Jacob's death-defying journey

A Bonita Springs Elementary fourth-grader returns to school one year after nearly dying from a rare intestinal condition

It was a miraculous moment, really, one Linda Finnerty worried would never happen. On Jan. 3, exactly two weeks ago, her son went to school.

 Jacob Finnerty delivers a kick in the direction of instructor Thomas McCallister during an after-school tae kwon do class at Bonita Springs Elementary School earlier this month. Jacob made his first trip back to the school after being critically ill last year. Jacob originally came to the U.S. from Haiti so he could get an operation for a damaged esophagus.

Photo by Cary Edmondson

Jacob Finnerty delivers a kick in the direction of instructor Thomas McCallister during an after-school tae kwon do class at Bonita Springs Elementary School earlier this month. Jacob made his first trip back to the school after being critically ill last year. Jacob originally came to the U.S. from Haiti so he could get an operation for a damaged esophagus.

So did Lee County's 75,000 other students. But for Jacob Finnerty, crossing the threshold of Bonita Springs Elementary School that day didn't just signal the end of winter break. It represented the first few steps toward what Finnerty and her adopted son hope is the happy, healthy life Jacob hasn't had in more than a year.

Last January, as Jacob turned 9, he teetered at the brink of death, suffering from a rare intestinal condition. Doctors warned Finnerty to prepare for the worst.

"They told me he may never eat, he may not live to his tenth birthday," she said.

It's been one year since Finnerty heard those frightening words, one year that she didn't leave his bedside, one year that classmates and teachers sent get-well cards and donations, not knowing whether they'd ever see him again.

When he set foot in Mary Lennick's fourth-grade class, those same friends rushed to meet him. Then, one year seemed like no time at all.

"When he walked in, all the kids said, 'Jacob! Jacob!' They were so excited to see him.

Everybody's just yelling, he's yelling," Lennick said.

Lennick said she stood back and watched in awe.

"It was such a positive experience," she said.

Jacob, talkative and outgoing, smiled as he remembered rejoining his class.

"It was shocking," he said. "I didn't think they'd remember me. They were like, 'Jacob! You're back!' "

 Bonita Springs Elementary School welcomed the return of Jacob Finnerty to class earlier this month. Jacob recently recovered from a critical illness that landed him in a Central Florida hospital last year.

Photo by Cary Edmondson

Bonita Springs Elementary School welcomed the return of Jacob Finnerty to class earlier this month. Jacob recently recovered from a critical illness that landed him in a Central Florida hospital last year.

The door he opened to fourth grade may have been the most important, both emotionally and academically. He passed a test admitting him to fourth grade instead of having to repeat third.

"When I walked in, he comes over to me, and he's trying to keep a straight face, and he says, 'I'm in fourth grade!' You should have seen his face," Finnerty said.

There will be catching up to do, of course. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is coming up, which tests fourth-graders for reading, math and writing. Jacob lost months languishing in hospital beds and recuperating at home, though he did have home-school lessons with Finnerty.

Lennick said she believes Jacob can catch up with his classmates, in part through after-school help.

"He has a great spirit," Lennick said. "He has an inner strength and will try everything. He's not shy at all."

He's normal in the way many fourth-grade boys are, even insisting that he didn't miss school (except for gym class) and that his teacher is "nice sometimes" but "a good teacher." For the most part, he can even eat normally, though he has to undergo intravenous nutrition at night. To celebrate his birthday, he chose dinner at Red Lobster, where, he said, he had the "ultimate feast."

Finnerty credits Bonita Elementary's staff for Jacob's smooth return this year.

"This school has been so wonderful," she said. "(Principal David Short) has been great. They've really worked with us."

For Jacob and Finnerty, 2005 was the most tumultuous year of their already unusual journey together.

Born in Haiti as Wadley Sterlin, Jacob had already survived what Finnerty thought would be his biggest trial. He arrived in the United States through Hope for Haiti, a charity organization that arranged for Jacob to come to Florida to have a surgery unavailable in Haiti. Doctors successfully repaired his esophagus, which was scarred after he drank what may have been battery acid as a toddler.

After the surgery, Finnerty, then a traveling nurse, agreed to help the boy recover between her nursing assignments. That's when his parents wrote, asking that Jacob be adopted. After much prayer, Finnerty decided she would care for him as her son. Finnerty let him choose his own name, and the final paperwork will be finalized this year, she said.

Although Jacob has no memory of living in Haiti, Finnerty said she talks with him openly about the adoption. They have little contact with his birth parents, though some news comes and goes when his father visits a health clinic in Haiti.

"I tell him they sent him over here because they love him," she said.

Doctors believe the condition that sent Jacob to the emergency room and ultimately to Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando last January is unrelated to Jacob's earlier surgery, Finnerty said. The condition, called intestinal volvulus, causes the intestines to twist, cutting off the blood supply and killing tissue. Caused before birth, the physiological abnormality can go undetected for years.

While most people have about 20 feet of intestines, doctors had to remove all but two feet of Jacob's, which limits the amount of nutrients he can take in through food. Ensuing complications kept him either in the hospital or sick at home until last August.

"This whole thing has just taken his life away in so many ways," Finnerty said.

Now she is trying to rebuild the fairly normal childhood Jacob had before he became sick a year ago. From all appearances, the skinny but energetic 10-year-old is embracing boyhood with gusto. Finnerty said his health improves every day.

He took his first Tae Kwon Do lesson last week, racing with his teacher. He wants to learn to "karate chop things in half, do back flips, that kind of thing." When he learned he'd be getting a belted martial arts uniform, he jumped in the air and screamed, "Yessss!"

Basketball is his favorite sport. But he doesn't like passively watching games on television, instead embracing the activity that seems to radiate from his feet, always moving or jumping. "I don't like watching sports," Jacob explained. "I like playing them."

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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