Sixteen-year-old RJ Greene is who you want to run into if you’re having a bad day. He’s outgoing, caring and quick to sense when something’s wrong. “He seems to have a sixth sense about knowing when others are down,” his mom, Susan, says.
With his big heart, big smile and bright attitude, he’ll help turn your day around, just like he’s done many times in his own life when the road’s been rough.
“RJ has faced many medical challenges since he’s been in this world,” Susan explains, “but even with these obstacles he finds ways of being happy wherever he is, whatever he faces.”
All hands on deck
When she was six months pregnant, Susan learned RJ had Down Syndrome and life-threatening medical conditions that included intestine issues, a hole in his heart and spine problems. His doctors were unsure he would survive being born, and when he beat these odds, there were worries he may not live to see his first birthday. But RJ’s story of overcoming odds was just beginning: “He’s had 16 years of facing obstacles,” Susan says, “and he’s still facing some.”
RJ has had numerous surgeries and treatments in his life so far. At birth, his intestines were outside his stomach and his first surgery – when he was just five days old – was a procedure to correct this. When he was two, he had a device surgically implanted to help his heart function. He’s worked closely with orthopaedic specialists through the years, undergoing multiple surgeries and hospital stays for a painful bone disorder discovered when he was one.
Even today, RJ faces pressing medical concerns: He’s is the process of getting cleared for surgery for a growth under his rib cage and may also have a surgical procedure in the next few months to help eliminate bone-related pain.
RJ’s care team includes our specialists in neurology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, primary care, ear, nose and throat, genetics and cardiology. He says he really likes his doctors and nurses and “how they care and show their concern.”
“Everyone’s been awesome,” Susan adds about RJ’s team. “Everyone does wonderful with RJ.”
It hasn’t been easy, but for his part, RJ has shown strength in many admirable ways and always remained his positive self. “I’ve seen him need to be a strong boy, and a very strong man,” Susan recounts. “RJ doesn’t complain a lot, and even though he deals with pain many days, he finds something to be happy about.”
Beyond life-saving surgeries and care, a service that Susan highlights as life changing for RJ is our Care Connection for Children program. This is part of a statewide network that provides health care services, community support and resources to children with special needs.
Marisa Cosco Taylor, a social worker with this program, has worked with RJ for the past two years. “He’s one of the politest young men I work with,” she praises.
Marisa partners with families to connect them with resources – educational, social, transitional, etc. – that support a child’s daily life and help each child reach their potential. She’s connected RJ with specialized camps and educational opportunities, programs to help promote his independence, and other support services suited to his hopes and dreams for his life.
“Marisa has been a blessing,” Susan remarks. “She’s advocated for RJ to be sure he has everything he needs medically, educationally, emotionally. She even comes to some appointments with him.”
Marisa says that’s what’s been great (and inspiring) about getting to know RJ is his outlook and that he’s always open to trying new things. His never-give-up-despite-challenges attitude starts at home. “Not only is RJ a ray of sunshine, so is Ms. Greene,” Marisa points out. “Ms. Greene offers suggestions on how to better the situation and relies on her faith to get through whatever the current obstacle is. This is where RJ get his strength, patience and happiness.”
And their positivity is contagious. “I always leave appointments with RJ and Ms. Greene happy and uplifted,” she adds.
Focused, inspired, admired
RJ will be heading to Dinwiddie High School three days a week this fall. He’ll receive homebound instruction for the other two. This is a big step as his school attendance was limited in the past, but as he’s become stronger standing, walking and managing things on his own, he’s able to be there more.
Math and PE are RJ’s favorite subjects – and “Oh yes!” is his enthusiastic reply when asked if he’s looking forward to school and all it will bring, socially and otherwise.
RJ earned an academic achievement certificate for his 3.5 grade point average last year. He plans to work toward that again and hopes to get more involved playing sports with other kids. Also on his to-do list is working with Marisa to find a local job-training program and maybe a part-time job.
Like most teens, he loves video games and music – especially songs by Bruno Mars which he’ll readily sing upon request. His faith and attending bible study are important in his life, and he’s an active member of Mount Olivet Baptist Church. According to Susan, the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Wesley Keith McLaughlin, and Dr. Chester Sharps, the orthopaedic doctor who’s worked with RJ since he was six, are who RJ admires most in the world.
Speaking of admiration, we hope RJ knows just how much he’s admired too. His bright attitude and unstoppable smile, even when facing challenges, share so much about his character and his chosen path for overcoming odds.
“RJ is ALWAYS smiling,” Marisa says. “He’s taught me about facing pain and life’s challenges with a smile – and through always being positive. It can be so easy to get bummed out and sad, yet there’s never been a time where I haven’t seen RJ smiling.”
“He’s my strength,” Susan adds proudly, “especially when I think about everything he’s faced.”