Love covers this child's world

Jared Patton turns 3 years old Tuesday, but he will forever be a baby.

He can't sit or stand. Can't talk or roll over. He can move his legs, but can't walk. He can move his arms, but will never grasp a toy.

Yet in the cocoon of stuffed animals, soft quilts and cooing embraces of his custodial grandparents, in the round-the-clock breathing treatments, trachea cleanings, G-tube stomach feedings and dozens of daily medications that keep him alive, Jared is one lucky boy.

On some level, he seems to know it.

"His attitude is unbelievable," says Kathy Stowe - his grandmother, primary caregiver and best cheerleader. "When he's awake, he's the lovingest child on the planet."

Jared was born perfectly healthy. Six weeks later, his mother, Nicole Patton, noticed he was rigid and twitching and rushed him to the emergency room.

Doctors discovered Jared had suffered devastating brain trauma.

Someone had literally shaken Jared so violently that his head whiplashed on his frail neck, battering his brain around his skull like a rattle.

Each year, about 50,000 babies suffer shaken baby syndrome. About 2,000 die from it. Survivors suffer blindness, mental retardation, paralysis, hearing loss, learning disabilities, speech impairment or any combination.

Jared's father, David Curtis Patton, was convicted of abusing him and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Jared was sentenced to a broken body and a life expectancy of about five years.

His grandparents are determined to make every moment count.

They renovated a bedroom in their little Hampton home to accommodate his crib, medical equipment and a health care nurse.

Kathy learned home nursing skills to tend his cerebral palsy, epileptic seizures, scoliosis, severe sleep disorder and visual impairment. She devised a chart system to account for every hour - all 24 of them - of Jared's care. She doesn't regret a second of it.

"This is just love," she says. "This is what love looks like."

Her husband, Steve, cut back his hours at Stowe Wall Systems Inc. and turned anger at what happened to Jared into a mission to try to keep it from happening to another baby. He started Shaken Baby Syndrome Awareness of Virginia Inc., passes out "Never Shake a Baby" bumper stickers and coffee mugs, speaks to community groups, schoolchildren and health care nurses.

They're working with Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, to get Virginia to adopt the best practices of other states with shaken baby syndrome prevention programs.

"We have to educate the parents before the baby's delivered," Oder says. "Obviously, that's the crucial time."

He hopes to present a bill to the General Assembly in January.

Meanwhile, the Stowes strive to make Jared's life as full as possible.

They have special friends visit; he's mesmerized watching his little brother and cousin play, and is "deeply in love" with his physical therapist. They play music so Jared can swing his head to the beat. They hold and cuddle him even if it sets off his heart alarm for a few seconds.

From 7 to 8 every evening is family time, and they'll prop Jared up to watch HGTV or his favorite sports teams: the Orioles and the Colts.

Steve makes popcorn for the occasion, and Jared's head will swivel at the sound of the first popping kernel, knowing that grandpa will soon shake on the sea salt to deliver his special "salty kisses."

"We have so much fun," Steve says.

"He gleans pleasure from every single thing that he does," says Kathy.

"You really appreciate every moment," she adds, "because you never realize if it's going to be the last - we get to have another birthday party; we get to have another Christmas."

For Jared's birthday this year, they're collecting children's books for a local hospital at an open house next Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. at their 305 Manteo Ave. home.

It's one way to pay forward Jared's gift to them of unconditional love.

"We are in love with this child," Steve says. "I said, 'Jared, if you cross over before I do, you're gonna wait. And when I cross over, we're gonna go fishin.' "

Contact Dietrich at 247-7892 or tdietrich@dailypress.com.

ONLINE EXTRA: To see a photo gallery of Jared Patton and his grandparents, go to dailypress.com/jared

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