ENID — Something in Danielle's dark eyes spoke to Mary Anna Nall.
It was so subtle anyone else might have missed it as Danielle Ioerger sat curled up in her wheelchair alone at the state center for the disabled in Enid. The girl with the mental ability of a toddler looked so small and thin for a 10-year-old.
Inadequate oxygen before she was born led to cerebral palsy, while curvature of the spine made her sit curved to the left, with her face downward. Seizures sometimes shook her frail body.
But Nall saw something completely different.
Dark curls framed the child's face in a familiar way and she seemed lonely sitting there with 15 other disabled children.
“I saw something. I lost a baby about the same time she was born. ... I felt like God gave me back my little girl,” said Nall.
Nall was a substitute caretaker for Danielle's area at Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid the day in 1986 when everything changed. The mother of seven talked to the little girl and played with her as if she were her own.
The child returned the feelings so that when the center offered to let Nall move from her group of charges to taking care of Danielle and her severely disabled group, Nall didn't hesitate. Their friendship grew and Nall became close to Danielle's mother, too.
In 2002, Danielle's physical disabilities had worsened and she underwent surgery for a congenital hip disorder. But she developed pneumonia and lingered on the verge of death for days. Members of Nall's church prayed for the young woman, and Nall was too distressed to work.
Nall made a promise to Danielle as she lay in the hospital bed.
“If you will get well, I'll buy you a van,” she said.
And she did just that.
Today, Nall, 74, and Danielle, 35, are an example of a care arrangement for the disabled. Theirs is an adult companion arrangement in which, with her mother's approval and decision not to pursue adult guardianship, Danielle moved into a three-bedroom home with Nall and her husband, John, five years ago. Two of Nall's daughters were named her guardians.
In Oklahoma, more than 400 people are in foster care or agency companion homes like the Nalls.
As Oklahoma moves toward downsizing or closing the state-run centers for the severely disabled, family members will be considering arrangements such as these and half a dozen others for their loved ones.
Nall gave up her job and now, 24 hours a day, cares for Danielle under the eye of DHS. She feeds, medicates, changes, entertains, deals with the occasional seizure and teaches Danielle. She takes her on vacations, to medical appointments and to NORCE week days for a few hours of smoothing papers for recycling. Even when Danielle sleeps, Nall remains in touch with a video monitor.
Although Danielle is able to speak just a few words like “yes,” or “no,” laughter fills the neat home as Nall banters with the woman she calls her daughter.
They have a special language. Crossed arms or shaking her head mean that she doesn't like something.
“Do you like to live here?” she's asked.
Danielle clapped her right hand against her left arm one time: Yes.
Their days together include a long list of activities, including regular floor exercises to help combat continuing curvature of Danielle's spine, swimming, reading and listening to music. According to a set schedule, Nall feeds Danielle, often through a tube in her stomach. She has taken CPR training and various other classes to provide the special care Danielle needs. Nall also keeps logs of activities and DHS reviews those monthly. Nall receives about $32,000 yearly to care for Danielle.
Nall said Danielle is more sociable and out
Nall herself said she can't imagine life without her “daughter.”
“I have somebody I can take care of,” Nall said as tears tumbled down her cheeks.
“I love her.”