This article is a part of the Humans of OHS project, which involves a series of stories
about the faces and perspectives that often go unseen at Oswego High School. All articles were written by students in Ms. Hands’s 21st Century Journalism class. Additional articles in the series will be posted here.
VACTERL association—a condition characterized by a variety of birth defects—affects fewer than 1 percent of newborn children. When it does occur, doctors don’t know what causes it or how to cure it—only how to manage it. One of those people managing VACTERL association is Billy Gatske, a freshman at Oswego High School.
“When I was born, I was rushed into an ultrasound right away, because I had a potential to have a hole in my heart, and if that were the case, then it’d be emergency surgery,” Billy recalls about his scary beginnings. “I do only have one kidney, and I have minor scoliosis.”
In addition to those birth defects, he also has only one full arm. Some people may have crumbled when dealt these cards, but Billy adapted and thrived.
Billy had to grow up surrounded by “normal” people. He had to create his own normal. “It’s how I was born,” he says. “It’s not like there’s some tragic accident I’m like, ‘why me, how did this have to happen to me?’ No, it’s just life.”
In the game that is life, everyone is dealt a hand of cards. Some are better than others. Billy’s cards weren’t the best. But, he kept his head on straight and played the cards he was dealt, just like any other good card player would. But he as not alone in this game. He, just like many other kids, had his parents in his corner.
“They were scared as crap at first,” Billy remembers about his parents.
“It’s how I was born. It’s not like there’s some tragic accident and I’m like, ‘Why me, how did this happen to me?’ No, it’s just life.”
Jennie and Bill, Billy’s parents, were given as difficult a hand as their son was dealt. They had to figure out how to raise not only their son with all his complications, but also his fraternal twin sister, Emily Gatske.
Billy and his parents share the same ideas on how he should and should have been raised. “I was basically raised like a normal kid,” Billy recollects. “That’s all they wanted. They didn’t want anything different just because of physical appearance.”
Emily remembers not being raised any differently than her brother. They were given the same rules, the same same guidelines, and the same expectations. And “if Mom and Dad didn’t want to do anything, he would still do it anyway,” she remembers.
That rebellious attitude of Billy’s served him well throughout childhood. His sister remembers that even when her brother struggled trying to do anything, he would adjust his approach and “usually a way to figure something out.”
That mindset and relentless attitude wasn’t one that Billy developed on his own. He had the help of his parents.
“My parents taught me well. They taught me not to worry about anything,” Billy says, smiling. “Just I’ve-been-called-worse-things-by-better-people kind of mindset.”
Jennie and Bill were obviously scared when given the task of raising a child with VACTERL association, but the timely release of a certain movie helped ease the anxiety.
“It’s funny,” Billy says as a huge smile runs across his face. “One of the best things that ever happened was the same year [I was born]: the movie came out…back in preschool. Just say was my ‘lucky fin.’”
In Gatske’s and Nemo’s lives alike, they were dealt a rough hand, but with the help of their parents and those around them, they managed to make their own glorious “normal.”