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Brian Surratt loved to laugh at cartoons, eat pizza and sing — until COVID-19 silenced him forever

As her son grew older, Irma Chamberlain learned to modify her expectations for him. “I realized that with all the help and all the stuff I did that Brian was still going to be Brian, no matter what,” she said. Brian being Brian had its joys and its challenges.

Brian Surratt, 34, who was born with Fragile X syndrome, died Nov. 5 from COVID-19.
Brian Surratt, 34, who was born with Fragile X syndrome, died Nov. 5 from COVID-19.
Provided

Brian Surratt loved singing along with his favorite musical artists, especially Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and Jody Watley.

He’d listen to their recordings over and over again until he not only knew all the lyrics but also could match the singer’s delivery.

“He would sing it so perfectly. You’d be like, where does he get this?” said his sister, Char Surratt.

“Brian smart,” he’d say proudly.

Surratt, a 34-year-old man born with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability, died Nov. 5 at Stroger Hospital from complications of COVID-19.

Surratt lived in Englewood with his mother, Irma Chamberlain, who devoted her life to keeping him safe, a task made all the more difficult this year by the coronavirus.

The deadly virus has proven particularly lethal to individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, many of whom like Surratt have underlying health problems and lack the capacity to appreciate its dangers.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us, of course, but rather then belabor the point, let me just tell you about Brian Surratt.

His mother held a good job at a bank when he was born, but she soon gave it up to devote full-time to his care.

Chamberlain, now 71, said she started her son in treatment programs when he was just 10 months old.

“I made sure Brian went to school. I got him in therapy. I got him child development. I put him in classes,” she said.

Chamberlain also enrolled her son in a Fragile X research program at the University of Chicago and switched over when the doctor in charge moved to Rush.

“I was always on the move with Brian,” she said.

As her son grew older, Chamberlain learned to modify her expectations for him.

“I realized that with all the help and all the stuff I did that Brian was still going to be Brian, no matter what,” she said.

Brian Surratt.
Brian Surratt.
Provided photo.

Brian being Brian had its joys and its challenges.

“When he was good, he was great. You’d be shocked at what came out of his mouth,” Chamberlain said.

In addition to his music, he liked anything that made him laugh, whether that was Barney or Popeye cartoons or his friends at the Envision United Mock Center, the adult day program he attended in the nearby Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

Surratt loved pizza and fried shrimp and would never let his mother take him home from an outing without buying him something.

He was better off than many others with developmental disabilities because he could walk, talk, feed and dress himself.

But “there was a gap in his ability to express himself verbally,” his sister said.

He could recognize and read some words, but not an entire sentence.

“He definitely could not be left alone,” Char Surratt said. “He didn’t necessarily recognize danger. He was not able to cross a street by himself.

The coronavirus made life even more difficult for Brian Surratt.

Normally, he spent three days a week in the Mock Center’s day program, where he was known as an enthusiastic participant in the group’s activities.

But that came to an end in March when the state temporarily closed such facilities because of the pandemic. When the center reopened in August, Chamberlain decided it would be safer to keep him home.

The interruption of his routine was difficult for Surratt, who missed his friends and didn’t understand what was happening.

Then on Oct. 3, a home care support worker took Surratt for a rare outing without his mother to give her a break. They visited a barbershop and a KFC.

It was about a week later when Surratt began showing symptoms, although his mother just thought he was coming down with a cold. When he became increasingly lethargic, she took him to the doctor.

He’d been in the hospital about two weeks before he died. He was not allowed visitors, which pained his family.

“He had to be very frightened and confused,” said his sister, who was finally able to win permission for Chamberlain to see him.

It was a short visit. She spoke her son’s name, and he opened one eye. A few hours after leaving the hospital, she got a call from the doctors to tell her he was dead.

“That was the hardest thing that I ever heard,” Chamberlain said.

The Cook County Medical Examiner listed Surratt’s diabetes and high blood pressure as possible contributing factors to his death.

The family started a GoFundMe page to try to raise $8,000 toward the costs of the burial.

Some people tell me they would rather not read about the lives lost to COVID-19.

Too bad for them.