One Florham student’s journey to finding his voice



Tim Doran sits awkwardly in the middle of a tiny waiting room, facing a rainbow poster outlining how to avoid spreading the flu this season, which he reads silently as he waits for his name to be called. There is a medium-sized fish tank off to the right, quietly trickling like a brook as one silvery fish swims all by its lonesome.

Tim is not a stranger to doctor’s offices and waiting rooms, considering he was diagnosed with a rare form of cerebral palsy when he was about two years old.

Cerebral palsy is “caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles,” according to the CDC.

Tim, a senior film major who will graduate in December, attends physical and speech therapy at least once a week. But on this day, he is at the wellness center for the most usual of reasons – he has a sore throat.

In this tight space, there is no out-of-the-way place for Tim to park his scooter, which he often uses to get to class. However, he usually prefers to use his walker instead. In fact, he prefers doing anything that gets him active and outside, whether it’s riding his recumbent bike around town in a Santa suit at Christmas time or skiing in the Rockies with the help of an aide. If there was ever a soul that belonged in the great outdoors, it would be Tim’s.

Tim sits parallel to two girls whispering to each other in waiting chairs set up against the wall.

“Tim D.? Is there a Tim D. there?”

A door down a short hallway to the left opens and a harsh light shines into the waiting room. Tim’s long fingers move in spastic motions as he fumbles with the power button for a moment or two until he successfully turns the scooter on. He makes a u-turn in the tight space and then appears around the corner. A woman wearing a white lab coat sees him and a worried look comes over her face.

“I don’t know if you can fit in here, son, with that machine. I just don’t know,” she says in a panicky voice. Tim tries to maneuver between the tight space of the steps and the cabinet to get into the exam room, but with no luck.

“Don’t you have aides with you?” she asks. Tim indicates no. “I thought you had someone 24/7 with you, son,” she says. She starts to say that he’s going to have to come in the back way. Tim tries to explain that he can walk but she continues to talk over him. Finally, Tim stands up, his thin legs bent at the knees. His back arches as he searches for his center of gravity and his thin arms bend in at the elbows. He takes a step off the scooter.

“Oh you CAN walk!” she exclaims.

Tim must back up his scooter before he can walk through the space. The back end crashes into the waiting room chairs. They finally find a way to park it and the woman holds out her arm for Tim to grab. He does so and begins to walk in his usual, wobbly way, which prompts her to yell to a colleague for a chair.

Tim tries to keep up as people around him scramble.

“Just get a chair so he can sit! He’s not stable!” Her colleague brings over a chair, and Tim plops down into it. She shuts the door behind her, and Tim is trapped. Ten minutes later, it’s time to leave.

More of a spectacle follows as the woman tries to return Tim to his scooter, first by dragging the chair with him in it and then by attempting to drag the scooter instead. However, this proves to be too much, and she finally allows him to walk over, leaning on her arm.

As Tim scoots away, a young woman from the wellness center walks out and catches up with him. She’s a guidance counselor who works there. She was appalled at what she saw and apologizes to Tim, saying, “You shouldn’t have to put up with that.”

Unfortunately, Tim is all too used to this.

When Tim was born in Boston in 1992, awareness about child development was lacking, and as a result the Dorans missed many of the signs, said his mother, Sarah. Tim wouldn’t nurse or take a bottle for the longest time; he didn’t smile until three months when he should have smiled at two. When he still was not sitting up on his own at six months and hadn’t put on weight by eight months, the doctors started to show concern.

Initially, Tim was diagnosed with FTT – Failure to Thrive, which is a pediatric term used to describe children who are not developing as quickly as they should. This was frustrating for the Dorans. How do you help your child with a vague diagnosis like that?

The biggest life saver for the Dorans was placing Tim in an early intervention program when he was about 1 year old.

The program aims to help children learn in a group setting and prepares them for kindergarten. By this point, the Dorans had moved to Philadelphia and the EI program there was particularly unique because not only did it focus on children with disabilities but also on low-income, regularly-developing children as well. This meant that Tim had the opportunity to observe “typical” kids at a time when no one really knew what he was capable of doing.

Eventually, one of his teachers discovered that he understood everything going on around him. Though Tim couldn’t speak, she would give him a task, and another task, and another, and he knew exactly what to do for all three. Tim was far too mentally advanced for this class.

The other comforting aspect of this program was being around other parents whose children had also been diagnosed with FTT. It was a vital support group when so many things were still unknown.

Once Tim finally received the correct diagnosis, there were still many questions the doctors couldn’t answer, like what he would or wouldn’t be able to do. They told the Dorans that this was simply his condition, that it wasn’t going away and that they just needed to start getting him therapy to see what works and doesn’t work.

Tim was never the type of baby you could sit on your lap and read a book to, his mother recalls. He was always very curious and couldn’t stand being still. His father, Donald, would even strap Tim to his back as he mowed the lawn, which Tim loved. It even got to the point that Sarah would hire people just to push Tim in a stroller because he wouldn’t be happy any other way and she had work to do.

Tim became an older brother when he was 4 years old. He has always adored his brother, Jeff, to the point where he idolizes him.

Growing up in New Providence, N.J., Tim and Jeff wrestled like most brothers do and even destroyed a couch together just by rough housing and jumping on it. But despite the fact that Tim is the older brother, in reality, he feels like he’s the younger one.

“I’m the one that annoys him,” Tim says.

Of course Tim threw tantrums like every other child, but for him, it was even more difficult having cerebral palsy. He couldn’t just stomp off to his room like other kids do, so as a result, he held on to things emotionally, something that his father calls being unable to “change the channel.”

Thankfully, Tim has improved in these areas over the years, but when high school came around he came upon a different problem – physical regression.

While Tim couldn’t talk as well as a regularly-developing teen, he was usually able to sustain full sentences. Suddenly, he was able to say less and less, and by the time he started his junior year of high school, he had entirely lost his voice. Before, Tim only needed a walker while he was at school, but at home he could walk on his own; now he could hardly walk or even feed himself.

It all started happening right around the time Tim went through puberty. Tim’s form of CP, which is called “ataxic,” specifically affects his balance. As his body and voice were changing, this could have thrown off his coordination and ability to speak.

What possibly made this even worse was the fact that he got braces. It seems like a simple, harmless thing, wanting to have straight teeth. But that change in the alignment of his jaw could have affected not only the alignment in his body but the pressure being put on his brain. For others, it might not be noticeable, but for Tim, it changed his life.

For two years, Tim was unable to speak at all. He had to mouth everything to his family and they would try to read his lips. He could no longer do presentations at school or feed himself in the lunch room. While Tim has always been an outsider, socializing and making friends became even more difficult.

Losing his voice was probably the scariest part for Tim, since talking was one of the few things he could do to begin with. He tried getting Botox shots to relax his vocal chords and it worked the first time. But all hope was crushed the second time around when nothing came back.

Two years later, Michelle Ortega, Tim’s speech therapist, approached the Dorans, saying that she wanted to work with him to get his voice back.

While Tim can’t do everything he used to do, after five years he’s finally reached a point where his body is no longer forcing him into a place of isolation.

“Without Michelle, I probably wouldn’t be speaking,” Tim says.

For therapy, Ortega brings Tim into a dimly-lit room and he lies face down on a massage table. She presses into his side as they laugh, joke and catch up on what’s happened within the past week. Tim’s speech is noticeably better. Having the table pressing into his stomach allows him to take breaths easier, meaning he has more diaphragmatic support.

Michelle describes her approach to voice therapy as more “holistic” than traditional methods.

“[Tim] really just comes here to relax,” Michelle says, and Tim groans.

“And to complain to each other,” Tim says, and Michelle laughs.

Michelle has known Tim from the time he was a child. They used to attend the same church together.

Tim’s faith is a huge part of his life and even though he lives on campus now, he attends services at the Presbyterian Church at New Providence almost every Sunday, and also volunteers for the church’s prison ministry.

Michelle reminisces about how he used to be in Sunday school – a wild child who bounced off the walls and loved to talk. Talking used to be much easier for Tim then.

“So cute! The ears!” she exclaimed as she described his appearance as a child.

After she flips him over and finishes massaging his shoulders and neck, she walks with Tim to the next room down the hall. While Michelle’s job is to help Tim “unwind,” it’s Becky Blackwell’s job to strengthen him.

Tim crawls on his knees to a big blue pad that you’d see in a gymnastics training center. Becky helps him into a large, cloth loop hanging from above. He lies flat in it and swings face first towards a ladder and grabs onto a rung.

Becky is an occupational therapist who has Tim perform different activities that aim to improve his fine motor skills, like looping small objects onto a thin rope or throwing green and pink tennis balls at a target, which she holds as she moves to different sides of the room.

“Before, he couldn’t have talked and caught at the same time,” Becky says.

It becomes increasingly clear that these people are more than just Tim’s therapists – they’re his friends, born out of a difficult time in his life when hardly anyone could break through the barrier of his disability.

“When I started with Tim five years ago, he had completely lost his voice. He had nothing,” Michelle said. “We were his first friends for awhile.”

“He was in such isolation,” Becky added. “When people see someone of a physical disability, people automatically think cognitive disability.”

“People don’t take the time to get to know him. He’s really insightful and really intelligent… He asks my opinion of things and I really have to think about what I’m going to say,” Michelle marveled.

Living on campus as a student  with a disability isn’t a simple task. It requires a lot of preparation and planning.

While Tim is proud of the fact that he doesn’t need 24-hour care, there are still things he can’t do entirely on his own. Because of this, his mother came up with the idea of hiring FDU students to help him with meal times and his morning/night time routines. A couple of his aides are students who responded to an ad placed in Career Services, but most of them are either fellow film majors or students who were already his friends.

JT Bretschneider, one of his closest friends on campus, is one of those people.

Tim loves spending time with JT, probably because he doesn’t treat Tim like a fragile, porcelain doll as other people tend to do. He’ll pick on Tim in a friendly way, even making fun of his scooter driving.

“He’s very independent and a lot of people think he’s not,” JT said.

People don’t realize all the things Tim can do. He and JT recently went go-carting together at the Funplex, where Tim was tearing up the course.

As Tim’s best friend from home, Eddie Morgan, says, Tim loves milk more than any human being should. One time, when Eddie took him to an amusement park, Tim made him search high and low for a place that sold milk because Tim refused to drink water or soda.

On the morning of April 26, Sam Brandt, a senior film major, is helping Tim. When they go to the cafeteria, Tim orders the same thing from the omelet station every time: a regular omelet with turkey bacon and cheddar cheese. And of course, a glass of milk to wash it down.

As Sam feeds him, periodically wiping his lip, they talk about her impending graduation and senior thesis night, in which he is involved.

“Are your parents going to thesis night or are you riding it solo?” she asks.

“Solo,” he says.

Tim scoots to the senior thesis film class, with his special joystick mouse and keyboard in the backpack hanging open on the back of his scooter. Tim’s niche is film editing. He loves it because it’s like figuring out how to fit pieces of a puzzle together.

Tim is the main editor of Vince Larson’s senior thesis film. Tim originally volunteered to be the assistant editor, but Vince liked his work so much that he made Tim the main editor.

“I like that he looks at a scene and immediately knows what’s important,” Vince said. “And he’s got good comedic timing.”

In fact, Tim’s general sense of humor is one thing that surprised Vince. “He’s funny. I usually don’t find most people funny.”

In class, Tim contributes, but with his stutter and delay in speech, it’s often difficult for him to get in on quick discussions. When he is called on to speak, some students listen intently, while others look down and away.

“I think people have difficulty understanding what he has to say, and thus don’t really listen,” Vince said.

And while it may take Tim longer to make a cut or edit a piece of film, Vince says he more than makes up for it in what he chooses to cut and how hard he’s willing to work to get the job done.

Living on campus for the first time has been a whole new experience for Tim. While other students might study abroad to gain real world experience and independence, this is Tim’s version of a study abroad program. He’s learning to be flexible, to navigate, to plan, to interact with people, to compromise and, most of all, to find his voice.

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