Ed Grisamore

Graduation day comes for ‘Nate the Great’

Nate Stinehelfer didn’t let spina bifida keep him from graduating from Houston County High School.
Nate Stinehelfer didn’t let spina bifida keep him from graduating from Houston County High School.

It was raining the afternoon I met Nate Stinehelfer.

It had rained the day before. It rained the day after … and the day after that.

Gully-washers. Tornado watches. Flash flood warnings. An ocean of umbrellas and a sea of sidewalk puddles.

But even after the storm clouds cleared, Nate had his own forecast for Friday night’s graduation exercises for Houston County High School.

Bring the rain gear to Miller-Murphy-Howard Building at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry.

There was a 100 percent chance of precipitation.

“My mom is going to burst out in tears,” Nate said.

Anyone who knows the young man they call “Nate the Great” will understand if MaLisa Stinehelfer and her husband, Wes, are voted “most likely to get emotional at a high school graduation this year.”

There were 428 students in Houston County High’s senior class. Alphabetically, Nate was No. 362 in line, so “Nate the Great” had to endure “Nate the Wait.”

He did not walk across the stage to receive his diploma, like most of his classmates. Nate was born with spina bifida. He is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down.

When he was an infant, his parents were told he probably would not live to see the inside of a first-grade classroom. Twice, when he was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the doctor braced them for the possibility Nate would not make it through the night.

There could have been a funeral instead of a graduation.

But those three words mean something.

Nate the Great.

“He’s a fighter,” Wes said.

Every graduating class has its stories in the fine print of every diploma and folded in the margins of pomp and circumstance. There are students who overcome great obstacles to reach commencement day — illnesses, injuries, economic hardships and family struggles.

This is Nate’s story, which was supposed to end almost as soon as it began.

A miracle? This summer, he will celebrate his 20th birthday.

“When Nate was younger, his health was so precarious we were hesitant to think too far in the future for any goals, including middle school, let alone high school,” said MaLisa.

The Stinehelfers have five children. Three of them, including Nate, are adopted. Wes and MaLisa moved to Middle Georgia from Ohio, arriving in Warner Robins on the Fourth of July in 1996 to begin their house-hunting.

One year and one month later — Aug. 4, 1997 — Nate was born at the Medical Center in Macon. They adopted him when he was 6 weeks old. He had spina bifida and hydrocephalus (water on the brain).

Aug. 4 already was a special day for the Stinehelfers, whose ancestors came to America from Germany on Aug. 4, 1827.

Wes works for Northrop-Grumman. MaLisa is a registered nurse. They have been Nate’s caregivers for Nate for much of the past two decades.

According to his mom, Nate “spent most of his childhood” as a patient at the Children’s Hospital in Macon. As a youngster, he made television appearances on the Children’s Miracle Network Telethons.

“The doctors and nurses (at the Children’s Hospital) were — and many still are — an extension of our family,” said MaLisa. “Nate raced the nurses and CNAs (certified nursing assistants) through the hallways of the hospital in wheelchairs, flirted with the Child Life specialists and charmed the residents.”

During one of his extended stays, he was befriended by an older patient named Austin Childers, whose story is familiar to many readers. Austin, who battled mitochondrial disorder for more than half his life, died in 2014. He was 23.

Several years ago, Austin spoke to students in an assembly at his alma mater, First Presbyterian Day School. In his speech, he mentioned that Nate was an inspiration to him.

Nate’s family was touched by Austin’s gesture. It lifted their spirits. It spoke volumes of their son’s determination and was an affirmation that inside the tiny body of Nate the Great was a heart the size of Bonaire.

“It would have been easy for him to say. ‘I have all these things wrong with me. I just give up,’ ” said Wes. “But he has never been like that. He has never complained about any of his ailments or being in pain. He has always had a good attitude.”

The Stinehelfers learned to cherish even the smallest of victories along the way. Still, the reality of the situation hovered over them like dark clouds.

“Our family took one day at a time, never planning vacations, birthday parties or trips too far into the future because Nate was sure to return to the hospital,” said MaLisa.

With time, Nate’s health improved.

“We were suddenly looking at high school and all that goes with it, such as proms and pep rallies,” said MaLisa. “The child we never thought would make it is graduating from high school.

“The years of poor health and struggling to have a ‘typical’ childhood will be worth it because he is going to be able to do what every ‘typical’ youth his age is doing. For that period of time, he will be just like every other HoCo senior. We are very proud of him. He is an inspiration to those around him not to give up.”

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.

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