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A Boy AND HIS Bot
GARY SMITH
August 01, 2011
LYNDON BATY WANTS TO BE A GREAT SPORTSCASTER, BUT HOW CAN HE DO THAT WITH A RAVAGED IMMUNE SYSTEM THAT MAKES IT TOO DANGEROUS FOR HIM EVEN TO GO TO SCHOOL? ENTER, A ROBOT
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August 01, 2011

A Boy And His Bot

LYNDON BATY WANTS TO BE A GREAT SPORTSCASTER, BUT HOW CAN HE DO THAT WITH A RAVAGED IMMUNE SYSTEM THAT MAKES IT TOO DANGEROUS FOR HIM EVEN TO GO TO SCHOOL? ENTER, A ROBOT

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The bell rang. Striding straight toward the robot, as it motored toward math class, was Zaaaaak-eryyyyy Yorrrrrk, best athlete in the whole school, the soon-to-graduate shortstop who'd given the thumbs-up to those long, loud and controversial introductions that Lyndon howled over the P.A. system each time a Greyhound stepped to the plate.

"Hey, Zak, how's it going?"

"Good, Lyndon."

The bot stopped, arrested by something in the glass of the Greyhounds' trophy case. Through thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables and copper wires, through modems and wireless routers and servers and LCD screens, through a webcam at one end and a robot's camera lens aimed at a high school trophy case at the other ... a 15-year-old boy gazed at his own reflection.

That's me: 3'11". White. Very white. Verrrrry spindly.

No, that's the robot.

O.K., then, that's me: the blond, bespectacled head and upper body appearing on the robot's TV monitor and reflecting off the glass. Almost as pale as his surrogate, almost as spindly. From Knox City, Texas, standing 4' 11", weighing 84 pounds ... Lyndonnnnn Baaaaattttyyyyy! He smiled. Ever since a UPS truck had rumbled across the vast scrubland of northern Texas late last December and dropped off a big cardboard box, the best Christmas present ever, Lyndon had liked himself again, begun dreaming once more of fulfilling his life goal of becoming ... well, here's his list, in order of preference: 1) ESPN'S NBA analyst, 2) a SportsCenter host, 3) a big league P.A. announcer or, but only if all else fails, 4) a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer. He liked himself again even with those three vexing baby teeth that still flashed when he grinned, an odd side effect of the medication for the disease that should have killed him long ago.

PKD, the docs called it—polycystic kidney disease—and Lyndon had the most devastating form of it, the one that appears at birth. He was born six weeks premature, barely breathing, with a hole in his heart, a stomach the size of a quarter, deadly high blood pressure, two pounds of fluid in his torso and two kidneys that were full of cysts, three times normal size and unable to clear protein from his bloodstream. Average life span for PKD babies back then: 14 days to two years. "None of us thought he'd make it that far," admits neonatologist James Marshall. But none of them had a mother quite like Sheri Baty.

She'd taught business and been a financial-aid counselor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, but now, at age 26, her career became Lyndon Baty. White-knuckling over platelet and creatinine counts, pacing to and from a crib in a bedroom that looked like an ICU unit, falling asleep with books in her lap on proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Jolting awake every two hours to make sure the tubes from the oxygen tank were still in Lyndon's nostrils, the tube from the food pump was still in his throat, the belt to his apnea monitor hadn't wriggled off his waist, the cuff to his blood-pressure machine hadn't slipped off his wrist. Dropping back into bed, brain ticking with hematocrit and hemoglobin levels, terrified of missing the trouble indicator or making the mistake with his medicine that would kill her firstborn. Slipping back into her recurring dream that the 70 miles of macadam to Abilene somehow never ended, never got her to the pharmacy to buy the five blood-pressure drugs her son needed to live. Waking up in a cold sweat to make sure he was still breathing, to weigh his food for intake and diapers for output, to syringe into his throat the 5-cc maximum of milk formula that his stomach could handle, to change the fluid on the home dialysis machine that filtered his bloodstream for 10 to 18 hours a day, to set timers all over the house so she wouldn't forget the next three things that she had to do to get him from today to tomorrow. Her husband, Louis, needed eight to 10 Dr Peppers a day to make it from one sleep-ravaged night to the next in his new job as local school superintendent. Sheri did it on the caffeine of stress.

The pipsqueak made it, somehow, to 18 months. He couldn't walk; his swollen abdomen made him wobble and crash, and his frail bones snapped like pencils. He couldn't talk; perhaps it was because of those three times he'd stopped breathing and lost oxygen to his brain, or maybe because what it took to stay alive simply left no energy for consonants and vowels.

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