Leigh Dittman always knew that she would achieve her goal of raising $1 million for Shriners Hospitals for Children – she just didn’t know she’d do it by age 15.
The Gaither High School student, who has a disorder known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), said she was motivated to raise the money for Shriners because of how giving it has been to her.
“They are such an amazing group of people, and they’ve given me so much, with my life. It seemed like the right thing to do,” the young woman said during an interview at her Lutz home.
She began raising money for Shriners when she was turning 3. She said she’d rather have friends and family give money to the hospitals, instead of giving her presents.
The first year, she raised $5,000.
It grew from there.
When she was 7, people began asking her: “How far do you want to go? What’s your goal?
“As a 7-year-old, I was like, ‘A million dollars seems like a really big number. Why don’t we shoot for that?’ ”
She expected to meet the goal at some point, but not within eight years, she said.
The money was raised by annual events that initially were tied to her birthday, but later were held separately.
The event was a combined live auction, silent auction and raffle event. People could bid on items or buy raffle tickets for all sorts of prizes, including sports memorabilia, theme park tickets and stays at a cabin in North Carolina.
“We would spend the majority of our summer going to different organizations and different companies, and asking them – seeing if they would like to donate. We met great people who would help us continuously throughout the years,” the 15-year-old said. Now that they’ve hit the million-dollar mark, the family plans to take a year off, she said.
The young woman was honored on Dec. 14 at Shriners Hospitals for Children, where the hospital and its Board of Governors swapped the teenager’s bronze fundraising plaque for a gold one, signifying donors who have given at least $1 million, according to a hospital news release.
At that ceremony, Board Chairman Tom Edwards described his first encounter with Leigh when she was 5.
Edwards said he was supposed to carry Leigh through an archway during a program. He recalled her telling him: “Mr. Shriner, be careful. I break easy.”
Leigh’s mother, Ellen, said none of this would have happened had she listened to doctors who advised her to have an abortion.
She knew early in her pregnancy there were problems, she said.
“Shriners Hospitals said they were sure they could fix her legs. And, they put her on a waiting list, not even knowing was going on with her, other than we knew that with her legs there was something major going on,” she said.
Leigh was born, via C-section, with five broken ribs and a broken femur that had already healed.
Since then, she’s had 14 surgeries and about 40 fractures.
But, Leigh refuses to define herself by her OI, commonly called “brittle bone disease.”
“I know some people have the same condition, who have made it their entire life. That’s all their life is,” she said.
This is how she defines herself: “I’m a sophomore. I’m an older sister. I’m a violinist. I’m a straight-A student. It’s the afterthought of, ‘And, oh, I have OI,” Leigh said.
Her disorder makes her bones weak.
“That’s why I’m shorter than average. That’s why I break so easily. That’s why I us a wheelchair as my main mode of transportation,” she said.
When people see her in her wheelchair, they often mistakenly assume she has a mental condition, she said.
“I have a lot of people that will start talking to me and speaking to me in a different tone of voice, and speak to me like I’m at a lower maturity level than what I am. I’ll have people come up and talk to me like (I am) a 2-year-old and ask me how I’m doing,” she said.
Once she responds, she said, they realize they’re mistaken.
She has a positive attitude and optimistic outlook, but said she has experienced darker times.
Seventh-grade year was particularly difficult. She had four surgeries, two broken legs, a broken collarbone and a scar infection.
“So, I did, for a little while, go: “Why God, why me? Why did you do this?’
“And then, I realized, it was so I could tell people my story, so I could show, yeah, life’s not always rainbows and butterflies, but you get through it. You’ll be OK.”
She wants to use what she’s been through to help others.
“I want to go into nursing,” she said, adding she’s known that since she was 7.
“Maybe I’ll have that kid that just had spinal fusion,” she said.
She’ll be able to tell that child: “You’re going to be OK, and you’re going to get through this and do whatever you want in life. It’s not going to stop you, because guess what, I did the same thing. I had the exact same story as you. I’m here. I’ve made it. You can do it.’ ”
About Osteogenesis Imperfecta
Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) is a genetic bone disorder characterized by fragile bones that break easily. It is also known as “brittle bone disease.”
A person is born with this disorder and is affected throughout his or her lifetime.
The disorder is caused by a mutation (change) in a gene that affects bone formation, bone strength and the structure of other tissues.
OI occurs equally among males and females and in all racial groups. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S. have OI. With good medical management and supportive care, the majority of people who have OI will lead healthy, productive lives and can expect an average life span.
- Source: Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation (OIF.org)
Published December 23, 2015