Norman teen overcomes the odds

Sunday, October 16th 2005, 5:30 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ In the coming months, Norman North High School junior Briana Bliss will become nationally known, not for her superior academic achievements or energetic attitude of volunteerism in the community, but for her champion mastery of overcoming the odds and proving to Oklahoma she has what it takes to be a Miracle Child.

Bliss, 16, said she found out in September about the Children's Miracle Network's choosing her as the 2006 Miracle Child. Over the next year she will help Children's Miracle Network, commonly known as the organization that produces the largest televised fund-raiser in the world, raise money and awareness for 170 children's medical groups nationwide. The statewide selection process included children in 44 Oklahoma counties who suffer some type of disability.

Soon, visits such as the White House and Disney World, where the miracle network's far-reaching telethon will be, is on Bliss' agenda. She said ``when pretty much any opportunity comes up to be spokesman, then I will be there to talk.

``I'll be able to be like a role model to all the other kids just to show that if I can make it, they can make it, too.''

At first glance of the math-loving, honor roll student, one might wonder why she would be called to the stand to bring public awareness to the plight of children living with cancer, kidney disease, blood disorders, critically ill newborns and everything in between.

With adventures in cyber space, cell phone chats with her boyfriend and cooking food for visiting friends, one would never notice the reality taking place beneath the surface.

At one week old, Bliss was diagnosed with a debilitating disease and genetic disorder known as Phenylketonuria, or PKU.

PKU is caused by the lack of a liver enzyme that digests phenylalanine, an amino acid commonly found in protein-containing foods like meat, cow's milk, over-the-counter infant formulas and breast milk. Due to the missing enzyme, Bliss' body can't process protein. Though not deadly, without treatment the hereditary disease affecting about 50 of Oklahoma's 40,000 newborns each year causes the amino acid to build up in the bloodstream, irreversibly damaging the brain to the point of mental retardation.

It sounds scary, but Bliss isn't worried. Every day she fights back with knowledge and hard work to stay ahead of the game, a habit which her mother, Linda Terrell, instilled at a young age. In fact, Bliss has never even tasted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, hot-dogs with all the fixings or a McDonald's Happy Meal.

``I have a very strict and rigorous diet that consists mainly of low-protein foods and other stuff,'' Bliss said. ``I go to McDonald's and eat french fries and that's it. I can't eat a large portion of anything that has high protein. Like wheat, I can't eat a lot of bread. I can't eat a lot of pasta. It's a lifelong thing.''

In her school, Bliss is known for academic achievement.

``I've never not made honor roll,'' she announced. But everyday, as she works to stay on top of the condition that, if not properly controlled, significantly could drop her IQ well below honor roll levels, she and her family and friends must live in a world where disability awareness is skin deep.

``The problem is because Briana's disability is not something that you see _ a lot of times people don't think of it as a disability,'' Terrell said. ``Yet I have trouble getting insurance for her. I still can't get life insurance for her. They will not cover her.''

But things are getting better for Bliss and children like her, Terrell said.

``There's some really cool doctors that Children's Miracle Network supports that are doing some really phenomenal research as far as innovative and creative, as a result of the support that the network has given for them,'' Terrell said.

``So, Oklahoma is really getting on the map as a result of really attending to making sure this happens in Oklahoma.''

Terrell, who has made a name for herself among many Norman area residents for her work at the Center for Children and Families, said the Children's Miracle Network, which supports doctors in 14 areas of expertise who operate out of the children's hospital for OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, will make all the difference in giving other disabled children the chance at a normal life her daughter has worked so hard to achieve.

``I'm learning about this too,'' Terrell said. ``It's been real interesting to me as a concerned citizen to recognize all this expertise that's here, and it hasn't always been here. And thank goodness it's here because it can help a lot of children.''

Most of all, though, Terrell said she's thrilled the children's network gave her daughter the opportunity to experience what it's like to help others on a much wider scale; to see why her mother has devoted so much of her life to the same mission.

``I'm so proud of her,'' Terrell said. ``And it makes us be able to do stuff together. I get to advocate for kids that are dealing with abuse and neglect issues and she gets to advocate for kids that are sick. That's cool.''