Ashton Barrick loves watching Nickelodeon, hates school and gets so absorbed in his video games that his mother, Jennifer Barrick, must occasionally repeat a command.
Despite those habits, typical ones for a 7-year-old boy, Ashton stands out.
He strings together long, flowing sentences with vocabulary more likely found on the SATs than from the mouth of an elementary school student.
The right leg of most of his pants has a long slit, from which protrudes a metal and plastic brace that runs from his hip to his ankle.
The brace is held in place by six pins that penetrate his leg. The biggest pin made a hole as big as a silver dollar, his mother said.
So sensitive is Ashton's right leg that a single move in the wrong direction elicits screams.
Diagnosing the problem
Nearly a year ago, Ashton, then 6, finished playing in a moon bounce and began walking with a limp.
Doctors gave Ashton an initial diagnosis of a pulled muscle. But the limp persisted for several weeks.
"We took him to the doctor again, and they do the stretches with him," Jennifer Barrick said of the basic exercises the doctor had her son do.
"When he jumped, (the doctor) didn't like how he was jumping with the stretches, so she sent us for X-rays," she said. "And that's when they noticed he had this disease."
The follow-up examination showed he had Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, Barrick said.
Legg-Calve-Perthes disease prevents the ball of the thighbone in the hip from getting enough blood, which causes the bone to die, according to the website of the National Institutes of Health.
According to the website of the National Osteonecrosis Foundation, the disease affects one in 1,200 children with boys three times more likely than girls to contract the disease.
The disease typically occurs in children between the ages of 4 and 10. Those diagnosed before the age of 6 and treated are more likely to have a "normal hip joint," according to the NIH website.
Ashton's mother called her son's age when doctors diagnosed his condition a "gray area."
But the impact on his life has been significant.
The disease has left Ashton unable to participate in neighborhood events such as a recent Easter Egg hunt.
After a single scrimmage he had to give up soccer, which his 17-year-old sister, Siera, played as a freshman and sophomore at Catonsville High School.
Ashton can't even join his first-grade classmates at Arbutus Elementary School. A tutor provided by Baltimore County Public Schools last week ensures he doesn't fall too far behind, his mother said.
Since Ashton's last day of school on Feb. 17, he's occupied his recovery time with TV, video games and Legos.
He proudly displayed a 500-piece scene that he constructed. The scene features burning trees and a plane that can drop plastic water bombs to douse the fire.
"It keeps my smartness, so it doesn't run away, like comes out my ear and goes away," he joked about why he likes Legos. "I keep wanting to build Legos so I stay smarter and mainly keep getting smarter."
A not so quick fix
Ashton underwent a 2.5-hour surgery on Feb. 21 during which doctors took his thighbone out of his hip socket and reinserted it, his mother said.
Doctors then injected stem cells from his healthy hip into the diseased hip to stimulate bone growth.
"When the bone starts to grow back, it'll grow back the best shape it can," Jennifer Barrick said. "It's never going to be exactly like it was, but they put it back to where it can grow back essentially the best way it can."
In about three months, the brace on his leg will be removed, replaced by another that
goes over each leg. The device often has a bar connecting the braces in the middle, Jennifer Barrick said.
He will wear that 24 hours a day for two months, and then only at night for two more months, she said.
She said she is hopeful of a full recovery, but cautious.
"It'll never be exactly the same as the other," she said. "But hopefully, it'll be to the point where, hopefully, he can do nominal activities."
Dressed in an Amp energy drink T-shirt and pajama pants with a skull and crossbones pattern, Ashton reclined on a couch last Wednesday afternoon.
When he decided to stand and stretch his leg out, his mother needed to assist him with the simple task because the brace that runs the length of his leg doesn't allow for much mobility.
Ashton used a rolling walker as he paced the length of his living room a couple of times.
Because the brace protrudes about six inches from his leg in certain areas, Jennifer Barrick had to slit the side of each pair of Ashton's pants.
It's things like the slits that Jennifer Barrick wasn't prepared for when she first learned of Ashton's disease, she said.
"You would have never thought that he would need as much help as he did," Jennifer Barrick said. "How do I get him in the house? How do I get him out of the house?"
Her father, William Fitez, of Arbutus, helped answer those questions. He built a ramp outside the back door, removed the door to Ashton's bedroom to accommodate his wheelchair and even moved his car-shaped bed to the garage, Jennifer Barrick said.
Despite the daily pain and the changes the disease had made in his life, Ashton barely hesitated when asked what the worst part has been: Rehabilitation.
Down from five times a week only a weeks ago to three per week now, Ashton goes through an excruciating 60-minute session of stretching with therapists pushing his hip down to straighten it out, he said.
"They do tons of stretches for my hip and knee so I get my range of motion back," Ashton said. "I'm like screaming to death."
Trapped in the house
It took Jennifer Barrick weeks to learn how to move his leg just right, she said.
"At the beginning, and even times now, it was like no matter what I did, touched him, moved him, it seemed like it was the wrong thing," she said. "I'd always end up having him crying or in tears."
Because Ashton requires constant care, Jennifer Barrick — who formerly worked in accounts receivable, administrative positions and as a hair dresser — can't take a job.
The 41-year-old single parent now finds herself several months behind on her mortgage and receiving intent-to-foreclose notices, she said.
"I feel like I've been trapped in my house for a month and a half," Jennifer Barrick said. "I grew up in this house. This is the only house I've ever lived in all my life. To lose it would be really upsetting to me."
To help cover her bills and other living expenses, her friend Julie Eveland has helped organize an April 22 fundraiser, 1-6 p.m. at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department
The department has donated the use of its hall at 5200 Southwestern Boulevard and Eveland, the president of For Real Meals, will cater the island-themed event.
"The child requires 24-7 care by his mother," said Eveland, of Catonsville. "There are certain things that nobody but the mother can do. Anything that's personal or private, his mother has to help him with."
Tickets for the event, which will feature sweet and sour chicken, teriyaki beef, coconut shrimp, cilantro rice, stir fry, dessert, coffee, beer and wine, as well as money wheels and raffles, are $30. Cost for a table of eight is $200.
"What I'm hopeful for this dance is to help Jen and her family get over this few-month hump where she cannot work," Eveland said.
For tickets, call Eveland at 443-341-6451.To make a donation, send checks payable to "Friends of Ashton" c/o Carrollton Bank, 1070 Maiden Choice Lane, Baltimore, MD 21229.