It’s hard to look at Corey Chandler and not wonder what might have been.
Could he have been a life-saving doctor, an inspirational teacher, an inventor or author?
His adoptive mom, Carolyn Stinnett, certainly has daydreamed over the years, but their reality is very different. Chandler, who turns 21 in July, is wheelchair bound, fed through a tube and nonverbal — all the result of someone’s 10 seconds of violence.
Chandler was just 1 month old when he was violently shaken. It would be at least 24 hours before he was taken to the hospital for treatment; by that time, the damage was substantial and permanent.
“During that first 24 hours after the injury, his brain was swelling,” Stinnett said. “When it gets to the point that it can’t swell anymore because his little head is so small, brain tissue just shears off. It is gone forever.”
The result is Chandler has been forever stuck at 6 months old, his mom said.
According to the National Center on shaken baby sydrome, there are 1,300 reported cases of shaken baby syndrome annually in the United States. About 25% of victims die, while 80% of those who survive have lifelong disabilities.
Corey’s story is known in Blount County and beyond, with media outlets reporting on the tragedy when it happened. Corey’s biological father, David Chandler, served time in prison for what he did to the infant, and later died after serving his sentence and being released. His biological mom, Dawn Michelle Cunningham Chandler, remains in Blount County and has remarried. She served 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to failure to protect a minor from abuse.
No good outcomes
Tom Schlitt, pediatric physical therapist at Blount Memorial Hospital, has seen 15 to 20 cases of shaken baby syndrome over his 29 years in the field. Many are similar to Corey’s.
“The perpetrators are generally young males,” Schlitt said, “in their teens to early 20s. They lose their temper and have no way of venting so they take it out on a defenseless child.”
It is true that early intervention and treatment offer the best outcomes. But as Schlitt explained, violent brain injuries result in orthopedic and neurological issues that can’t be reversed.
“In some cases, the victim is thrown against a wall,” Schlitt said. “The brain shifts from one side of the skull to the other. Blood vessels are torn.”
That type of injury where the brain shifts is called a contrecoup, Schlitt said. And as both Stinnett and Schlitt pointed out, shaken baby syndrome is totally avoidable.
“It’s not like a congenital heart problem or being born with Down syndrome,” Schlitt said. “This can be avoided.”
It occurs because infants are the defenseless victims of shaken baby syndrome, Schlitt said. When older children are abused, their injuries often include broken arms or other bones, he said.
A part of the community
Those who attend Special Olympics here have seen Corey over the years. Just a week or two ago, he participated in the spring sports and received an award. The Colin Award is presented each year to a Special Olympian who stands out in the hearts and minds of others. It was established as a tribute and in remembrance of several Special Olympics athletes and presented by the David and Jan Bemis family in honor of their son, Colin Bemis.
It’s been important to his mom that Corey have experiences like other children. He’s been to 41 states, visited Mount Rushmore and Disney World. Stinnett also has taken him to conferences over the years where she shares his story. The tragedy that happened to Corey was avoidable if only his abuser had exercised some patience and walked away. That’s a teaching moment, she said.
So Stinnett loads him up in her car and off they go, with the wheelchair and other equipment and his medications. She tells his story on stage first and then brings Corey out to meet the crowd.
Not to put him on display or for shock value, this mom explained. It’s to show how this can happen to a child who otherwise has the right to grow up as happy and normal as we are, she said. To show that this can happen.
When people see photographs of Corey, he doesn’t look that much different. And when they see him, some people think he must have been born with his condition. Stinnett clears up any misconceptions.
“There was nothing that was physically wrong with him but in one short month, that all changed forever,” Stinnett said.
“I push him out front and center so when people ask about him I can say ‘He is a survivor of shaken baby syndrome,’” Stinnett said. “We haven’t taken him anywhere that we don’t share his story. If it saves one child from going through this, it’s worth it.”
A decline in health
In the past two years, Corey’s health had declined substantially. He suffered from pneumonia back in 2017 and then again in January 2019. In February, he contracted the viral infection once more along with the flu. He now has been diagnosed with chronic lung disease and previously was diagnosed with cerebral palsy because of his brain injury. Seizures are his norm. Sleep apnea also has developed.
The list of conditions in his medical records also include hip dysplasia, scoliosis, osteoporosis and cortical blindness. He has the use of only his left arm.
While Corey can attend school until he is 22, Stinnett said she is letting him graduate this year because of his setbacks. “I want that memory of him being able to do that,” she said. He attends William Blount but hasn’t physically attended since last December.
Because Corey is a child on TennCare, Stinnett is able to receive 84 hours of health care per week. But in July when he turns 21, that will end. The hours will be reduced to about 30 per week. Corey also will have to get all new doctors because children’s specialists will no longer be available to him. Stinnett said this is a source of much stress and grief.
Corey’s doctors all have treated him his whole life, she said. They know him. They know his tendencies. Complete strangers soon will be in control of his care, his mother said.
However, if she were to put him into a facility, some of her benefits would remain, but Stinnett said she knows Coery gets the best care with her.
Stinnett teaches part time at Pellissippi State Community College. She said it’s sometimes unbelievable that Corey is the same age as her students. She sees how different their lives are.
“They are able to sit in my class and they are able to write an essay,” she said. “And drive cars. When you get to this point in your child’s life, you are thinking about college and where they want to go, what they are going to be. And with something that took less than 10 seconds, all of that was wiped out. You are now looking at the loss of all that potential. Who knows what he could have become?”