Kristie Gronberg estimates she’s broken her bones at least 50 times.
“Mostly, I’m just a klutz,” the 18-year-old said in a typically self-effacing assessment.
She’s probably not any clumsier than the typical teen, but what sets her apart from her peers is osteogenesis imperfecta.
The syndrome causes Gronberg’s bones to become fragile and break easily. The common name of the condition is brittle bone disease.
Affecting one out of 25,000 to 50,000 people, the genetic disorder can lead to a high number of bone fractures, sometimes hundreds, during a person’s lifetime. It also can cause short stature and several deformities.
It adds up to limited mobility and the danger of even a minor fall leading to serious injury.
Growing up, Gronberg said, “I couldn’t do a lot of the rough housing or playing outside as much. Plus, there isn’t that much you do outside from a wheelchair. I couldn’t do a lot of sleepovers because my mom was afraid I would get hurt.”
Gronberg faces many challenges every day. But the fact that she lives in her own apartment, attends college and lives a semi-independent life makes her a Children’s Therapy Unit success story.
The Port Orchard resident has been coming to the CTU in Puyallup once or twice a month since she was 6 months old. On April 5, her 18th birthday, she aged out of the program.
On Wednesday, she made her final visit to the unit.
She’s now three weeks into her new life as a college student at Olympic College in Bremerton. She gets there most days on her own using a combination of bus, ferry and wheelchair.
She plans on attending a four-year college and one day becoming an author.
“I don’t like compromising for less in the independence department,” Gronberg said.
To achieve her goals in life she uses skills learned at the CTU.
“Without that help I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much independently,” she said.
Over the years at CTU she practiced fine motor skills, built physical strength, learned to sit tall, reach and stand. She also learned to type, write by hand, transfer from one seat to another and negotiate transportation. CTU staffers also directed her to various programs for people with disabilities.
Like many, if not most of the patients at the CTU, Gronberg wants to live as independent a life as possible. It’s been her goal as long as she can remember.
“Osteogenesis imperfecta makes me kind of incredibly short,” she said. “So nothing was in my reach, ever. Which means I relied on everyone’s help for everything. And I was not always happy with that. I always wanted to do things by myself and be more independent.”
Born in Puyallup, Gronberg has spent most of her life in Port Orchard, the daughter of a 911 dispatcher father and a special education mother. She has a 12-year-old brother.
“Sometimes he will have to miss things because of me, and I feel bad about it, but it’s not like I can help it either,” Gronberg said of her brother. “But as he’s gotten older he’s gotten more understanding. We’re cool now.”
Gronberg hates being a burden on her family or anybody else.
“There is sort of a guilt thing that happens when you feel like you’re a burden,” she said.
But she accepts that at times she needs to rely on others.
“To compensate, I try to help out whenever I can,” she said.
She volunteers weekly at a food bank in Edgewood with her grandfather, and she spends time with family and friends.
“I would like to one day get a job and be a contributing member of society,” she said.
GROWING UP DIFFERENT
Gronberg was home-schooled, then attended private schools and finished high school at South Kitsap’s alternative high school, Explorer Academy.
“My mom was concerned that a public school might not be safe because I have brittle bones and kids are clumsy,” Gronberg said. “Turns out private school is still pretty dangerous.”
Until her apartment was outfitted in the lower level of her parents’ home, she lived on both levels.
“That meant being carried everywhere because I can’t walk or transfer without some sort of assistance,” she said.
At school she felt freed by her power wheelchair.
“That would allow me to do all of the school things relatively independently,” she said. “I would get dropped off at school, hang out with my friends, learn a bunch of stuff. I would still need help in the classroom, but my friends were really accommodating.”
Like any typical kid, there were parental conflicts over how much protection Gronberg needed. Sometimes she rebelled. Like the time she tried a shortcut through the woods with her best friend.
“We didn’t get very far,” she said. “My mom had to rescue me.”
Then there was the time she shorted out her electric wheelchair because she wanted to play in the fountain at Seattle Center like the other kids were doing.
“The water is still coming down on me, and now I cannot escape,” she recalled “I think I’m going to drown.”
Fortunately, her father realized what was happening and saved her.
At Olympic College, Gronberg is taking precalculus.
Her day begins with a shower, getting dressed — the usual stuff.
From home, a bus takes her to the foot ferry terminal in Port Orchard. Sometimes her dad drives her.
“For me, freedom means being able to do things that everyone normal does,” she said, “which is getting to school, getting maybe to a library or a grocery store or a game store, whatever you want to do and doing it independently.”
She drives her chair onto the century-old ferry for the short water trip to Bremerton. From there she catches a bus to school.
“I like being on campus and just going out and interacting with the community,” she said.
Gronberg said she makes friends with adults easily. People her own age are more difficult.
“I find teenagers somewhat intimidating,” she said,
The therapists at the CTU gave her many life skills. But some she had to learn on her own.
“What they can’t necessarily help with is how people look at you when you go out,” Gronberg said. “You have to get used to the fact that people might stare or make strange comments or talk to you about random things you don’t care about.”
She’s happy to show off her whiz-bang wheelchair or discuss the latest book she’s reading. But strangers often feel compelled to tell her their life stories or their thoughts on religion.
“I’m at the grocery store and have things to do,” she explained. “I can’t talk all day.”