mother: “You take language away from people, and you take a large part of their dignity and self-esteem.”

The country’s one million aphasics are often misunderstood, Dow-Richards says, by people who dismiss them as dumb, drunk or senile—as she discovered when David returned to Woodland Elementary School five months after his stroke. All his old friends deserted him, except for next-door neighbor and classmate Kelly Meyer, now 14, who stayed inside during recess to play games with him and accompanied him home. “They broke his heart,” says fifth-grade teacher Linda Weghorst. “But Kelly was—and has been—a lifesaver.”

Weghorst also devoted extra attention to David, preparing separate lessons for him. “As time-consuming as it was,” she says, “it was so rewarding because he made so many gains every day.” However, Dow-Richards claims, Weghorst’s attitude was not shared by the majority of school administrators and teachers she would battle over the next few years to see that her son—whose performance IQ tested at 127 even after his stroke—got an appropriate education. “They thought if he didn’t learn like the other kids, he must not be able to learn,” says Dow-Richards, who hired an attorney to help David get the support his mother felt he was entitled to, including an aide in the classroom and speech therapy every day. “I never realized that it would be a requirement for me to become an advocate.” (The Perrysburg School District has declined to comment on the services it offered David, saying that to do so would be a breach of student confidentiality.)

Dow-Richards gave up her thriving business painting and selling sweatshirts and T-shirts to devote herself to the younger of her two sons. Says David’s older brother Michael, now 20 and a junior at USC: “It was really, really tough trying to accept this huge tragedy in our lives.” His mother hired and supervised therapists for David’s speech, hand, arm and leg, and tutors to develop his computer and artistic talents. (Insurance coverage that David’s stepfather, George Richards, has through his job as a computer manager pays for most of his medical bills, while Carol’s ex-husband, Jim Dow, a Sacramento urologist, helps with some of the other substantial expenses.) On her own, Carol worked on David’s language skills, pasted inspirational quotations on the fridge and whispered encouraging words to him as he drifted off to sleep. She says, “To me, my biggest job was and still is keeping David’s self-esteem and confidence high.”

With that unflagging encouragement, “David exhibited incredible gains,” says rehabilitation psychologist Seth Warschausky. Despite the extent of David’s progress, however—particularly the blossoming of his artistic and computer skills with his tutors—Dow-Richards and her son became convinced “public school was unable to meet his needs.” After visiting Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Ill., in May 1998, David begged to enroll—even though it was 900 miles from home and would cost them $38,000 a year. “If I stay here, I won’t be able to go to college,” David told his mother. “If I go, I can do it.”

Although it meant sinking deeper into debt, “we felt we needed to invest in David and his future,” Dow-Richards says. (The family is trying to get the Perrysburg School District to pay at least part of David’s tuition.) “Every family has its own unique challenges, and this just happens to be ours,” says Richards, 55, whose quiet faith family and friends credit with helping his wife and stepson through their ordeal. “I’ve never been anyone to have regrets.”

He and Dow-Richards certainly have none about sending David to Brehm in August. At this small school dedicated to helping children with a variety of learning disabilities, teachers use a multisensory approach and sophisticated technology to help each student learn however is most comfortable. “Here, if one thing doesn’t work,” says David, “then they try another way to teach me so lean understand.”

Relieved now of the daily responsibilities of David’s therapies, Dow-Richards isn’t taking it easy. This fall she began working as a remedial tutor at an elementary school in a nearby district. “Success to me used to mean financial success. But after the lesson from the stroke, success to me now means helping other people,” she explains. “One day when I lie on my deathbed, I’ll be able to say, ‘You know what? In this life I made a difference.’ ”

Pam Lambert

Steve Hubbard in Perrysburg and Carbondale

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