Wylie overcomes obstacles to achieve

If Rebecca Wylie appeared a bit tired at 9 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, she had a good excuse:

Rebecca, 18, had been up until 2:30 a.m. the night before, partying with 290 other Deerfield High School graduating seniors in the city, first at the Wrigleyville bar, Sluggers, which had been rented out by the school, and then on a cruise boat on Lake Michigan.

Still, Rebecca said the evening was well worth it, with lots of the loud music that seems to go hand in hand with youth.

The night out was just one of many activities for seniors like Rebecca, who received their Deerfield High School diplomas Wednesday evening at Ravinia Festival Park in Highland Park. (The Review will include special photo coverage of graduation in next week's edition.)

And like the vast majority of other Deerfield High School seniors, Rebecca is off to college in the fall at the University of Missouri in Columbia, to study graphic design. Rebecca, who graduated 16th in her class, has received six scholarships.

Transverse myelitis

But Rebecca's success is all the more noteworthy because of the obstacles she has overcome during the last 10 years after an illness when she was 8 years old, transverse myelitis, left her without the use of her legs and only limited use of her hands.

Rebecca's experience, which she would like to publish some day in a book, has also left her wise beyond her years. During a two-hour interview in her Deerfield home, the articulate and thoughtful youth showed no self pity, but rather a fierce desire to live life and an iron-clad resolve to have fun. When asked if she had any particular hero, Rebecca answered emphatically: "I don't like Christopher Reeve! He spends too much time looking for a cure and not living."

Rebecca is also a typical teenager, eager for independence from the watchful eyes of her parents. It is just for that reason that Rebecca's parents, Christie and Matt, gave one of her best friends, Ashley Becker, the keys to their van which is equipped with a special wheelchair lift. "I was not going to be dependent. That's really lame for a senior in high school," she said.

Rebecca said she will miss her close circle of friends, including Ashley. "Ashley drives me everywhere," she said.

Ashley also said she was upset that Rebecca will be leaving Deerfield for college. "She's really funny and she's really nice. We share a lot of the same interests," Ashley said.

At Deerfield High School, Rebecca and Ashley have been in chorus together for four years, traveling on trips to New Orleans and California with the group.

"I'm at her house all the time. It is like my second house," Ashley said

Rebecca also wants to achieve financial independence from her parents. Thanks to computers and a design talent, Rebecca may have no trouble in that regard.

As a visitor watched on Friday, Rebecca demonstrated how she uses a pointer in her mouth to tap out the commands on a computer keyboard, allowing her to create graphic designs. She also uses a paintbrush in her mouth to create beautiful still lifes.

On her dining room table , she displayed a portfolio of her work, including not only the graphic designs but also water colors, pencil drawings and acrylics, some of which she has sold. One of her designs was used for signs, brochures and letterheads in the 2003 campaign by the Deerfield Village caucus candidates, which included her father, Matt Wylie, an architect and village trustee.

Another whimsical snowman design for a holiday greeting card was selected by Shriners Childrens Hospital, where she goes once a year for a check up, while another design of hers was used for the Deerfield Discount Card, distributed as a fund-raiser by Caruso Middle School to students at all Deerfield schools.

Choosing a college to study graphic design was a difficult decision, Rebecca said, with the choices boiling down to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, University of Missouri in Columbia and University of Arizona. While Arizona boasted a great climate, with no icy winters, it had the disadvantage of being reachable only by airplane. Rebecca has not had huge success with airlines, which usually break or lose one of the parts of her state-of-the art $20,000 plus wheelchair.

The University of Illinois, while closer to home, housed all the students with disabilities in one dormitory together, she said.

So Rebecca chose the University of Missouri, even though it was not as accessible as the University of Illinois.

"I want to be with the regular students," said Rebecca, who will live in a regular dorm with student aides working part-time shifts to help her "I have met two people in wheelchairs in my life. I don't think of myself as disabled," she said.

Rebecca's deluxe wheelchair also has given her independence from other people having to push her. When she first came down with transverse myelitis, the insurance company would only pay for a $150 chair that had to be pushed around, Rebecca said.

But thanks to Deerfield High School's Chest fund-raising drive, the Deerfield community rallied around the Wylie family 10 years ago, raising the tens of thousands of dollars needed for the wheelchair that Rebecca could operate on her own.

The custom-designed Swedish made chair can also raise Rebecca to a standing height, eliminating the need for others to look down at her.

The 1993 effort, "Friends of Rebecca," reached a local and nationwide audience.

"We went to Florida and people knew me," she said.

It also helped publicize information about transverse myelitis, a rare disorder in which the fatty tissue around the nerves is lost. The symptoms include low back pain, spinal cord dysfunction, muscle spasms, headaches, loss of appetite and numbness or tingling in the legs, according to the Transverse Myelitis Association Web site (www. myelitis.org). The disorder may be brought on by a viral infection, such as measles or chicken pox, a spinal cord injury or an immune reaction.

While no treatment exists, some individuals do recover within 2 to 12 weeks. Others have limited disabilities, while the rest may not recover much at all.

In Rebecca's case, it took doctors three weeks to diagnose the disorder.

Since then, Rebecca has heard about other cases of transverse myelitis, including another student at Wilmot School, where her brother, Patrick attends. (Rebecca also has a 16-year-old brother, Zachary, at Deerfield High School and a 13-year-old sister, Alissa, at Caruso Middle School.)

Rebecca said her memories of being in second grade are fuzzy, but since then she has come to appreciate the enormity of the fund-raising effort made on her behalf.

"I did not realize what it all involved until freshman year when I was a part of it," she said. As a result, she has worked hard while at Deerfield High School during each of the Chest fund-raising drives, held every December.

"I still can't get over it. It was such a nice thing. It was such a nice thing," she said.

Her parents have also been Rebecca's chief advocates, fighting the local schools to make sure they were handicap compliant. A wheelchair lift was put in at Wilmot School and a ramp at the Deerfield High School bleachers. Both additions will help those with disabilities who come after Rebecca.

Christie, a school teacher in Grayslake, also helped Rebecca get up to speed in second-grade, when she missed several months of school after her illness.

Stem cell research

While first pursuing graphic design as a career, Rebecca said she may also want to go to law school, in part to fight for stem cell research that may help treat others with spinal cord injuries.

"They've done it (stem cell research) in rats and want to do it in humans, but the government won't let them," Rebecca said.

It is only when this discussion comes up that Rebecca mentioned feelings of anger. "Every once in a while I get really angry. I don't think that will ever go away. But it's not really worth getting angry or sad about it. It's kind of a waste," she said

College aside, Rebecca also has dreams of writing a book or making a movie .

"I would like to write a really good story and have a million people read it. I would make a movie with me as the star. I would concentrate on my high school," she said. Not middle school, no one likes junior high, she said.

"It's a really bad age."

Like many teenagers, Rebecca also dreams of being in a rock and roll band. "If I had the hand strength I would definitely play electric guitar," she said with a gleam in her eye. "Definitely."