Lyme — YuYu Cutting stood inside a crudely drawn foursquare box on the Lyme School blacktop, balancing a deflated basketball in his left hand. He brought his hand back, keeping the ball in place with the hook protruding from the right sleeve of his winter coat, and threw it.
The ball bounced lamely at the feet of a fellow fourth-grader named Luci Taylor, and she laughed and he laughed and all four children playing yelled, “chicken feet!”
They switched places within the box. Taylor admitted she didn’t understand the rules. YuYu, 11, his attention focused on the game and absolutely nothing else, mostly just laughed.
On Tuesday, YuYu won’t be at recess. Instead, his family will be trekking down to Concord to accept YuYu’s Champion Among Children award, which is given annually by the New Hampshire State Council for Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions to several worthy children. YuYu won, after being nominated by his school nurse, for living — and living happily — with one hand, two strokes and two brain surgeries to his name. And setting up, with the help of his parents, a charitable cause called Single Handedly, in which he collects orphaned gloves and mittens that will soon be distributed to other upper-extremity amputees in the Upper Valley and beyond.
The Cuttings placed collection boxes out in front of the Lyme School, which YuYu and his sister, Alia, attend, and Thetford Elementary School, back in the spring. Several months later, they had 200 individual gloves.
Next month, they’ll take those gloves down to Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston, when YuYu has his annual visit, giving other upper-extremity amputees a chance to keep warm this winter.
“There’s only one man,” quipped Jeff Valence, the Lyme School principal, “and he is the man.”
In July 2005, Cheryl and Paul Cutting adopted YuYu from an orphanage on the Loess Plateau of China’s Shanxi province, an area perhaps best known for buildings cut into hillsides and a 16th-century earthquake that killed nearly a million people.
When he came home — Cheryl Cutting refers to it as “coming home” every time — YuYu’s arm ended before the wrist bone. There was never a wrist or hand there; he was born a congenital amputee. In America, approximately one out of every 3,850 newborns is born without a limb, according to the Amputee Coalition, a nationwide advocacy group.
Since coming stateside, YuYu has received prosthetic limbs from Shriners Hospital, and he’ll get them for free until he’s 18 — the hospital waives the $5,000 cost. He’s kept his old helper hooks and they chart his growth, his family’s version of height markings on a living room wall.
The family heads annually to Shriners for a two-year cycle of care. One year is for a tune-up of YuYu’s current helper hook; the next year he gets a new one.
YuYu is now on his third helper hook. It has a rubber duck pattern, yellow on a blue background, and he wears it in public to provide his right arm something resembling tactility. A harness-like setup of straps keeps the hook in place, and it covers his “pipi,” or his arm’s terminus, which he prefers not to call a stump.
He prefers not to think of it as one, either.
Elaine White, YuYu’s special education teacher, remembered when, after multiple tries, YuYu scaled the gym’s rock wall a couple of years ago. That day, he became a mini-version of his hero, adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to scale Mount Everest and the Seven Summits. Several teachers were brought in to watch YuYu’s successful ascent, White said, and every single one was crying.
It was an important moment, Cheryl Cutting said.
“You look at it,” Cutting said, after explaining the prosthetic’s harness system, “and you see brokenness or what’s missing.” Her goal is to try to dispel the myth that being different isn’t necessarily a hindrance. It’s worked for YuYu, she said — he’s convinced he doesn’t have any sort of disability.
Teacher Steven Dayno recalled being on recess duty several years ago and seeing YuYu catch his helper hook on a soccer net. What could have been awkward or humiliating was treated lightheartedly. It was instructive, Dayno said.
“It became sort of humorous,” he said, “as if you got tangled with your foot.”
At his house last week, YuYu removed a large plastic container from a shelf in his room and rifled through its contents, revealing the refugees of dissimilar Lego sets: a Star Wars-themed instruction booklet; a helicopter; an octopus. He said he didn’t spend too much time playing with them.
“Don’t let him fool you,” said Cutting, walking by her son’s room. “He spends hours.”
He pointed out a mostly constructed ship on top of a bookcase, and then several more plastic containers full of pieces. He went back to the box in front of him, and took out a small ship and a flat, contoured board. Then, a propeller. A dolphin. A wind-glider.
“And this,” YuYu said, picking up a Lego man with his right hand replaced by a crossbow, “is me.”
Since he came to the U.S. seven years ago YuYu has had six transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes, two full-blown strokes and two brain surgeries.
He was diagnosed with moyamoya, a rare disease in which the brain’s arteries become dangerously narrow, making it difficult for oxygenated blood to pass through.
“Imagine trying to slurp a McDonald’s milkshake through a coffee straw,” Cheryl Cutting said. “It’s a bad combination.”
In January 2007, he had one of his strokes during a brain surgery, and it was by far the more damaging of the two, affecting much of the left side of his body. It put him in a rehabilitation hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., near where the family was living, for a month. He had to learn, once again, how to walk and talk. His mom worried he’d lose function in the only hand he had.
But his stay at the rehab hospital proved successful, and after he checked out the Cuttings headed to Lyme, an area with a decidedly lower elevation. Cutting said that YuYu has had three mini-strokes since March 2007, and doctors have told her that her son has only a 6 percent chance of falling victim to another full stroke. In terms of immediate, life-altering health issues, he seems to be in pretty good shape.
According to his teachers, YuYu does have some trouble with academics, but it’s not for lack of trying. He works with White on reading, math and writing every day. He also sees an occupational therapist for motor skills (opening and closing his helper hook requires an extra body motion) and a speech therapist for the slur he’s saddled with. Because of his second stroke, he had to repeat the second grade — he’s a year older and a grade lower than his sister, Alia.
It’s easy for a child, especially one with the odds stacked against him, to get frustrated, White said. But YuYu doesn’t. If he’s in a bad mood, it means there’s something medically out of whack.
“Like everything, he wants to achieve,” she said. “He has a lot of inner drive that you don’t always necessarily get a chance to see in children.”
On the Lyme School gym floor, rhythmic clicks and the unsure steps of sneakers.
Denise Frawley, an Upper Valley choreographer, was leading a fourth-grade salsa dancing class, Wednesday’s intersection between Spanish and physical education. She was teaching a basic salsa step, standing in front of the assembled fourth-graders.
“Right foot back,” she said, in time. “Left foot front.”
One two three. Five six seven.
The students tried to follow along, willing their feet to move in an alien, disciplined way. Success was mixed. YuYu, his arms drawn close to his sides by his prosthetic’s harness, leaned forward and back, moving his feet slightly off time. He stared, rapt, at Frawley’s heels.
Click click clack. Click click clack.
In several minutes, many students had figured out some approximation of the step, so Frawley began to partner girls with boys, ignoring their dramatic cries of anguish.
She taught them more salsa hallmarks, and, over time, the students’ theatrics stopped. The girls and boys stopped seeing each other as poisonous and started working through the dance moves as though they were puzzles.
Front and center, YuYu and his friend Meredith Olenec tried to execute a move in which they both completed 360-degree turns while holding hands. YuYu had trouble remembering to cross his left foot over his right to ease the turning process, and the move failed over and over, a graceful dance step turned into a messy flurry of arms, hands and prosthesis.
But better luck was had with a simpler move. YuYu placed his right arm across his body, onto Meredith’s shoulder and behind her neck; she did the same with her own arm. They then moved apart, each arm using the other as a guide.
They completed the move flawlessly and smiled, each holding the other’s right hand.