Saturday, December 26, 2009

NY boy with MD competes, wins a medal via video link at National Geographic Bee

From The Times-Union in Albany, N.Y.:

COLONIE, N.Y. -- Josh Unverhau (pictured) cannot run and play like other 11-year-old boys, so he takes great pride in what he can do with his mind.

Josh has Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that means his muscles will continue to degenerate. The medicine he takes for it weakens his bones.
So when he fell and broke his leg on Dec. 15, it was more than a simple fractured femur. There was a risk his use of a wheelchair could become permanent.

Adding to the trauma was that all year long, Josh had looked forward to participating in the National Geographic Bee at his school, St. Pius X in Loudonville. He'd been runner-up the year before, and he thought he had a chance to win.

He had taken a written test prior to this year's bee and received the highest score in the school.

Now with three days to go until the event, his leg was broken and his spirit wasn't far behind.

"Tuesday night, the fracture was fresh. They had just set it," his father, David Unverhau, said. "He was sitting there screaming. He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to miss the geography bee.'"

"Not being able to do physical things, he tends to focus on intellectual things," his father said. "Geography and history are his passions."

Josh agrees.

"It's interesting. It's what's actually happening. It's always new," he said. "I'm just a very up-to-date kind of guy."

His father set out to make his son's dream come true. He talked to the school's principal, Dennis Mullahy, who agreed to see if they could fix up a video link to Josh's hospital room. The school's technology teacher, Theresa Reid, worked with Kris Kusche, the IT director at Albany Medical Center. Kusche's children go to school with Josh.

They got a laptop and used Skype software to put together a video link. As the other nine competing students took the stage Friday, Josh's face appeared on a video screen.

His father and mother Arleen sat in the hospital room with their son as the bee began.

"I hung out there in case the link dropped," his father said.

Josh had a video link too, mostly showing him the moderator who asked questions. He wore a headset so he could hear above the background noise of the hospital.

"I couldn't even hear the questions," his father said. "I could only hear the answers."

Question after question, Josh got the answers right. The other students kept being eliminated.

"It was pretty intense," said Mullahy, the principal. And then there was only one student left. Josh.

The audience in the auditorium rose to its feet, the clapping thunderous. One by one, his sixth-grade classmates came to the video camera to congratulate him.

"I think he was the favorite son," Mullahy said. "He's a really bright kid. He got the highest score in the school to qualify. He got a standing ovation."

His father said the family is grateful for all the people who made their son's participation possible.

"It meant the world to him," Unverhau said. "When he realized he won, it took so much weight off his shoulders. He'd been looking forward to this since the last one last year."

Josh won a medal and computer software and a world atlas from National Geographic. He is recovering at home, and his family hopes they might be able to use a video link to keep him connected to his class as he recovers.
Now Josh has a new challenge: First he has to take a test to qualify but he hopes to be at the state championship April 9 at the State Museum in Albany. In person.