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Dimock family wraps arms around boy with multiple health problems

Louis Susan is pictured here in his home in Dimock. Susan suffers from several health conditions, including cerebral palsy and a severe seizure disorder. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

DIMOCK -- Doctors said Louis Susan wouldn't live past his 8th birthday. But the adopted son of Jim and Diane Susan recently celebrated his 18th birthday with his biological mother, a request granted through Make-A-Wish.

"He's far outlived his life expectancy," Diane said. Diane said Louis' brain didn't receive enough oxygen when he was a baby, which left him with a host of disabilities to deal with: cerebral palsy, blindness, a severe seizure disorder and pulmonary (breathing) difficulties, making it necessary for him to breath through a tracheostomy tube. Louis also must be fed through tubes, because Diane said he can't swallow solids.

Louis can't communicate the way most people do -- he can't speak at all -- but Jim and Diane said they've developed a "sixth sense," and have learned how to gauge his moods and needs.

"Over a period of time, you just kind of learn," Diane said. "You learn to hear."

Medical technology helps. Things like pulse-oximeters, feeding tubes and trach tubes are a daily part of the Susans' lives. But Diane said watching Louis, listening to his breathing, keeping an eye on his facial expressions, noticing if he's tense -- those are often their biggest clues.

"Like right now, he's very relaxed," Jim said, smiling toward his son.

Despite having every reason to fuss or frown, on the contrary, Louis sits quietly, listening to the sounds of his parents' voices. His eyes dart back and forth, and a smile plays across his face when he hears his family members laugh.

Diane said he likes to have his head massaged, and responds to physical touch.

"I really feel he does know that, that he is loved," Diane said, watching her son's face.

Doctors have worked diligently to curb the seizures that afflict Louis, and the South Dakota climate seems to have alleviated some of the respiratory woes that affected him in their former home in Pennsylvania, which they called "sinus valley."

"He's seen some pretty hard days, though," she said.

'Never spoken a word'

Louis is one of 11 foster children the Susans have taken in. Of those 11, the couple has adopted five, in addition to the four biological children they have.

When the whole family is home, Diane said Louis seems to relish the noise.

"We're not a quiet family," she said with a laugh.

Louis is no exception. He can't speak, but that doesn't stop him from making noise.

"He's never spoken a word in his life, but he's not quiet " Diane said. "Sometimes it will about knock you out of your chair, because you just don't expect it."

They said Louis seems to share a special connection with one of his brothers, smiling and laughing at his antics -- sometimes even when he shouldn't.

"I'll say, 'Louis, you're not supposed to be laughing at him. He's being bad,' " Jim said chuckling.

Music, Diane said, is another of Louis' pleasures in life. Along with his birthday party, Make-A-Wish gifted the young man with some CDs and a "boom box" of his very own.

'Won my heart'

Though limited in the kind of activities he can pursue, Louis attends Parkston High School. He is accompanied by a nurse and sits in on various classes. And, just like most students, he seems to have a favorite teacher.

"The school where he goes has been wonderful," Diane said. "In general, I think people are accepting, and if they're not, I think it's because they don't know how to respond."

Diane admits that taking care of Louis limits some of her activities, as well.

"You don't go out to eat; you just stay home," she said. "But that's OK. We like home."

It's not only for her family's convenience, though. Diane said she doesn't want to make other people, people who might not be used to seeing someone breathe through a trach or be fed through a tube, uncomfortable.

"For his good, for the comfort of others ... it really makes you homebound a lot," she said.

She's always had a heart for the "less fortunate," she said. In school, she remembers when handicapped kids would get made fun of by her peers.

"Oh, it made me so mad," she said.

And while Jim and Diane first took in Louis when he was just three weeks old, before all of his challenges came to light, they said it didn't matter.

"He kind of won my heart," Diane said. "We didn't know what all his needs were going to be, but he's part of our family."

'Quite a journey'

Initially, the Susans heard about the idea of taking in foster children through friends from church where they lived in Pennsylvania. When they got started, they did not see adoption in their future.

"It was actually something we never planned on, but the Lord worked it out that way," Jim said. "It's been quite a journey."

In 1996, the 3-year-old boy they had been caring for since he was an infant was put up for adoption. Jim said that was the first time he considered it, "if they don't find a home for him." It also was important, he said, that the entire family be in support of it. "I said, 'the family is going to have to give a unanimous vote,' " he said. So Jim held a family meeting, and everyone voted yes. That was their first adoption. "And then we just went on and added," Diane said with a laugh.


The Susans had kept in touch with Louis' biological mother, who they preferred not to name, as they said they often do with foster children's parents.

"The mothers and families of the children just become like extended family," Diane said.

When the family moved to South Dakota in 2006, Diane said that essentially cut most of the connection Louis could have with his biological mother.

That's why, when Make-A-Wish contacted the Susans to see if Louis might have a wish, Diane and Jim wished their son "could hear his mother's voice again."

As Louis' 18th birthday approached, they worked it out so his mother could visit in time for that event.

"That's what kind of precipitated this whole matter," Diane said.

Make-A-Wish brought Louis' mother to South Dakota, and she stayed with the Susans for about a week. She was able to sleep next to Louis' room and attend to his needs during the day and night.

"His mother really enjoyed it," Jim said. Diane agreed, saying it was good for the whole family. "The wish was his, but it was for everybody," she said. The wish also included a birthday party at Pizza Ranch, which Make-A-Wish volunteers helped organize and decorate. "I can't say enough good about Make-A-Wish," Diane said. "It is a blessing to families."