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Potsdam student overcomes tremendous odds to make it to graduation

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POTSDAM - As members of Potsdam High School’s Class of 2014 made their way across the stage at the Helen M. Hosmer Concert Hall, they each received polite applause, with a few earning cat calls from their friends and family.

But one graduate, Steve A. Bartlett Jr., received something none of his other classmates did - a standing ovation.

In order to make it to graduation night any student must overcome some obstacles, whether it be a Regents exam, a devastating break-up or maybe even missing a few weeks of school with the flu or a broken bone, but those obstacles all pale in comparison to what Mr. Bartlett, who lives in Winthrop and is the son of Tonya and Steve Bartlett, has had to overcome to make it to where he is today.

His mother explained, “He came down with diabetes in 1998 when he was three and in Head Start. Then he came down with anemia in 2002 and was diagnosed with having low platelet counts in 2001,” she said, adding once Mr. Bartlett reached the second grade his medications and health issues became too much and he became a home-schooled student.

“He was on a lot of steroids, and it was a struggle just to keep his blood levels normal, so he could do any normal activities,” she said.

The litany of health issues facing Mr. Bartlett wasn’t over yet.

“When he was 6, he developed an immune disorder, CVID, but they weren’t sure what it was then,” she said.

It wasn’t until 2007 following a lung biopsy when the official diagnosis was made. Prior to that, Mr. Bartlett has also been diagnosed with a lung disorder and was on oxygen for three years.

“His body was just constantly fighting with itself,” she said.

In 2005, doctors placed Mr. Bartlett on Adasept, a treatment that he continues to receive twice monthly today along with his IGG treatment.

The worst scare for the family though came in 2007 when Mr. Bartlett, who was 11 at the time, went into liver failure and was airlifted from the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse to a children’s hospital in Cincinnati.

“They didn’t think he was going to make it,” Mrs. Bartlett said, adding she can remember receiving a phone call from the hospital in Cincinnati telling her that her son only had six hours to live.

“They called me while Hospice was here with my father,” she said.

That’s a day that Mr. Bartlett said he also remembers well.

“One of the doctors told me when I was in Cincinnati that I was going to die in five hours,” he said. “Imagine hearing that when you’re 11 and your mother isn’t in the room.”

After recovering from that scare, Mr. Bartlett said he can remember doctors telling him he wasn’t going to make it to 16.

“After I healed from that they told me I wouldn’t make it to 16,” he said. “Well, I made it to 16 and got my permit, so that was a pretty big step.”

The next big step, he said was earning his driver’s license, which he has done ,and graduating from high school, which he did last week.

His mother said he made attempts to return to school in the sixth grade and eighth grade, but it wasn’t until the ninth-grade when Mr. Bartlett was able to become a Sandstoner and attend Potsdam High School.

Mr. Bartlett attended classes at the school through November of this year when he once again had to be home schooled, as the result of yet another medical diagnosis.

It was this past fall when Mr. Bartlett began getting violently ill on a regular basis, and doctors again told him that his time might be limited, telling him that his latest illness was all in his head.

“The doctors told me I was making this up and that I didn’t want to live anymore,” Mr. Bartlett said. “My mom started to believe them.”

Throughout his illness, Mr. Bartlett said he was trying to hide it and would always go to the bathroom to get sick, but one day while his family was eating dinner he decided to not hide it anymore, at which point his mother went to the doctors and told them that Mr. Bartlett was not making himself “throw up.”

“The doctors think he might have Crohn’s disease,” Mrs. Bartlett said, adding his weight dropped from 89 down to 49 pounds. She said her son, who is 4’6” has since gained some weight back and is now up to 62 pounds.

Despite missing much of the school year, Mr. Bartlett was able to keep up with his school work by working and studying from home with help and support from the school.

“She really wanted to see me graduate and walk that stage,” Mr. Bartlett said, referring to high school Principal Joann Chambers.

What he did miss though were things like his senior trip, class photo, and senior project presentation, even missing junior prom, which he wasn’t well enough to attend last year.

And while Mr. Bartlett will be taking on-line college courses through Empire State College, where he is planning to major in photography, he is also hoping to create his own senior year memories.

Mr. Bartlett is currently writing a biography that will tell his life story through his eyes and the lens of his camera. That book will serve as his senior project, which he will be presenting at the school next year.

His mother also said he is hoping to go on the senior trip and attend the prom, if district officials will allow it and he is healthy enough to do so.

“He just wants to be a normal kid and do what they do,” Ms. Bartlett said.

When asked what it meant to see him walk across the stage last week, Ms. Bartlett was at a loss for words.

“It was amazing. There are no words that can express what I felt,” she said. “He’s my life, and after hearing the doctors say he wasn’t going to live past 16, it was amazing.”

Mr. Bartlett also has his own photography page on Facebook and is looking to establish himself as a local artist.

When asked what the future has in store for him, Mr. Bartlett said he’s not sure, but he plans to keep on living his life to the fullest.

“Every day is a blessing and the Lord does what he needs to do,” Mr. Bartlett said, adding he would like to one day get married and have a family of his own.

At the same time though, Mr. Bartlett also said he realizes that may not be possible.

“I can’t really be on my own,” he said. “I look like I’m 10.”

His youthful appearance, he said, led many people to congratulate him on graduating from school at such a young age.

“I told them, ‘I’m 19, thanks anyway, but I don’t think they believed me.”

Mr. Bartlett also said he usually gets asked for identification when purchasing lottery tickets, with some cashiers still not believing he’s 19 even after he’s shown them his license.

“I tell them, ‘If I was smart enough to make a fake id, don’t you think I would say I’m 21?’” he said.

When asked if she thought there were lessons that others could learn from her son, Mrs. Bartlett said, “Keep on keeping on and don’t let things get you down. I don’t know how he does it, but if I had all those diseases I would be depressed, but he doesn’t let anything get him down.”

Mr. Bartlett echoed those sentiments, noting he tries to make a positive impact on others whereever he might be.

He recalled one hospital stay, where he met an elderly woman suffering from the flu.

“All she had was the flu, and she wanted to give up,” he recalled, noting he spoke with the woman several times during his hospital stay telling her that there were people who loved her and would miss her.

After getting better, he said, the woman left the hospital with a smile on her face.

“Her son came up to me and thanked me,” Mr. Bartlett recalled. “He said he hadn’t seen her smile in two years.”

Mr. Bartlett admitted to getting emotional on graduation day, but he said he was successfully able to fight back the tears all evening long, even as his classmates gave him a standing ovation and even as Ms. Chambers addressed him (as well as three other classmates) in her graduation address, letting him know that teachers in the high school weren’t the only ones providing lessons over the past four years.

“Your high school careers were fraught with challenges that would have caused many people to just give up,” she said. “But you never did. And you never felt sorry for yourselves or made excuses. From you we have learned to never take our health for granted and to never let our challenges defeat us.”

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