Riza Ritter has faced many struggles in getting appropriate care for her daughter Lauren since her birth 15 years ago. Lauren was born in February of 2000 with a rare chromosomal defect. At the time of her birth she was one of only 12 cases in the country. She was born with an esophagus that did not open to her stomach. Among other handicaps, she couldn’t swallow anything, including saliva. She has had multiple surgeries to correct that problem. She probably will always need to be fed through a feeding tube.
Riza says, “I can’t imagine not having access to health care—Lauren has so many medical needs. Everybody should be able to access the care they need.”
Lauren cannot stand or walk. She can be propped in a wheelchair. She can say a few words, such as “drive” and “bye-bye.” And she can communicate a few more words through sign language, though signing is difficult for her as she does not have much flexibility in her fingers.
Caring for a child with Lauren’s needs often means near-constant battle with health care providers. Riza says that the Tennessee Justice Center has been her rock: “They’ve been there for me every time I had a problem with TennCare enrollment or getting medical services. I think I’ve needed their assistance almost every year since Lauren was born. Lauren needs private duty nursing, and TJC has helped me get her the care she needs. They’ve helped me with enrollment and with getting Lauren’s medical services – especially her private duty nursing services.”
Despite Lauren’s disabilities, there are many activities she enjoys. She likes riding in the car; the longer the ride, the better. She loves when her mother reads books to her and lets her watch SpongeBob. She has an old iPod that she considers her phone, and she likes pushing the buttons. She enjoys occupational therapy because it allows her to put beads on a string and work with shapes and balls. While she can’t eat or drink, she loves it when Riza uses a syringe or eye dropper to put liquids in her mouth. Sometimes, her mother will give her a taste of food by wiping it on her tongue.
The last time Lauren was evaluated for school, her age equivalent was between 12 and 15 months, though her mother thinks she may have now advanced to age 3. Riza’s goal is to help Lauren reach her full potential. For her dedication to never giving up and always making sure her daughter gets the health care sheneeds, TJC is honored to call Riza a Mother of the Year.
Photography credit: Janice Ledbetter