Graduation Day Arrives For Colin

Published 4:49 pm Thursday, May 16, 2013

HAMPDEN-SYDNEY – A handful of graduation photos have just arrived and colorfully decorate a table in the Werths' home. In just over a week, Colin is set to walk across the stage, shake the superintendent's hand, and receive his high school diploma.

“Yeah, I'm ready,” Colin says, when asked if he's excited. “I've been ready. It was a big year.”

It's been about four years since we visited with Colin and his family-dad Alex, a biology professor for Hampden-Sydney College, supportive shuttle-driving mom Diane and little sister Gwen.

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Colin, a polite, soft-spoken young man, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Though he spends most of his school day in a power wheelchair, he plans to walk this Saturday. Gwen will be there for a helping shoulder should he need it.

“I'm actually…very well,” Colin says, when asked how he is doing physically. “…Compared to other people with my condition, it's pretty rare…to find people like me that (are) 18 that are still walking.”

Diane adds, “We don't know why. I mean the doctor kind of called him an outlier-and there's just some boys that do better than others and we're grateful for that.”

Alex notes that they're pretty aggressive with the physical therapy and stretching, too.

Colin visits a team in Cincinnati that specialize in his particular muscular dystrophy. They are very proactive, his mom offers. Colin has been on steroids for a long time, which keep him stronger and healthier for the long run, but they come with side effects and they are helping.

According to the MDA website, Duchenne muscular dystrophy primarily affects boys. It is a “genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness” and is “caused by the absence of dystrophin, a protein that helps keep muscle cells intact.” Symptoms can start at age three, initially affecting muscles of the hips, pelvic area, thighs and shoulders.

There are some therapies (which include medicine) that help with the affects of Duchenne.

Three-year-old Colin was going in the local hospital for what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy and had a severe reaction to the general anesthesia.
And that led to a series of events where it was discovered that he had Duchenne.


The home has been tweaked to accommodate the wheel chair, though Colin doesn't use it much there. He has his own basement apartment, complete with roll-in shower.

Colin is finishing up dual enrollment courses English, government and word processing, as well as yearbook.

“We figured out how many credits he needed to graduate and it ended up only being four,” Diane explains.

Colin's favorite class is word processing where he works with Microsoft office programs (he has received numerous certifications), though he also enjoys yearbook, too.

He really likes computers, and is good with them-even putting a slide show together for the senior academic ceremony jackets.

Yes, Colin has a jacket as well, and is a member of the National Honor Society.

“Colin is an excellent student,” High School Principal Craig Reed commented. “…It's been a pleasure to have him here at Prince Edward County High School. He's pleasant, he's hard working, he's diligent, and he represents the excellence of our school.”

Colin has been involved in fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, participated in open houses at the High Bridge Railroad Club, helped out with some school activities, and with the dog walk with an animal rescue group on Hampden-Sydney's campus.

The local Kroger store, set to close this month, was very supportive of the MDA. Alex notes that they raised more money than any other Kroger store in the district for muscular dystrophy.

“It was a great community of people who worked there,” he said.

“They all knew Colin,” Diane says. “Every time I would go in there, 'How is Colin? How is Colin doing?'”

There is nothing quite like having a personal connection.


The other kids at school know him, are nice to him, Colin says. He says he's never had any problems.

Along this journey, there has been a smooth ride through school.

“That's one thing that we are so grateful for. I think Colin's a little bit unique in some ways 'cause it's mostly just a physical disability…They always worked with us to try to get him into the right classroom and get the right accommodations…They really would bend over backwards to make sure he was accommodated,” Diane said.

Colin and Alex both agree.

Alex is complementary of the school system, offering that it's not just the teachers, but that the staff, the administrators and nurse “really tried to assist Colin, help him fit in as much as possible.”

“We're very appreciative,” Diane adds.

Colin has been granted short days, allowed to come in late and such for school, which Diane says has really helped since he tires easily.

The school, Colin says, is good about making sure all of his classes are on the ground level.

“That was one of the things that they were really good about,” his mom said. “And they even-if he had to be upstairs…the science classes are on the second floor, if he had a lab or something, they practiced to make sure they knew what to do if there was an emergency. They even had like a stretcher that they were gonna use if they needed to get him out quickly.”

Technology has helped, too-from his eighth grade Algebra teacher Sebastian Chirila's copying the day's examples on the white board to a flash drive for Colin to take home, to the use of an echo pen. If he failed to get it all down in class, he had the option of listening to the pen's recording again.

Colin is active. On the evening we visited, he was scheduled to meet with the High Bridge Railroad Club for a dinner meeting, which is held once a month.

And while he may be 18, it's good to see he still enjoys trains. The bullet train is still the favorite of a young man who has ridden trains around the world-including one in Japan that reaches speeds of 200 miles per hour.

“It's pretty smooth,” Colin responds to an inquisitive reporter's question about how it feels to travel so fast. “…Those trains are made so they won't be like a typical train with the shaking,” Colin states.

And, yes, for those wondering, a passenger can get up and move around on such trains going that fast.

As graduation approaches, there's always a swirl of events. A class trip is planned for a water park in Massanutten; Diane plans to take her son so he can try it out, too.

There's also a picnic slated at Wilck's Lake.


Whether or not Colin will need his sister's shoulder to navigate the ramp at Saturday's graduation is still to be seen, but she'll be there should she be needed.

“He helps with a lot of things,” Gwen says of her big brother. “Like, since he's a computer whiz, he helps me on the computer. And, sometimes…play Wii or just any ordinary game, really.”

Her favorite Wii game they share is Mario Kart.


After Saturday's graduation, Colin plans to take off a year of school. Alex will be on sabbatical and won't be teaching but working with his research. The family will travel some-there's a planned trip to Vancouver and later a possible conference to New Zealand.
Colin has some time to figure things out after that. It might be Hampden-Sydney College (he has already been accepted), Southside Virginia Community College (where he could pursue a two-year degree), or Longwood University.

Colin, a problem-solver, likes working with computers, assessing that it would be a job that he would enjoy.

“There's a lot you can do,” Colin says, when asked what he likes about computers. “And they've helped me a lot with stuff with school.”

Diane can envision him sitting at a help desk.

So the technology that has helped Colin, he could one day use to help others.

The 13-year academic journey is near complete. All that is left is one more big test, listen to a few speeches, grasp the diploma, and share in a few hugs.

But before beginning the new chapter, it's easy to be drawn into the one that's been read.

And the life of Colin Werth.