May 25, 2011

From NEHJ: Daughter with Down syndrome lifts Whitfield

by Adam Kaufman

Trent Whitfield (photo: Courtesy of the Providence Bruins)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The life of a professional athlete is challenging yet exhilarating. Over the course of a season, no matter the number of games, there are countless ups and downs. The constant, however, is the schedule. The concerns over where and when rarely exist — they’re basically a known commodity from Day One.

The life of a parent, though, is unpredictable in every way imaginable. Never mind the where and when. By comparison to the world’s other obstacles, that’s easy. How about the “will he” or “won’t she”? Will he be healthy? Won’t she be just like everyone else?

On Aug. 13, 2007, Providence Bruins forward Trent Whitfield and his wife, Colleen, delivered their second child, a beautiful baby girl named Alstyn. But, the moment she was born, they knew something was different. She was different.

Alstyn was diagnosed with Down syndrome.

“We could tell right when she came out, and the doctors did, too,” the 33-year-old Trent remembered. “That was a bit of an adjustment, you know. You’re not really expecting it.”

“As soon as she was born, Trent said, ‘Well, I guess we’ve got to get ready for the Special Olympics,’” Colleen said. “That was his first reaction when they told him she had Down’s. No tears, no nothing.”

Down syndrome is a chromosome variation that ranges greatly in severity and affects roughly one in every 691 births. It has no known cause or cure.

“Right away, you’re thinking, ‘What’s next, who do we call, what steps do we take to ensure that she lives the best life that she can live and to keep progressing at a normal rate?’” Trent said. “When she was 1, we had taken her to music class, speech therapy classes, physical classes where they work on motor skills, so it was an ongoing thing for about two years where we had people in and out of the house. A lot of therapists come right to the house, or we’d take her down to the children’s hospitals, where they would work there with her on any little thing that would help her progress.”

An unanticipated routine like that would be a struggle for anyone, but how about for a hockey player who’s constantly on the road, away from home and frequently shuttling between different teams in various cities and states?

“It was actually pretty easy for me,” Trent said. “It was my wife who really took the ball and ran with it. She did all that stuff as far as Alstyn, getting her all set up. She works tirelessly every day. I was just basically there when I could be during the hockey season, as much as possible.”

That proved quite a task for Colleen.

“Obviously, the moving is the biggest issue,” she said. “Alstyn was born in Maryland, where I’m from, and born in August, so Trent left two weeks later and went to training camp with St. Louis. I was there with her and a 15-month-old (son Colton), so that was challenging.

“Then, trying to find all the services for her in the early intervention and figuring out where we were going to be because Trent’s been up and down pretty much every year his whole career,” Colleen continued. “That’s been kind of tough, not knowing where to settle down to get things going, or not becoming a free agent until July 1 and then only having a couple months to get it together before school starts and all that.”

While trying to help Colleen at every turn, Trent had his own challenges. Because his schedule was hardly the typical 9-to-5, he had to deal with the realities of being a phone call away on many nights.

“You always want to be around your kids and be there for breakthroughs and things that they’ve been working hard to accomplish and, when they do, you want to be there to see it,” he said. “I’ve missed some, but I’ve been able to see them for the most part.”

On July 13, 2009, Trent’s family found an answer. They returned to the Northeast, where he had spent parts of seven seasons in Portland. This time, however, he signed a two-year deal with the organization that originally drafted him in 1996, the Boston Bruins.

The 2009-10 season, not unlike several of his previous campaigns, was split between the NHL and AHL, appearing in 16 NHL games with the Bruins. Far different, though, was that the two clubs were separated by only an hour, allowing him far more time at home than other years had offered.

That didn’t compare to the time that was waiting for him, though.

Last August, while training for the upcoming season, Trent ruptured his Achilles. Many thought he’d miss the entire 2010-11 season. Instead, the P-Bruins road captain worked harder than ever before to return to the lineup in January and nearly led Providence to the postseason. Along the way, he even won his second consecutive team MVP honor with 18 goals and 18 assists in 45 games.

The most rewarding, albeit unanticipated distinction, though, was getting to be a stay-at-home dad for nearly five months.

“To be able to go home and play with your kids every day and take your mind off the fact that you’re not playing, it really puts it into perspective,” Trent said. “To have them smiling just to see you every day, it brings a smile to your face.”

Now, nearly four years after Alstyn was born, many of the family’s biggest scares are in the past.

After being fortunate to avoid heart problems and undergoing three surgeries for, among the reasons, treatments to her eyes, Alstyn has battled every obstacle or illness that has been thrown her way, and she’s achieved countless developmental milestones.

This past year, she started attending preschool at Drum Rock in Warwick, R.I., for a half-day five days a week, where she’s able to get her therapy while sharing a class with kids with Down’s and autism and other ‘typical’ children. A couple months ago, Alstyn started talking, and now she’s among the most vocal and vibrant kids in her class, always keeping everyone laughing.

“I think a lot of peoples’ reaction when they see someone with Down’s is fear of the unknown,” Colleen said. “We want to get people to understand that most of them do live quite normal lives and a lot of them are growing up and going on to college and getting married and holding jobs. It’s definitely not as daunting as I first expected.”

Once people who may have feared the unknown themselves, the Whitfields wouldn’t change a thing today.

“There’s a song I think of all the time of her,” Colleen said of Alstyn, “that everyone who sees her wants to know her and everyone who knows her always has a smile. It doesn’t matter where we are, she just draws people in.”

“She’s going to blow the world away in her own way,” Trent said, smiling. “She’s got a strong personality and when she wants to do something, she does it, so I have no doubt in my mind she’s going to be successful in whatever she does.”

Not many people less than 4 years old can make the world a better place. Clearly, though, Alstyn Whitfield already has.

Adam Kaufman can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com