Kevin Enners doesn’t let cerebral palsy get in the way of his big dreams.
By Rick Crotts | For the AJC
The itinerary arrived two days in advance. Cellphone numbers distributed. Addresses for the motel and expo confirmed.
Leave for race: 5:30 a.m.
Arrive at race: 6 a.m.
Wheelchairs start: 6:50 a.m.
Marathon start: 7 a.m.
A note at the bottom of the schedule stated it takes 15 minutes to drive from the motel to the race. That meant don’t be late.
There were seven cars in the Albany Civic Center parking lot at 5:30 a.m. A full, worm moon was overhead, signaling spring was near. But not just yet, not this morning. It was 35 degrees, and you could see your breath in the dark.
At 6:09 a.m., a truck pulled into the handicapped parking space. The frantic mother jumped out of the back seat.
“It’s always something. I didn’t want to be the something. And I was the something.”
She overslept. The morning had been chaos.
The father had wrenched his back; standing straight was impossible. Holding onto the hood of the truck was the best he could do after sleeping on the motel room floor. Closing his eyes would not mask the pain. The cocktail of Aleve and Tylenol did not help.
Mom lifted her 5-foot, 9-inch son from the passenger seat. All 110 pounds draped around her petite frame as she placed him gently into his bike. She strapped his hands to the handle bar and clipped his feet to the pedals.
Kevin Enners was born with cerebral palsy, making it impossible for him to control his muscles. Of the 1,509 participants who registered in the ninth annual Albany Half and Full Marathon, he was the only one pedaling the 26.2 mile course in a three-wheeled, low-rider bike.
The other runners, noticing there was something different about the 21-year-old, turned away. Kevin is accustomed to that reaction, but it doesn’t stop him from wanting to live a normal life.
Wait and worry
Kevin was born Nov. 22, 1993, at Northside Hospital. His mother can’t remember the time.
“It was in the wee, early morning hours. It’s the third kid. I don’t remember.”
No matter the time, it was that exact moment when Rich and Claudette Enners’ lives took a dramatic twist.
Claudette was in more pain than anticipated. She knew what to expect and the epidural did not help.
“I should not have been feeling anything. Every time they turned me over to my left side, I had pain; a sharp, sharp pain.”
Her uterus had ruptured.
Claudette knew immediately something horrible had happened. During the emergency C-section, the infant ingested amniotic fluid and blood. He wasn’t breathing. He had no pulse. He was dead.
For eight to 10 minutes the newborn was without oxygen. Twice he was resuscitated.
Rich could only wait and worry.
“You just see doctors and nurses running in and out (of the emergency room). They kind of look at you like, ‘This is not good.’ Finally they came out with Kevin in one of those glass incubators. ‘Here’s your son. He’s very sick, but we want you to say hello.’ I just said something like, ‘Hang in there Kevin’ and they took him.”
Kevin remained in the neo-natal unit for three weeks.
The Enners didn’t know the full extent of the brain damage to their son. The doctors did not want to rush a diagnosis. The nurses tried to comfort them. Kevin is strong. He is a fighter. He will be OK, they would say. In the back of their minds, the parents knew better.
Kevin could not hold his head up like other infants. He didn’t sit up or roll over like other babies. He would sooner or later, the Enners told themselves. But their state of denial eventually wore off.
Kevin’s disorder was confirmed when he was 2.
Cerebral palsy is a non-progressive neurological disorder that can occur during traumatic childbirth. It permanently impairs muscle movement to varying degrees. In Kevin’s case, it affects his ability to walk, talk, feed himself and sit up without assistance.
Just prior to puberty, Kevin also developed dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary body movements. When he is stressed, his limbs flail and his torso twists erratically.
“Like being directed by an evil puppeteer,” is how Kevin describes it. It’s as though his arms and legs are attached to strings and yanked up and down without notice.
'You have to want it'
- Claudette Enners (above) helps son Kevin with his eye-controlled computer in a class at Kennesaw State University.
- Rich and Kevin embrace after finishing the Albany Marathon last month. Ben Gray / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Lauren Enners runs alongside cheering on her dad Rich and brother Kevin as they run the last stretch of the Albany Marathon. Ben Gray / email@example.com
- Rich (from left) and siblings Kevin, Lauren Enners and Jaclyn Bates pose for Claudette’s camera at the end of the Albany Marathon last month. Slowed by Rich’s wrenched back, father and son finished the race but did not qualify for the Boston Marathon. Ben Gray / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kevin and Rich Enners celebrate just after finishing the Albany Marathon. Ben Gray / email@example.com
- Rich and Kevin Enners make their way along the course of the Albany Marathon. Ben Gray / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Claudette (left) and Rich Enners smile as they look family photographs as their son Kevin looks on at their home. Hyosub Shin / email@example.com
- Rich Enners helps his son Kevin to get him sitting on his wheelchair at their home. Hyosub Shin / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rich lifts Kevin into the stair lift at their home. Hyosub Shin / email@example.com
- Kevin works on writing his second book using his eye-controlled device as his father Rich watches. Hyosub Shin / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kevin communicates by gazing at letters on the computer monitor to create sentences, which are amplified by an automated voice. Hyosub Shin / email@example.com
- Rich tunes up Kevin's bike at their home. Hyosub Shin / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kevin works on writing his second book. Hyosub Shin / email@example.com
- Rich helps Kevin prepare for dinner at their Marietta home. Kevin is prone to choking, so his food has to be cut into tiny pieces. Hyosub Shin / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kevin is a junior at KSU, majoring in communications. He has a 3.4 GPA. Hyosub Shin / email@example.com
Halls of academia
I met Kevin at 8:03 a.m. Aug. 22 last year. I remember the time because he was late for the first day of my 8 a.m. visual communications class at Kennesaw State University.
The classroom was filling slowly. It was a big class — 90 students. Most of them were taking seats in the back seven rows, leaving the front for stragglers. The windowless, sterile room was packed. First-day apprehensions were mounting. I imagined the students trying to decide if they really wanted to stay in the class after reading about me on the Rate My Professor website. They’d most likely heard I was tough but fair.
“Hello,” I said as they walked in. A few acknowledged me; others looked up from their cellphones in surprise and didn’t say anything.
I was beginning to start introductions when a middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap came in panicked.
He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him at first. Then I realized it was Fred Lewis, the lifeguard at our community pool in Powder Springs. I thought, “What is he doing here?” and “I’m not sure how I feel about someone I know being in my class. Especially when that someone is accustomed to seeing me in a bathing suit.”
Behind him was Kevin in a motorized wheelchair.
They found a vacant spot on the front row. I watched as Fred methodically attached a computer monitor in front of Kevin’s face and unhooked his feet from the footrest, freeing his legs. I could barely see the top of Kevin’s head behind the monitor. His legs trembled and jerked around, his head rolled left to right and his body contorted.
The other students pretended not to notice.
I knew then, this semester was going to be interesting. I wondered how well I could teach Kevin. Little did I know how much I was going to learn from him.
College is hard for Kevin. Just motoring around campus in a wheelchair is difficult. Steps are everywhere. Getting his power chair through a door is tough. Something as simple as getting out of an elevator is like swimming upstream. Students file in, not looking up from their texting, not giving Kevin room to maneuver.
A junior at KSU on the HOPE Scholarship, Kevin takes a full load of courses and is majoring in communications. He has a 3.4 GPA, serves on KSU’s Task Force on Disabilities and is an ambassador for the non-profit Fragile Kids Foundation.
He uses an eye-gaze computer to communicate. He stares at the letters of the alphabet one at a time on his monitor to create words that are amplified in an automated voice. It is an exhausting process. His head rolls side to side, his face contorts.
For Kevin, it would take nearly five minutes to type this sentence.
Without the computer, Kevin’s speech is garbled to the untrained ear.
“It sounds as if I have marbles in my mouth,” Kevin says. “Guess I’m a puppet with marbles for teeth.”
Occasionally students recognize him in the halls at KSU and say, “Hey, Kev,” as they pass by. Few stop to talk. Too often students just ignore him. I suspect it’s because they are embarrassed and don’t know what to say. They are not sure if Kevin can actually talk. He has reluctantly accepted the isolation.
“It’s awkward with a big monitor in my face,” he said. “Typically, girls are more open to starting a conversation. I get the feeling guys tend to be more apprehensive.”
When you are patient and take time to listen, a door opens and you find he has a devious sense of humor.
Kevin was once asked, Even though you have cerebral palsy, can you have sex? “The weirdest part,” Kevin said, “was it came from a friend who was also in a chair and had CP! My reaction, ‘Uh, yes. Can you?’”
Fred Lewis, 58, has been Kevin’s wingman for three years at KSU, assisting him in class, taking notes, feeding him lunch and helping him study. He served in the Navy for 28 years as a nurse before retiring 10 years ago.
This semester, Claudette assists Kevin in class two days a week, while Fred handles the other three days. Fred was on duty one recent Tuesday when he met Kevin and his mom in a parking lot at 9:20 a.m. After a quick update, they raced off for a 9:30 a.m. class.
“We’re early today,” Fred said surprised, rushing to get situated on the back row of a class on new media. “We’re normally five minutes late.”
The lecture was about podcasts, blogging and audio books. The professor asked the class who liked audio books. Kevin’s hand shot up.
“For me, listening to audio books is better than reading,” Kevin typed.
Unfortunately, the discussion had moved on. Fred was the only one to see the answer.
How we got the story
Rick Crotts doesn’t often write for the AJC. He’s a section editor, in charge of visual presentation. But he’s also an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, and that’s where he met Kevin Enners. Rick often tells anyone who will listen – his students, his wife, his children — how important it is to take on challenges to continue to grow and learn. So Rick took on the challenge of telling Kevin’s inspirational story. In the process, he said he felt privileged to witness the unfailing love and commitment of the Enners family. “The work is continuous,” he said, “but given with such affection that one can only be in awe.”
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
Eye on Boston
Kevin doesn’t look like other runners. He does not move like other runners. And he certainly doesn’t have speedy legs like other runners. That’s OK.
“You don’t need to look the part. You have to want it, so I started running,” he said.
His love of competition started early when Rich took him running in a baby jogger. His dad had completed the Boston Marathon when he was 30, so running was a part of his life he could share with his son.
Kevin got his first bike on his 5th birthday. The dystonia had not kicked in at that time so he would pop wheelies, ride without holding the handle bar and crash in demolition derbies with his friends. Mom and Dad would cringe, watching their son playing with the other children. As long as he didn’t hurt himself, why not?, they thought.
Kevin calls himself an adrenaline junkie. Ironically it’s that same adrenaline that ignites the dystonia that prevents him from controlling his body. That meant the family had to get creative if he was going to continue to compete.
Once he could no longer ride a regular bike, his parents bought him a three-wheeled low rider and added a bar for Rich to push. Kevin’s hands are strapped to the handle bar to keep them in place and his feet are clipped to the pedals.
This allows Kevin to be a participant. He is just not sitting in a bike being pushed, he is pedaling while Rich follows. Kevin’s heart rate hits 160-200 beats a minute during their runs.
Kevin and Rich started out on 5K and 10K runs and ran their first half marathon in Alpharetta in 2000.
“I had no clue what I was getting into. I recall being proud of Dad and myself,” Kevin said.
When he was little, Kevin loved hearing his father talk about running the Boston Marathon. Before long, the race topped Kevin’s bucket list. In order to compete, they had to run a marathon in 3 hours and 40 minutes or less. The Albany Full Marathon was their opportunity to qualify.
When Kevin dreams, he is on his bike, not a wheelchair.
- As a young child, Kevin was able to walk with assistance and ride a bicycle. But prior to puberty, he developed dystonia, which complicated his condition and further limited his mobility.
A typical day
There is no training for raising a child with cerebral palsy and dystonia. Claudette and Rich do the best they can. Nothing is easy. There is no time to relax.
They have to be prepared to react quickly to seizures, accidents, choking — things that can happen at a moment’s notice.
Getting ready in the morning is 40 minutes of organized turmoil. They know what needs to be done, it’s a just a matter of how much Kevin’s body fights back.
They begin the day by putting Kevin on the toilet. After that they carry him to his room to wash his face and hands, brush his teeth, then dress him.
Some days are better than others. When he is relaxed, getting dressed is easy. Small victories are appreciated.
“Those are the times we are like, ‘Whoa, that’s cool,’” Claudette said.
It takes another 20 minutes to feed Kevin breakfast. He requires tiny bites so he doesn’t choke.
After spending five hours at KSU, Kevin returns home to do his homework. Claudette sets him up in the living room and helps him turn pages in his textbook.
“It’s making dinner, turning pages, making dinner,” Claudette said. “It’s crazy at dinner time.”
Kevin is totally spent by the time he wraps up homework around 8 p.m. That is when Dad takes over. They have dessert, drink tea, watch TV. Then Rich helps Kevin with his shower and puts him to bed. The parents are up at least once during the night to take him to the bathroom.
The involuntary movements that Kevin fights all day vanish at night as he sleeps.
In any marathon, there is a moment where you question if you can finish. It can be the midway point, the famous “wall” around 21 miles or that last hill. Rich’s questions began at the start in Albany.
The adrenaline pushed him the first few miles, but it would not last. He looked worried at four miles, running upright and very stiff.
Pushing the 65-pound bike and his 110-pound son with an inflamed back was excruciating. He didn’t realize his hands were shaking.
At eight miles, he was “feeling weird.” After 15 miles, they settled into a run/walk. The pain in Rich’s hips and back was overwhelming at 18 miles.
When Rich was forced to take breaks, he made sure his son was OK before he tended to himself.
Months of training were unraveling one step at a time.
But Rich had made a commitment to his son to run this race. It was that dedication and bond between father and son that powered them through. Ultimately, it was the son who was pushing the dad.
About the author
Rick Crotts has been a journalist for 34 years, including 20 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he is the section editor for the Sunday sports and business sections. A University of Florida graduate with a degree in journalism, he is also an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, teaching visual communications classes. Rick lives in Powder Springs with his wife and daughter, a senior at McEachern High School. They also have two adult children, a son in Nashville and daughter in Orlando.
One Friday evening last February, Kevin entered the cozy Foxtale Book Shoppe in downtown Woodstock. It was cold outside, snow was falling, but not enough to make the roads icy. Certainly not enough to keep people away. The occasion was Kevin’s book signing.
He first developed a love of writing in second grade at Sope Creek Elementary School in Marietta where teachers kept folders of his writing and shared it with one another. Look at what he has to say, they would marvel.
Writing allowed him to express his thoughts and show his creativity. It gave him a voice.
He liked to write about being a 007 James Bond character fighting the villains of the world.
“Who would expect a guy in a wheelchair to be a special agent,” he reasoned.
And now he was celebrating the launch of his first novel, “The Crave.” The hardback cover features the title scrawled graffiti-style across the bottom with the Boston skyline and a police badge looming over it against a black background.
The hero in the story, Mike Craven, has cerebral palsy, but he has the strength to overcome his personal demons and seek revenge against crime boss Flintlock Flanagan, who killed Craven’s family.
“Mike screamed at the two sound-proof walls of his mind.”
“Mike did not want to be a burden ... but the unfortunate truth was that he was.”
Kevin writes what he knows.
Using his eye-gaze computer, it took Kevin two years to write the 72-page novella and another year to edit it.
He wrote six hours at a time over two summers and on holidays when he was not in school. He would go on for days, churning out five pages at a time. A second book is already underway.
Dressed in a light-blue, button-down shirt, dark gray sweater and dress pants, Kevin greeted his fans at Foxtale. Twenty or so people, including friends from school and neighbors, gathered around him. It was difficult to maneuver his chair.
Voices filled the room.
“Here’s the man of the hour.”
“I can’t believe you actually wrote the book.”
“He has turned out to be such a nice young man.”
Hands were extended in congratulations. Kevin reached out, but the dystonia would not allow him to steady his arm. The attempt was enough.
Writing is a vital outlet for him.
“It gets what is between the ears out,” Kevin said.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
Always next time
In Albany, Claudette and Kevin’s older sister Lauren stood on the sidelines, clapping and offering encouragement as runners turned the corner by the Flint River and struggled to the finish.
“Number 345, you’re almost there.”
“Go ladies. Don’t stop now.”
“Susie, looking good.”
At other times, Lauren paced, worried that her dad and brother were nowhere in sight. She crossed her arms, walked away, came back, constantly fidgeting, not able to calm herself. Four hours passed.
“Patience is not her virtue,” Claudette said.
The runners dwindled. An ambulance rolled down the trail and stopped. Hearts raced. Two passengers were dropped off.
The waiting was overwhelming. Time dragged for the mother and daughter.
Finally Kevin and Rich appeared, four hours, 53 minutes and 23 seconds after they started, well past their goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. But they finished, and even under the best of circumstances, it was an enormous achievement. Considering Rich’s condition, it was an astounding accomplishment. Overcome with excitement, Lauren slipped between the fences and ran up to the finish line with father and son.
Claudette maintained a false calm until they passed, then the tears flowed. She hugged a friend as relief fell over her.
About the photographer
Ben Gray is a multimedia photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who specializes in breaking news coverage. A photojournalist for more than 20 years, he joined the AJC in 1999. In that time he has been the beat photographer for the Falcons and the state Capitol, traveled on assignment to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua and managed the photo department. In 2013, Ben left management to return to telling stories from behind the lens. He currently covers breaking news on the Atlanta Now team where he shoots photos and video and reports for the AJC and WSB Radio and TV.
The crowd cheered. Onlookers high-fived Rich and Kevin.
“You’re an inspiration.”
More hugs. More clapping.
While Kevin and Rich soaked up the attention, Claudette and Lauren returned to their vigil at the turn.
Just then Rich and Claudette’s first born, Jaclyn, turned down the final stretch, and Lauren jumped in again and ran alongside her sister.
Jaclyn had finished her first marathon.
Claudette and Lauren could finally relax. Both fought back tears as the family gathered around Kevin for a long embrace.
As usual, their inspiration was sitting next to them in his bike, his brown eyes lit up with satisfaction.
From a short distance away, I watched Kevin and his family celebrate this moment, and I was reminded that I have a lot to be grateful for. We all face issues each day, some heavier than others. It’s how we handle our challenges that determine who we really are.
When Kevin watches the Boston Marathon on Monday, perhaps he will think about that day in the future when he and his father will be at the start on East Main Street by the Doughboy statue. For now, qualifying will have to wait for another race.
To Kevin, it is just one more obstacle to overcome.
Presentation by Shane Harrison.