By STACY DOWNS
The Kansas City Star
Sarah Palin’s fifth child, a boy, was born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that causes physical and intellectual delays.
During the campaign, Palin has been both criticized and praised for returning to her gubernatorial office within days after giving birth to a child with special needs.
Like Sarah Palin, Kristin Bechtel received a prenatal diagnosis.
Worst-case scenario: Bechtel’s baby would die in the womb. Best case: The baby would be born with Down syndrome. Bechtel was 19 weeks pregnant.
“I only allowed myself to cry 15 minutes,” said Bechtel, a visiting assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
She had to pull it together for her daughter, Hannah, who was 5 at the time. And she wanted to push ahead with her career, finishing her dissertation to complete her doctoral degree.
So Bechtel applied the research skills she used in her profession to her personal life. She read like mad.
Doctors repeatedly told her the pregnancy could be terminated. But Bechtel moved forward.
“I felt like this baby was a blessing,” said Bechtel, who lost another baby in the middle of a pregnancy. “I prayed for Down syndrome.”
Luke Bechtel was born in December 2006.
What a beautiful boy, she thought.
Bechtel, now 36, still thinks her son is darling with his “wild” brown eyes and dark blond hair that bends in the back like hers. On a recent afternoon, he laughed and splashed his mom while she gave him a bath.
Bechtel calls Luke her “raging genius” because he’s good at identifying images in books (“dog”) and reading other people’s expressions. He was born hard of hearing, but after surgeries, he’s learning to talk but uses sign language.
Luke, whose feet are turned inward, is also learning to walk. His mom’s arms are lean and muscular from carrying her 30-pound son. People tell her she looks like a yoga master.
Bechtel teaches three classes at UMKC, and she’s an evaluation administrator for the Kansas Department of Corrections, which regularly takes her to Topeka. She’s also a researcher for the National Institute of Corrections and a research assistant for the University of Cincinnati. She regularly sleeps only from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. so she can finish everything.
Bechtel went back to work less than two weeks after she gave birth. But she schedules around Luke’s everyday therapy sessions by taking work home and conducting teleconferences. The only alone time she makes for herself is to get her hair colored every five or six weeks.
“Luke is my top priority,” she said. “The things I have in common with Sarah Palin are that we’re both brunettes and that God knew we would be the right moms of children with special needs because we’re strong, capable and compassionate.”
No matter who wins the election, Bechtel hopes not necessarily for a cure for Down syndrome, but a change in how people respond to her family. Strangers often approach her and her husband, an architect, and ask what’s wrong with Luke.
“It hurts,” she said. “I can cope with it, but I don’t want Luke to ever deal with it.”