A blessed life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 29, 2004

Editor’s Note: The interviews for this story were done last weekend before Clayton Cooper’s scheduled heart catheterization on Tuesday.

He didn’t make it to the surgery. Clayton died late Monday night in his grandfather’s arms.

Clayton Bain Cooper was born on July 1, 2002, to Camden’s Todd and Mary Shannon Cooper.

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Though the baby appeared healthy at first, doctors quickly diagnosed little Clayton with a complex congenital heart defect.

That diagnosis cast the Cooper family through a waking nightmare of doctors, hospitals and life-saving operations that seem, from the outside, to be unendurable.

But in the same time that they have been tested, the Coopers have been blessed.

Blessed by the generosity of strangers, blessed with the love and support of family and friends, blessed with talented and amazing doctors and most of all blessed with a happy little boy whose fight continues every day.

“I used to take things for granted,” said Todd, who coaches football and baseball at Wilcox Academy. “Life is something you’re totally blessed with, you can’t take anything for granted.”

Clayton was born at 8:27 a.m., a perfect-looking little boy.

He was bigger and pinker than his older sister when she was born. That afternoon, doctors knew something was wrong. By 4:30 the next morning, the Coopers got the news, that Clayton’s heart wasn’t working right and the baby needed to be rushed to Birmingham immediately. The doctors there saved Clayton’s life four times over the following months.

“I just feel like that the doctors and nurses know us,” said Mary Shannon, a teacher at Shiloh Elementary. “Dr. Kirkland did his last surgery, he operated on Clayton 11-and a-half hours. We’re truly grateful that he would do that… (he) didn’t have to keep on fighting for Clayton’s life. Clayton has lived another year because (Kirkland) fought for his life.”

During that surgery, it took Clayton’s doctors six attempts to get him off the heart and lung machine.

Mary Shannon said most doctors give up after two failed attempts.

“He coded twice,” she added.

Clayton suffered neuro-damage and lost everything he had learned. The Coopers had to re-teach him everything like he was a newborn again. It took him about six weeks to recover, but he did.

Little Clayton has endured a pair of open heart surgeries and double-digit heart catheterizations, caths in the medical speak the Coopers have picked up during their months in hospitals and doctor’s offices.

Despite that, Clayton’s spirit is strong.

“He’s the happiest baby,” his mom said, “he has the best personality.”

The rest of the Coopers take their cue from Clayton.

Not that anything comes easy, but the family tries keep everything as normal as possible. Their strength is amazing.

“We’ve had more than one person say that to Todd and I, but what do people want us to do, cry all the time?” Mary Shannon said.

She waited a second, then added, “I’m not saying I don’t fall apart, because I do.”

Todd said they both found strength they never knew existed.

“If it would have been someone else, I’d say there was no way I could deal with it. It’s amazing what it’s taught me,” Todd said.

“(Mary Shannon) is a lot stronger than I am, if you want to know the truth.”

The Coopers, who began dating as freshmen at Morgan Academy, take strength from their religion as well. It’s a faith they’ve

tried to pass on to their son.

When Clayton was 5 weeks old, he endured a long surgery, after which doctors told the family he wouldn’t make it.

He did.

The next day the Cooper’s baptized their son.

Since then, the prayers and love from everywhere they look have helped reaffirm that faith.

“Ever since the baptism, no matter what happens, it’s meant to be,” Mary Shannon said. “We both have felt the power of prayer, the people who have helped us have just been amazing.”

The way everyone rallied to the Cooper’s aid has been heart-warming.

Teacher’s from all over the state donated enough sick days for Mary Shannon to stay with Clayton all last year without missing a pay check or any of her benefits.

Todd, a former college baseball player, has had buddies like the New York Yankees’ Jon Lieber and Baltimore Oriole John Parrish help with fund raisers. It seems Clayton’s room is decked out in more baseball memorabilia than the Hall of Fame. In addition, local coaches and players have helped

out. Both Coopers say the kids and co-workers at school have been great.

“These people around here are incredible,” Todd said. “They help us deal with it. The kids, the parents, it’s incredible what all they do for us. It never stops.”

“The children are so wonderful,” Mary Shannon said of her third-graders. “They know. If they can see it on my face that I’m not having a good day, they’ll be the best kids in the world.”

Though Clayton’s condition demands much of their time and energy, his parents are careful to make sure his big sister gets the attention she needs as well.

Whether it’s following Dad to football or baseball practice or going to cheerleading and gymnastics with Mom, Cameron who’ll be 5 at the end of April, gets special alone time as often as possible.

“That’s hard for us to do,” Todd said. “We try to do something with her, just the three of us.

She thinks she’s a teenager, the teenagers (at Wilcox) will come and get her and she’ll hang out with them. She is crazy over this cheerleading.”

Mary Shannon said it hasn’t been easy but helping Clayton fight has brought the family closer together.

They’ve learned to appreciate the everyday things.

“Don’t take life for granted, you don’t know what it’s going to hand you tomorrow,” Mary Shannon said. “I just really appreciate every day.”