BUFORD - Shooting around on the outdoor basketball courts at Bogan Park, Dontae Douglas couldn't be happier.
The 12-year-old from Buford, sprints up and down the courts, dribbling, cutting against phantom defenders, running through his left-handed layups. He pulls up and shoots a jumper, first from the elbow, then from corner. One drops. The other misses.
He keeps practicing.
The park is just blocks from his home and he visits often. He plays on the indoor courts when they are not in use and he has a hoop in his driveway.
"I don't like sitting around the house all day," Dontae says. "I go outside and play basketball. I've got nothing else to do."
Dontae moves swiftly and runs with a smooth, long gate. He dribbles almost exclusively with his left hand and could work on getting his release a bit more above his head. He tends to shoot from his hip.
He keeps practicing.
Dontae plays on a traveling basketball team and his dad, Ervin, works with him in the driveway and at the park.
"He is working on it," Ervin says of Dontae's game. "He is doing it. He just has to get over the fear and take it from practice to the game."
Dontae may revert to his comfort zone when he plays basketball games, but fear Dontae can handle. If Dontae, or his parents, let fear deter them, Dontae would not be on this court dribbling and shooting and running. There would not be framed photos of him playing football or team baseball pictures hanging on the wall in his living room. There would not be a basketball hoop in his driveway.
If Dontae let fear invade his resilience he wouldn't be half the boy he is, in fact, he would just be half a boy.
'I couldn't believe it'
At 3-years-old, Dontae still rode in the back of the car, but he could do a cross-over dribble. He hated dirt. He hated being dirty. He hated it so much, he was out of diapers in less than a week.
So his mother, Jean, immediately knew there was a problem on a trip to his cousin, Destiny's house. When she took him out of the back of the car and he fell to the ground. She picked him up. He fell again.
"I picked him up and carried him inside," Jean says. "When we got inside, I could tell his right side was drawing up."
Jean demonstrates while she talks. She tilts her head left, lifts her shoulder and curls her right arm up towards her body. Just like her 3-year-old son did. Except she can make it stop.
"He was aware of everything that would happen to him," Jean says of Dontae. "He would cry out, 'Momma, momma,' and you could see his right side drawing up."
Dontae only remembers falling outside the car. His mother remembers every moment.
They drove to Gwinnett Medical Center and stuck him in an MRI machine. The imaging showed a blood clot on the brain of the toddler that caused a stroke on his right side. Dontae's next stop was Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
"I couldn't believe it," Ervin says. "I have heard of older people having strokes, but a 3-year-old having a stroke?"
'Not unheard of'
Ervin's disbelief is justified.
Childhood stroke effects about 3,000 U.S. children per year, according to Wendy Wright, assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Emory. Wright, like Dontae, is in a unique group. As a board certified doctor in both psychiatry and neurology and vascular neurology she belongs to a community of about 500 doctors across the country with similar expertise.
"It is fairly uncommon ... because of that a lot of people haven't heard of it," Wright says of childhood stroke. "It is definitely uncommon, but not unheard of."
According to Wright, who had no involvement with Dontae, childhood stroke strikes for a variety of reasons from trauma to or a disorder in the blood vessels, congenital heart problems and infections.
"They end up more prone to seizures than adults," Wright said. "That is one of the main clues that the kid has had a stroke. Or headaches. When a kid gets a headache parents need to be attentive and see their doctors."
Though the causes vary significantly, the effects do not. Young or old, a stroke cuts off blood to an area of the brain, killing those cells.
"Brain cells cannot be regrown," Wright says. "They do end up with a lot of the same problems."
Doctors never determined the cause of Dontae's clot. Jean and Ervin went home with questions, a nearly immobile son and a big needle. For the next five months, Dontae got shots twice a day from his parents. Eventually, Jean couldn't do it. Calloused lumps began to form across Dontae's small frame from all the injections. One night, Ervin walked into his son's room and Dontae just started screaming.
"It was getting tough. We had a long way to go," Ervin says. "It just tears you up when you know something his hurting him, but you have to do it."
Here, Dontae started to conquer his fear.
After that night, Ervin came home the next morning from his night shift job and told his son, he loved him and tried to explain the necessity of the shots.
"I said, 'Son, you know your daddy loves you, right?' and he said, 'Yes, sir.' and I said, 'We have to give you these shots so you can get well,' and he said, 'Daddy, I ain't scared no more.'"
Soon after that, Dontae gave shots to himself.
But he still struggled to use his right side. He went to physical therapy, but doctors told his parents there was nothing they could do to fix the damage to his brain. Those cells don't regenerate.
Dontae spent more than a year in physical therapy and when he left, he still struggled to use his right side.
"They said there was nothing they could do for him," Jean says. "He was always progressing. I could always see improvement. Sometimes it would slow down, but it never stopped."
Mixed with the Douglas' perseverance and Dontae's fearlessness, came providence.
As uncommon as stroke is for a child, Dontae's struck at the right age. For adults, the paralysis lingers eternally and in utero strokes are a cause of cerebral palsy, according to Wright.
"Right around the magic age of 2-3 in toddlerhood, the more they can try to function," Wright said. "The brain's ability to overcome a stroke or even brain surgery is very remarkable in the toddler phase. A lot of studies are being done with a lot of younger kids with stroke to make them use their paralyzed limb to make them usable and that seems to be very promising in the early stages."
Anecdotally, Dontae fits.
His legs responded first and he started playing soccer. His body still twisted and his right arm straight in the air, but he could run.
"People thought it was cute," Jean says.
At 5, he started T-ball, switching to the left side of the plate. Before the stroke, Dontae was right handed. At 6, like any good Buford boy, he started playing football. Basketball came next.
Slowly his arm came down. His mother fashioned a brace to hold his right hand open. Seven years later he stopped wearing it and his hand stays open.
"I use a method of repetition," Jean says, watching her son dribble down the court at Bogan Park. "Repetition has been the thing for him. If he has been taught something, he can do it. I am having to do that less and less."
'I don't want people to know'
Nine years after falling in the driveway of his cousin's house, Dontae is unremarkable at first glimpse.
You must watch closely to see the limp flatness of his right hand when he walks through his house, and even though he obviously prefers to move to his left on the basketball court, the lack of a right hand option is not glaring.
That is what is remarkable about Dontae.
"He is a master at hiding it," Jean says.
Dontae doesn't want to hide the lingering effects, he wants to make them irrelevant. It's less embarrassment and more desire.
"I don't want people to know," he says. "If they ask me, I'll tell them, but if they don't ask me, I don't want them to know."
He shoots right-handed layups again and again. He dribbles with his right hand in the driveway.
He keeps practicing.
All other sports have faded for Dontae, who wants to work on basketball. He wants to play on the Buford varsity team. That is why he practices.
"If you can't use both hands, they don't want you on the team," he says.
'I call him my hero'
Watching Dontae work and improve over the past nine years, his parents glow with pride. Even while talking about him, they'll often switch and talk to him.
"I call him my hero," Ervin says. "But coming from me that doesn't mean a whole lot."
"You are blessed," he continues switching audiences to Dontae. "You are out there with kids with both arms and both legs."
His mother has a stack of photos of Dontae that she'll gladly narrate one by one, most taken recently. When he first started sports she refused to take pictures that make him look different.
"It really got to me," she says.
It still gets to her. It's just different.
"It's a blessing for us now. He still doesn't understand how good he is doing."
Said Ervin: "He still has some more stuff to do. He is going to be an inspiration."