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Flute player hopes to curtail pregnant drinking

By Alex DeMarban
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 11-09

Morgan Fawcett knows the agony of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

His hips are slightly deformed, so sitting too long hurts.

His spine curves where it shouldn’t, so his back aches easily.

Because his mother drank alcohol when she was pregnant with him, Fawcett deals with these pains, and more.

But Morgan, a 17-year-old Tlingit originally from Southeast Alaska, considers himself lucky.

Unlike many FASD victims, he’s aware of his problems. Physical therapy, light exercise and a cautious diet help make life more bearable.

And he’s using his strong vocabulary and genius for flute-playing to travel around the country, speaking at events about the lifelong struggle he faces.

He delivered an Oct. 19 keynote address at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage.

Later, he sat at a table with his adopted grandmother, selling CDs of his music, playing songs and telling passers-by how alcohol can ravage a fetus.

He lives in Arkansas now, and the CD sales help him travel to powwows, therapy centers and schools where he talks, said Susan Hempel, his grandmother.

At the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, crowds gathered at Morgan’s table whenever he raised one of his Native American flutes to his lips. The melodies seemed to dance from his long fingers. The songs were beautiful, somehow mixing joy and sadness.

Teenagers stopped and asked for his autograph. Many took photos.

Morgan’s memory is poor because of the FASD, so each song is an original composition, he said.

A heavyset man wearing suspenders stopped by and pulled cash out of his pocket to buy a CD.

He told Morgan that he has three adopted children with FASD.

“You make beautiful music and we really appreciated your talk,” the man said.

The children with the disorder have trouble sleeping at night, he said.

Morgan wrote a list of vitamins on a piece of paper and handed it to the man. Taking them daily should improve their sleep. Soft background music is good too, Morgan said.

“Have them listen to flute music at night, or piano,” he said.

Tall and reed-thin, Morgan looks like a lot of teenagers. He flashes an easygoing smile. A few pimples dot his broad cheekbones. Long braided hair falls down his back.

The vast majority of FASD sufferers are like Morgan – they don’t have the facial signs often associated with the disorder, such as wide-set eyes and thin upper lips, said Deb Evensen, a longtime FASD consultant from Homer.

In fact, many people with FASD are never diagnosed with it. So while Alaska has one of the country’s highest rates of known FASD cases, no one knows how common the problem truly is, Evensen said.

“Morgan Fawcett is awesome because he understands his own disability and his adoptive parents understand,” she said. “If he didn’t know what was wrong, he would have never gotten the help he needs.”

Morgan seems happy. He believes he has a “gift” that makes him unique. He said he isn’t angry with his mom.

They still talk, he said.

“Without my challenges that I’ve gone through, I would not have the lessons that I’ve had. And had I not learned these lessons, I would not be able to talk about them, to tell you about the pain I’m in, or the brain damage and how it has affected my life,” he said.

Growing up wasn’t easy for him.

“When I was smaller, I couldn’t go outside,” he said. “I was severely pigeon-toed because my hips are tilted, so my toes turned in. It was very hard to walk. And even then I had optical migraines from sunlight or fluorescent lighting.”

He had trouble making friends. And while he’s articulate and talented with the flute, he has the overall brain function of an 11-year-old, he said. He’s now home-schooled because he didn’t do well in class.

His life changed dramatically a few years ago.

During a trip to a Native artifacts museum in California, he asked if he could play a flute.

A woman showed him how. After getting the hang of it, he created a song on the spot, as if he’d played for years.

The lady, a longtime flute player, asked for his autograph, Hempel said.

About the same time, Morgan was researching his problems. Understanding his disorder lifted a huge weight from his shoulders, he said.

And then one day three years ago, it came to him.

“I want to teach kids to play the flute, and bring them that relief through the music and through an understanding of what’s going on with them,” he said.

Morgan said it hurts to see others who suffer like he does, or are worse off. But they also inspire him.

Maybe his message will stop a pregnant woman from drinking. Maybe it will make life easier for others like him.

“And maybe I can save one child the pain that I go through each day,” he said.