By Neil Hayes
It was heartbreaking to learn that their third child, Christie, had cerebral palsy. Kacie, their fourth and youngest, was walking and talking like a normal toddler. Then she got a cold, lost her balance and could no longer walk or talk, either.
Former Blackhawks defenseman Keith Brown will never forget driving away from a Miami hospital after his two youngest daughters had finally been correctly diagnosed with Leigh’s Disease, a rare inherited neurometabolic disorder that affects the central nervous system.
Keith and his wife, Debbie, were told that those who suffer from this progressive disorder can only expect to live six or seven years.
‘‘I was a little overwhelmed,’’ Brown said. ‘‘We had two of these little girls. How are we going to take care of them? What is their life going to be? What is our life going to be? How long will they live?’’
It was a special Christmas on Thursday at the Brown home in Cumming, Georgia. Oldest daughter Katie recently gave birth to Keith and Debbie’s first grandchild. Friends and family gathered like always, which delights Christie and Kacie, who prefer a house full of people to any gift.
‘‘We look at ourselves and can’t believe they are 24 and 21,’’ Keith said. ‘‘Wow. We never thought they would live this long.’’
Brown played 14 of his 16 NHL seasons in Chicago, where he helped the Hawks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1992 and the semifinals on five other occasions.
He hasn’t made it back to Chicago very often through the years, but when Hawks announcer Pat Foley told him his former team had the four best lines in hockey in 2010 and were destined to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961, he paid closer attention.
He has been watching devotedly ever since.
‘‘We had some super teams in Chicago,’’ he said. ‘‘We had Denis [Savard] and Doug [Wilson] and [Steve] Larmer, but Edmonton was just too good. Watching them win in 2010 was pretty special. I watched every playoff minute. Anybody who was involved with Chicago had a lump in their throat and tear in their eye when they passed that cup to [Jonathan] Toews. They are the class of the NHL, no question.’’
Brown said these Hawks have the potential to be the greatest dynasty since the Oilers, although the Los Angeles Kings could make a similar claim.
‘‘I don’t think you will ever have dynasty like Edmonton,’’ he said. ‘‘They could’ve won 10 cups if they wouldn’t have traded [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mark] Messier. The Blackhawks are the closest to Edmonton. I can see this team winning five or six Cups.’’
Brown ended his career with the Florida Panthers in 1993-94 before going back to school and earning a degree in information technology.
‘‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’’ he said. ‘‘I had one year left on my contract in 1995, and I couldn’t pass my physical because I had three knee surgeries the year before. I was in good shape. I had ridden my bike all offseason. As soon as I stepped on the ice, I knew I was done. My knee blew up like a balloon.’’
He currently works as a network analyst for Alliance Data Systems.
‘‘You’re 40 years old and looking for a job and you have no experience,’’ he said. ‘‘Hockey doesn’t give you a lot of experience in computer work.’’
Caring for Christie and Kacie is a never-ending job. They must be changed, bathed, fed and lifted into and out of their wheelchairs. It’s hard to leave the house. Vacations are virtually impossible.
Keith and Debbie have taken a one-day-at-a-time approach for almost a quarter-century. Their faith buoys them, as does their belief that their two older children have grown up to be more compassionate adults because of their younger sisters.
Witnessing the many other ways Christie and Kacie have impacted others makes Christmas an even more special time.
‘‘They make a difference in lives of others,’’ Brown said. ‘‘We see other people come into their lives, and it changes them. We’ve met a lot of special people, from doctors to the woman that helps us now. They have outlived their life expectancy and have been a blessing in our house.’’
Contact Neil Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or at