By Ted Buss
Thursday, June 7, 2012

Part One: The Sheri and Dubby Speegle family

When the ball is teed up Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, the Oil Bowl football game featuring high school stars from Oklahoma and Texas will officially become 75 years old.

The outcome matters to fans, players and coaches. To families like Sheri and Dubby Speegle and Beverly and Brandon Byas, the long-running contest filled with moments of greatness by gifted young athletes is the springboard to all they hold dear.

At 75, the Oil Bowl is the oldest all-star game of its kind in the nation. The dollars it produces go into the Shrine International system that treats thousands of children each year with serious birth defects and life-threatening burns and illnesses.

Athletic encounters come and go, and final scores and long touchdown runs pale in comparison to what the Maskat Shrine game actually represents.

Just ask Beverly Byas or Sheri Speegle — mothers who have never met but share the same unwavering gratitude and admiration for the dedicated doctors, nurses and volunteers at Shriners Children Hospitals in Chicago and Shreveport, La. In all, there are 22 Shriners Hospitals nationwide, and each provides unparalleled care in specific areas of critical child health adversity.

The Speegle family adopted infant twins Elizabeth and Sarah 13 years ago while living in San Diego. Both girls were soon diagnosed with cerebral palsy — Elizabeth being the more critically affected. CP is usually a birth disorder that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. It can lead to other health issues like brain damage, vision and hearing, speech problems, learning disabilities, urinary incontinence and seizures.

Sheri and Dubby took the girls to hospitals in California and Oklahoma after they moved to Wichita Falls, however, little progress was made. Later, in separate recommendations, the family was urged to contact Dr. Philip Gates at Shriners in Shreveport, a hospital that specializes in cerebral palsy.

“I found him online and sat down and wrote Dr. Gates a letter about Elizabeth and Sarah,” Sheri said. “He contacted me and told me to come and see him. Among the first things he wanted to know was the level of commitment we had as parents. He explained the end result could be positive, but the process would be long, and it would test our and our children’s patience and determination.”

First, the girls were diagnosed as individuals, not as one. Elizabeth has had countless surgeries. She once had 11 surgeries in one because Gates and his team did not endorse a piecemeal approach. Everything that pertained to a specific area was done at one time. Recuperation and rehabilitation of ankles, toes, hamstrings, hips and bone graphs are extremely painful, but recovery is inclusive rather than spread out.

“We started when the girls were very young,” Sheri said. “We learned that the earlier you begin helping children like Elizabeth and Sarah, their chances for a good quality of life are far greater. Many kids are committed to wheelchairs because it is the easy thing to do. Elizabeth does not want to be in a wheelchair, and now (at age 13) she is learning to stand and walk. Sarah has learned to run.”

All the trips to Shreveport, the countless surgeries and hours of stretching and exercising tender muscles once they returned home have not dented the Speegle’s determination to conquer this overwhelming challenge. Neither have Sheri or her husband felt sorry for themselves, cheated or bitter.

“We do have someone to blame,” Sheri said. “We blame the birth parents. I’ll leave it at that. No way, though, do we feel cheated. God placed these children in our hands for a reason, and we thank God for them and for Dr. Gates and the the wonderful people at Shriners Hospital in Shreveport. They are truly remarkable.”

Part Two: The Beverly and Brandon Byas family

Brianna Byas was born with a syndrome known as orofacial cleft lip and palate. She is now shaping into an outgoing, beautiful young girl. However, the long process and has not been easy for Bri or her parents, Beverly and Brandon Byas.

After several dead ends, escalating medical bills and Beverly’s inability to work, Oil Bowl chairman Gary Hill of the Maskat Shrine got wind of the Byas family’s medical predicament and reached out to Beverly.

Hill and others helped with the paper process that would lead Bri to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago — a sprawling health care facility known for successful handling of cleft lip and palate cases.

“I wasn’t able to work at the time, and Brandon’s insurance had gotten so high we were facing a dead end,” Beverly said. “One hospital in Dallas wanted $2,500 up front before every surgery, and there were to be many. Besides the upfront payment, we didn’t feel we were getting anywhere in Dallas. I went back to work, and this is when Gary Hill contacted us.”

Bri and Beverly began flights and overnight stays in Chicago, all paid for by Shrine charities. There they met a remarkable team of physicians and nurses, and a long journey of surgeries began. Bri’s first surgery was when she reached 21 pounds, and she had five during her first year of life.

The surgeries were painful, and each day Beverly and Brandon would have to hold Bri down and massage her lips and gums. Bri would cry, and so would Beverly and Brandon, but it had to be done or the child would regress.

“This hospital is remarkable,” she said. “They keep us informed every step of the way. Although Bri has already come a long way, our doctors tell us about the challenges we face as she gets older and comes in close contact with kids who don’t know her. They prepare us for each step in Bri’s future.”

Beverly said the Chicago hospital is filled with smiling faces, physicians who take time to answer every question. Every day, carts pass hospital rooms with prizes for child patients and their parents. “It’s unbelievable. We almost need an extra suitcase to carry all the stuff home.

“I guess if I had one wish it would be that everyone in Wichita Falls and towns everywhere could see the role Shriners Hospitals play in a child and a parent’s life. I would say buying a ticket to a football game is significant whether you like football or not. I would say making a donation to Shriners International is an immeasurable act of kindness and importance. Even if you just donate crayons and coloring books, these children have a gratitude you wouldn’t believe.

“Bri now looks forward to her trips to Chicago. She knows she is good hands. I see how she loves her doctors and nurses, and my hope is that one day she will become involved in such missions as this. At this point, I think she will. As a family, we are blessed to be in such good hands. As far as the Maskat Shrine of Wichita Falls, their mission has always been right on target.”