The average adult takes more than 20,000 breaths each day. From the moment Scottsdale resident Tyler Bell came into this world, everyone thought his next gasp would be his final.
Now, at 21, Tyler is one of hundreds of students who will graduate from Scottsdale’s Coronado High School at 8 p.m. today, a day his mother never thought would come.
Tyler’s story began June 10, 1985 when his mother, Vicki Bell, went into labor 15 weeks prematurely in Yakima, Wash., while the young Scottsdale family was visiting Bell’s 102-year-old grandmother.
Tyler quickly developed lung disease, was placed on a ventilator and had a stroke when he was only three days old. A blood vessel burst in his brain, leaving him severely mentally and physically disabled. He was transferred to a hospital in Seattle, where he then had to undergo heart surgery when he was 6 weeks old.
In September 1985, he was flown to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where he stayed until January 1987. When he finally returned home, Tyler remained on a ventilator until he was 4. His older sister, Christie, watched Sesame Street in the living room as her brother lay beside her, helplessly bound by his respirator that nonetheless gave him life.
Now Tyler is free of those shackles, but uses a wheelchair and tubes that help him breathe and eat.
“I can’t even tell you all that he’s been through,” his mother said, pointing to the many scars that tattoo her son’s torso from the 17 surgeries he’s had in his life.
He breathes through a tracheal tube connected through his throat and is nourished through a feeding-tube into his stomach.
“We always just assumed that he wouldn’t make it to his fifth birthday,” Vicki said, because Tyler’s original prognosis was bleak. Of all the children born in similar circumstances within the same time frame, the last died when he was 5, she said.
But Vicki and her husband of 25 years, Craig, have never asked for sympathy. They just asked for Tyler.
“Every year is another year we didn’t think we’d have him,” Vicki said.
One week ago, at exactly 3 p.m., Tyler’s school bus dropped him off in front of his Scottsdale house. Also like clockwork, Vicki walked outside to welcome her son home.
After school is their time together — to read stories and unwind. Tyler crawled on the floor and snagged his favorite toy, Wrinkles the Dog, a stuffed talking brown canine with soft, floppy ears.
But something other than storytime caught Tyler’s attention. It was a package. Vicki started to open the cellophane for Tyler as she reminisced about nearly 22 years gone by.
Vicki’s life dramatically changed when Tyler arrived. She said it made her realize how important it is to become patient and tolerant of other people.
“You learn to take things one day at a time,” Vicki said. “You learn it’s not important to save that extra five minutes on driving somewhere.”
She said the only heartbreaking thing was that she and Craig always imagined they were going to have a big family.
After Tyler was born, they stopped having children.
“We liked kids. We liked having kids and I remember thinking if I could always have a four-year-old in the house, that would be great,” she said. “The age of four is the best age. They’re past their terrible twos and they’re not in school yet. And that’s what ironic about this. Tyler is about at the four-year-old level mentally.”
Sunday is Tyler’s 22nd birthday and today he will graduate from Coronado High.
His long academic journey has changed Tyler, and one of his biggest strides has been his improved communication.
“He used to not be able to communicate anything,” his mother said. “If he has a hard time breathing, he can indicate he’s having trouble breathing, when before we’d just have to try to guess.”
He has since learned some sign language and has more sophisticated vocal skills, but he is still limited.
“He understands everything you say, but he just can’t communicate it back,” Vicki said.
Tyler put his hands over his head like a football referee calling for an “It’s good” field goal.
“I know you love me that much,” Vicki said to Tyler, who quickly nodded “Yes.”
This year, Tyler was awarded the “Outstanding Senior Award” from Coronado High School, recognizing the strides he has made.
“I never thought this day would come,” Vicki said. “For him to be able to graduate from high school has just been amazing.”
Vicki finally opened the package and showed it to Tyler. “I think I know what this is!” she said to her excited son. It was his cap and gown.
Vicki looked at Tyler with compassion, with love. She took in a deep breath, adding to the number she and her son each will take together.