Thursday, August 13, 2009

Failure is NOT an Option: A Woman's Journey to Save Her Son

By Patricia Adams

Tracy Catapano-Fox is one of those people who almost need another business card to accommodate her full job title: Principal Law Clerk to the Administrative Judge, Civil Term of the Supreme Court State of New York - to be exact. And what does it all mean? Simply, Catapano-Fox works with Justice Jeremy Weinstein, running the Queens Supreme courthouse.

If you ask her what the job entails, Fox effortlessly rattles off a list of responsibilities that could exhaust a mere listener. Her job is to assist Justice Weinstein in the day-today operation of the courthouse which includes overseeing more than 500 judicial and non-judicial employees. She schedules the cases, organizes the calendar, is the research program administrator for the foreclosure program and handles matrimonial and commercial remediation. Yet another task is overseeing the film schedule at the courthouse, a very popular location for shooting movies and television. Oh and on Wednesdays during her lunch hour, the former aerobics instructor teaches a yoga class that’s open to employees at the courthouse.

At 35 years old, the wife and mother of two boys became the youngest ever President of the Queens Women’s Bar Association in June.

The lifelong Howard Beach resident has loved the law for her whole life. “I always wanted to be a dancer or a judge.” Although she treasures the years spent at Joe Stamford’s Dance Studio in Howard Beach, it was St. John’s University and Boston College Law that led her on a career path which started in the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

After time spent as a prosecutor she worked for a law firm before taking a position as the Principal Law Clerk to another Howard Beach native, Supreme Court Justice Augustus Agate. “Tracy is one of the best attorneys I have ever known,” said Judge Agate. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with her and when she gets to the bench she will be a fantastic judge herself.”

To be a judge is the one thing that Catapano-Fox really looks forward to, as is obvious in the passion she exudes when speaking about the law she so loves. But as obvious as is her professional passion, there is something far more emotional for Tracy Catapano-Fox, the sons she shares with husband Charlie, eight-year-old Benjamin and five-year-old Ethan.

“Ethan’s my miracle and Benjamin is my blessing,” reveals Tracy who goes on to explain the designations for her two sons. “If Benjamin wasn’t such a great kid, I would never have had the time to do as much as I did to save Ethan.” Benjamin is further described by his mother as “the happiest kid in the world,” “the best kid on the planet,” and just a “good soul.”

The miracle associated with Ethan however, did not come as easily as Benjamin’s great personality. “When Ethan was 18 months it was bad,” Catapano-Fox began, “I had Ben and I kind of knew what a typical child would be like.” But things were not like they had been with Ben. Tracy told her husband before Ethan’s 18-month checkup what she thought. “Charlie,” she said, “we’re going to have a problem.”

The painful realization of what lay ahead was revealed when Tracy responded to her husband’s query. “What do you mean we’re going to have a problem?” he asked. Tracy answered her husband, “He doesn’t look at us. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t acknowledge any one in our house. He doesn’t spend any time with us.”

The agony of the situation grew as the couple relived the details of the first 18 months of Ethan’s life. He hadn’t slept more than two consecutive hours in his life. When finally he did sleep it was only because he collapsed from the exhaustion of running around and around and jumping on and off everything in his path. Ethan refused to eat anything but bread, French fries and milk.

“He used to eat so many things,” Tracy recalled, “fruit, vegetables, cookies. Then it just switched off.” His family never heard Ethan speak. The only sounds he ever made were the cries that came from his night terrors. He would scream for three or four hours, and then pass out. Ethan would wake up and start screaming again. “He hated the sound of running water and electrical things,” Tracy explained, “I would hold him and he would bite me 50-60 times a day.”

The family took Ethan to be evaluated. “I didn’t know about autism,” Tracy admits. “The only association I had was headbanging and spinning.” But, she says, she knew that this was a likely diagnosis for Ethan. “When we first went for evaluation, they wouldn’t tell us anything.” She questioned whether it was autism but could not get a definitive answer. Frustrated and with no answers, Tracy decided to take Ethan to an evaluation center for autism in Manhattan. The answers she got didn’t make her happy but they were answers.

At 18-months old Ethan was diagnosed with autism. And from that minute Ethan’s mother started the journey to help her son. The family’s quest to save Ethan began in Rhinebeck, New York with autism specialist Dr. Kenneth Bock.

The ensuing fight against the mysterious disease began shortly after meeting with Dr. Bock who told the Fox’s he thought he could help Ethan.

A little more than three years later, after instituting a gluten-free, casein-free diet, utilizing hyperbaric and chelation therapy, Ethan has been re-evaluated. He is no longer silent. His diet is rich in variety. He talks. He smiles. He laughs. He sleeps. In September he will begin kindergarten at MS 207. Ethan is definably recovered; he shows no signs of autism.

Ethan’s parents are smiling too; as is the rest of his family. And in November, his mother will take some more steps for her son. Tracy Catapano-Fox can be seen nightly running through the streets of Howard Beach as she trains for the New York City marathon in which she will run for Ethan, her miracle, on behalf of Autism Speaks.

For Tracy Catapano-Fox the road back has been marked with a success hardly measurable by any normal standards. A predictable quality about Tracy Catapano-Fox after having spent an hour with her is of course to credit what she terms “an unbelievable support system. That system she says starts with her mother, Linda Catapano.

“For everything good that anyone sees in me, my mother is responsible. She is the greatest person on the planet.” And for Linda Catapano’s daughter, the woman who has managed to run a family and a career without missing a beat, well she is probably best described by a rectangular red button that rests on the base of her computer monitor; it reads simply, “Failure Is Not an Option.”

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