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Overcoming the odds: Teen excels in school despite illness

POSTED: December 24, 2013 6:59 p.m.

Paraprofessional Cindy Campbell helps Juan Pizano get his lunch tray in the cafeteria at South Hall Middle School. Campbell has been with Juan for years and will continue to work with him through his high school years.

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Juan Pizano’s father first noticed a change when his son was 4.

“He started walking on his tiptoes,” Guillermo Pizano said. “We asked the pediatrician, ‘Why is he walking like that?’”

Juan was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease that weakens the muscles and eventually leads to limited movement.

The diagnosis led to a lot of emotions.

“I don’t know how to say it,” his father said, tearing up. “I don’t speak a lot of English. We accept what he has but it’s hard.”

For a while, Juan was able to operate like any normal child, but after a few years the disease progressed, rendering his legs useless.

“In the third grade, I lost my ability to walk,” he said. “I got a yellow electric wheelchair.

“I thought that I was the only person in the world that was in a wheelchair,” he added. “I had never seen anyone else.”

When Juan lost his ability to walk, he also lost interest in school and the world around him.

“I was doing bad in school because I couldn’t think clearly,” he recalled.

Paraprofessional Cindy Campbell has been with Juan since he was in fourth grade at Myers Elementary School. In the beginning, she said it was tough to see him give up on things.

“His self-confidence was so low it’s almost like he didn’t try,” she said. “He just assumed that he couldn’t do things, especially in math classes.”

Things began to change for Juan in fifth grade.

“Now that I’m older, I try harder because I know that I need a good education,” he said. He tapped into a love for writing and won first place in an advanced writing competition in his fifth-grade language arts class.

Now as a sixth-grade student at South Hall Middle School, he made academic honor roll this past semester, receiving an A in most of his classes.

Outside of school, the 13-year-old is a typical teenager who loves to watch television, listen to music and play video games, especially Minecraft. He loves it so much that’s what he wants to do in the future.

“I want to make video games,” he said. “They’re fun to play. I like to take things apart and try to put them back together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

He continues to attend therapy on an intermittent basis in Atlanta. His father said the disease is not progressing.

“Sometimes he asks us why he can’t walk,” Guillermo Pizano said. “Like, he’s said ‘I want to walk.’ But he accepts what he has.”

And the wheelchair is no longer an embarrassment but a symbol of honor. In fact, Juan barely remembers he’s in a wheelchair.

“People used to ask me why I was in a wheelchair,” he said. “That made me mad at first. Now I just tell them that I am special.

“I think I am an overcomer because I don’t worry about being in the chair and not being able to walk,” Juan added. “I am not sad about it. I can still find ways to do things and help out.”


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