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Jewish Journal

Bounce Back to Life

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Before a rare bacterial infection ruined his body, Christopher McMillian was a top student in Cindy Berger's fifth-grade math class at Wilshire Crest Elementary School. He loved soccer and biking. He coached basketball. "He was always smiling and making people laugh," says Berger, a member of Temple Beth Am.

But on a Thursday morning in early February, the 10-year-old African American woke up with a stomachache. Within hours, he had all the symptoms of meningitis: blinding headache, high fever, stiff neck, sensitivity to light and vomiting. When he couldn't feel his hands or feet, his mother rushed him to the emergency room.

By the time Berger visited him in the ICU, Chris's limbs, normally light brown, were black and shrunken. "He was crying a lot and trying to understand what had happened," Berger recalls. "I couldn't stop thinking about him. I couldn't sleep at night." On March 1, Chris's limbs were amputated. That same day, Berger wrote a letter to friends, relatives and Beth Am congregants pleading for donations to help Chris's family with his expensive rehabilitation; his mother also needed basic items such as food, a telephone and bus tokens.

Berger's effort is one of the many undertaken to support Chris, including a June 30 basketball tournament at the Milken Campus in West Hills.

In March, Berger mailed out 1,000 copies of the letter and convinced her principal to open a tax-deductible school account for Chris. The response was overwhelming. At least $40,000 poured in from Beth Am members; more than $60,000 followed after Berger arranged for Chris to be profiled on TV and in the Los Angeles Times. Within a couple of months, more than $100,000 was deposited in the boy's special-needs trust.

Meanwhile, Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal visited Chris and bought the McMillians a new van.

Even before he lost all his limbs, Chris was no stranger to adversity. His mother was a teenager when she had him. Only 18 months later, Chris's father, 20 years old, died of a rare cancer.

Chris's paternal grandmother, Marguerite, a registered nurse, has been his legal guardian since 1997; she has stayed at his side over the past few months, through his nine surgeries and skin grafts.

"I live to take care of this little boy," Marguerite told The Journal during Chris's daily physical therapy session at Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Los Angeles. Chris's father was her only child, and Chris is her only grandchild. "We pray together often. I tell Chris that nothing can replace what he lost, but we can try as best we can for him to have a good and productive life."

Members of the Jewish community are continuing to help Chris achieve that goal. After reading about McMillian in the Times, Jonathan Hay, a junior at Valley Torah High School, spearheaded "Bounce Back to Life," the 24-hour basketball event on June 30 to pay for Chris's prostheses. Over the years, Chris will need up to 10 state-of-the-art sets of fake limbs to accommodate his growing body, says Hay's father, Jacques, who's helping to organize the event.

Jonathan says shyly that his older siblings inspired him to take action. In 1992, his brother, Joshua, was working as a ball boy at Cal State Northridge when he learned that a star basketball player had been disabled in a car accident. Joshua then raised $27,000 to purchase the man's prosthetic legs. Two years later, Hay's sister, Jalena, founded Camp Chesed, a free summer program for Jews with disabilities. "I also wanted to make a difference," says Jonathan, who's convinced NBA teams to donate signed basketballs to auction off at the marathon.

Marguerite is grateful for the support. "It definitely makes things easier," she says. "It lets us know we're not alone."

The basketball marathon begins at 9:30 p.m., Sat., June 30. To sign up for the tournament or to pledge money for points, call Jacques Hay at (818) 349-3932. To help Cindy Berger with her continuing efforts on behalf of Chris, call (310) 837-1348.

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