From Guantanamo to D.C. to solve a medical mystery

By John Kelly
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; B02

Christie Campagna had found the perfect place to live with her two young daughters: the eastern end of a Caribbean island, where green and brown hills rolled down to sandy beaches caressed by azure water. It was Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Guantanamo? I thought only Marines and terrorists lived there.

"I'm neither," Christie laughed. In 2002, she was working at a job in computers in Mississippi. She was looking for a change. When a civilian IT position opened up on the naval base at Guantanamo, she took it.

"I'm really particular about the kids getting out and seeing the world and realizing there's other places," Christie said. What they found at Guantanamo was a community straight out of the 1950s, a place where kids ran around barefoot all day, where pastimes included neighborhood barbecues and nights spent gazing at the stars.

"You didn't have to follow your kids around, worried that anyone would pick them up and run off with them," she said. "You practically knew everyone there anyways."

Christie and her daughters Morgan, then 8, and Ashlyn, then 3, arrived just before Christmas. As they rode the boat across the bay from the airport to the naval base, Christie worried that her presents wouldn't have arrived yet. When she opened the door to her house, she found that her new neighbors had surprised her. "They put up a tree," she said. "People showed up with presents. They just really take care of each other down there. I can't say enough about my Gitmo family."

It was in Cuba that Christie started to get answers to questions that had nagged her about Morgan.

Morgan was an impish, button-nosed little girl who had taken her time achieving various milestones: walking, talking, reading. But what concerned Christie the most were a pair of odd physical traits. Morgan walked with a limp, especially when she was tired. Odder still, when she was at rest she would draw her hands up to her chest. With her arms bent at the elbows, her hands twisted in, Morgan looked like a praying mantis.

"You'd say 'Morgan put your hands down,' " Christie said. "And she would, but then eventually they'd creep back up again."

Christie had been consulting doctors since Morgan was 4, convinced that something was wrong. All had said the same thing: She'll grow out of it. But she never seemed to.

"You get the feeling that nobody's listening to you," Christie said.

In Guantanamo, Christie again took Morgan to the doctors. They agreed that something was going on and had Morgan see neurodevelopmental pediatrician Gretchen Meyer on Meyer's next visit from the naval base at Portsmouth, Va.

"At first, Dr. Meyer thought it was cerebral palsy," Christie said. "But she said she wasn't sure, that she couldn't do a lot of diagnosis down there."

If Christie could get Morgan to Washington, Meyer said, she would get her an appointment with two doctors she knew who were good at solving mysteries.

A year after arriving in Guantanamo, Christie and the girls watched the island get smaller through the window of the airplane that was taking them back to the United States.

Said Christie: "The first line of business was bringing Morgan into Children's National Medical Center."

Tomorrow: What's wrong with Morgan?

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