BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Keira Cromwell comes in a tiny 10-year-old package, wrapped up in shiny black hair, big dark eyes and a smile that blings. Inside, there’s a dynamo who isn’t impeded much by the braces on her legs, or fingers that don’t work so well sometimes.
“I do OK, but I need a wheelchair for long distances,” she said, sitting across from her mom, Heather, and grandmother, Monica. The three live together in O’Fallon, and as Heather said, “take care of each other.” Keira has polio.
Keira contracted polio in Vietnam, where Heather adopted her when she was 5 months old.
Unable to have children, Heather started thinking about adopting more than a decade ago, when she was 29 and single.
She had to wait until she was 30 to adopt because of an age requirement, she said. With paperwork complete and headed to Vietnam, Heather thought she would be taking home a healthy baby.
“The day we met her, she was super sick. She had a temperature of 104 and she didn’t move the right side of her body,” Heather said. Doctors there thought Keira had suffered a stroke.
It didn’t matter to Heather. “I just knew I wanted her.”
Back in the U.S., Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis began caring for Keira at 13 months. She was diagnosed at 19 months with polio, which has mostly been eradicated from the world.
“There are only two places where polio is still around,” Heather said. “Southeast Asia is one of them.”
Keira lives with a weakness on the right side of her body. Her right lung is paralyzed and her right leg has not kept pace with the growth of the left. It is 2 inches shorter, so she wears a shoe with a special lift. Future surgeries may help grow the bone in that leg.
“They said she would never walk,” Heather said.
For more than 80 years, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis (previously Variety Club) has helped thousands of St. Louis area children with disabilities, providing them with vital medical equipment, as well as educational, therapeutic and recreational programs.
The “Beauty and the Beast” cast consists of 78 professional actors and 48 children and teens. Of those youngsters, 33 are Variety kids working on and behind stage, said Jean Steck, director of communications for Variety. Keira went through several auditions before being chosen to play Chip.
“It’s been really great! All the people are really nice,” she said. “I really love to sing.”
Her mother laughed and shook her head. Keira likes to crank up the music at home and sing, “What Does the Fox Say?”
“I think it’s pretty amazing she got this part,” said Heather. “She’s never been in a theatrical show before; it’s her very first one.”
During the performances, Keira’s wheelchair will be covered by a custom-made “costume” that makes it look like a fanciful tea cart, with a big cup and saucer sitting on top. That’s Chip: Her head will stick out of the side of the cup.
The role is a perfect fit for Keira. Chip sits in his rolling cart until the very last moments of the fairy tale.
“So, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a wheelchair,” Keira said.
Keira has had multiple surgeries over the years, the most recent in January when she underwent hip surgery.
“The hip was the third back-to-back surgery in two years,” Heather said. That included ACL reconstruction on her knees in 2015. “But, from Day 1, she’s been an outgoing child. No fear.”
She was still recovering and in a wheelchair when she auditioned for the Variety show.
Keira is home-schooled and in fifth grade. Life revolves around lessons, visits to her three doctors and physical and occupational therapy sessions.
“Sometimes it hurts; other times it’s like a massage and it feels so good,” she said, grinning.
Considering hospital stays, surgeries and pain, “She’s got such an upbeat attitude,” Heather said.