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Jim Kenyon: A Mom’s Special Elf

Nick Coombs, who will celebrate his 20th birthday next Tuesday, suffers from an array of disabilities, including autism and epilepsy, that pretty much require a caregiver’s full attention.

Public schools are required to educate young people with disabilities. Not long after a disabled person reaches adulthood, however, families must make other arrangements. In the spring of 2012, Nick was finishing up at Stevens High School in Claremont when Janette and her husband, Alex, had to figure out what was next for their only son.

They could put him in an adult day care center while they were at work, but that didn’t seem quite like the right fit. Nick is less than 41/2 feet tall and weighs 60 pounds. Physically, he appears to be about 10 years old.

When Nick started elementary school he got around in a wheelchair or with a walker.

“We were told he was never going to walk on his own,” said Janette.

When he was eight, Janette received an urgent call from the school.

“Is he OK?” she asked. “Did he have a seizure?”

When Janette reached the school, “Nick was walking around the gym, holding a basketball. There’s no way to explain it. One day, he just started walking.

“It’s been a journey, for sure,” his mother added. “He teaches me not to give up.”

It has been a lesson well learned. Last year, Janette left her job as a customer service representative with a propane company to spend days with Nick. The decision was a bit easier because her husband has a good job with benefits at Hypertherm in Hanover, where he’s a team leader.

After Nick finished high school, Janette looked for ways to keep him engaged in the community. She takes him to Claremont’s new community center, where he helps with cleaning chores.

“He loves to vacuum,” she said. He claps and cheers on the sidelines anytime that his parents or 15-year-old sister Kayleigh are running in a 5K road race.

For months, Janette racked her brain to come up with an activity that would give Nick a sense of purpose and maybe allow her to make a few dollars to pay household bills.

She started a business called the Elf Shelf (http://youvebeenelfed.com/store) that makes and delivers customized gift baskets. After receiving an order (the minimum fee is $50), Janette and Nick head off to stores.

“Pushing a shopping cart is one of Nick’s favorite things to do,” she said.

A Claremont third-grader recently told her parents that she wanted to be “elfed” at school for her birthday. Janette and Nick, wearing the elf hat that his grandmother made him, delivered a basket of goodies to the girl’s classroom.

“Is he really an elf?” a pupil asked.

“No,” Janette replied, with a laugh. “He just likes to make people happy.”

When the bell sounded, signaling the start of recess, kids asked their teacher if they could stay inside to “get to know Nick.”

Janette never tires of telling Nick’s story.

The Coombs were working in Germany when she became pregnant. Prenatal tests showed that her son suffered from a serious case of failure to thrive. Born 10 weeks early, he weighed 2 pounds, 8 ounces.

“He was smaller than a football,” said Janette.

On his first birthday, Nick weighed just eight pounds. After returning from overseas, the Coombs became regulars at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“The doctors didn’t know what to tell us,” said Janette. “They hadn’t seen anyone like Nick before.”

His condition still doesn’t have a name. At DHMC, nine specialists treat him for everything from grand mal seizures to a faulty heart valve. Each night before bed, he receives a shot of a growth hormone that costs $30,000 a year, an expense covered by Medicaid.

Last week, I met Nick and his mom at Putnam’s Colonial Florist in Claremont. The store’s owner, Susan Root, has been one of Janette’s closest friends since childhood.

“Obviously, it’s a struggle, but Janette and her family have overcome a lot,” Root said. “(Janette’s) always been a very positive person.”

“I work at it,” said Janette, who has seen her son’s vocabulary grow from 35 to 100 words since she started spending every day with him.

Sitting on a couch in Root’s floral shop, Nick pulled a new doll out of a plastic bag. Janette pointed at the figure, which is holding a basketball and sporting a big smile.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“Me,” replied Nick, breaking into a wide grin.

The “Nick Doll” is Janette’s new venture. She cleaned houses and sold sandwiches at the farmer’s market in Claremont until she had saved enough money to place an order with Annalee Dolls, a Meredith, N.H., company that manufactures collectible dolls.

The company made 500 Nick dolls, its minimum order, which Janette is selling online and in Upper Valley shops, including Putnam’s Colonial Florist and the Pink Smock at DHMC, for $22.50.

Last Friday, Janette was driving home with Nick, after picking up Kayleigh, a student and athlete at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, when her son suffered a severe seizure. Before Janette could pull over, Nick thrashed his frail body around so much that he broke his femur.

Outside the car, Janette wrapped him in a blanket until medical help arrived. On Saturday, Nick underwent surgery at DHMC to repair the broken bone. He’s scheduled to be released Thursday.

Nick continues to be something of a miracle child. And his mother never stops trying to work miracles.