When Katie Reichert stands up to address a group of young people, her opening sentence is always the same.
“Hi, I’m Katie,” she says. “I drank for nine months — and then I was born.”
While her introductory comment might get an initial chuckle, Katie’s core message is anything but funny.
The 30-year-old Grass Valley resident is on a lifelong campaign to prevent others from being born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, also known as FASDs.
These disorders are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol use during pregnancy is a leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disabilities. Now Katie is on a mission to reach high school aged teenagers with her message of abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy.
“My birth mother was an alcoholic who wasn’t in recovery when she was pregnant with me,” said Katie. “I am passionate about this issue because my disabilities were totally preventable.”
Because her mother drank heavily throughout her pregnancy, Katie was born with a number of abnormalities. Among other things, she is legally blind, her corpus collosum (the connector of hemispheres of her brain) didn’t form and she has facial asymmetry, also known as dysmorphology. She has undergone numerous surgeries.
“As charming as I am, I do have my bad days,” said Katie, with a smile. “But I appreciate it when people are inspired by my story.”
During her year and a half as a student at Nevada Union High School, Katie said she endured relentless bullying.
“The insults were routine,” she said. “Then the kids got physical. Sometimes they would throw food at me or kick my cane out of my hand. They would spit where I was walking. I had to remind myself that bullying is just ignorance.”
At age 15, Katie said she became severely depressed, began harming herself and told her father and step mother, “I’m not going back — the kids can’t look beyond the physical to the person inside.”
She transferred to Silver Springs High School, a 600-student continuation high school in Grass Valley, and — at long last — her life began to turn around.
“As it turned out, Silver Springs was a refuge for teen moms,” said Katie. “While I was still a student, the teachers asked me to speak to my classmates about fetal alcohol syndrome. It felt good to think I might be making a difference.”
Over the years, among Katie’s most ardent fans has been her father, Phil Reichert, who worked as an alcohol and drug abuse treatment counselor at the Grass Valley nonprofit Community Recovery Resources, also known as CoRR. He worked with Katie and a team to develop a FASDs nonprofit prevention organization, “Totally Preventable,” an educational outreach program specifically geared for high school students.
Their mission was — and still is – to provide a full spectrum of programs focused on reducing the social, health, and financial impact on families and children from all types of drug abuse.
In June of 2013, Katie’s father suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. Katie, often deemed “inseparable” from her father, said she went into a temporary tailspin but is now more determined than ever to spread her message of prevention.
Jim Uhler, a friend of Katie’s father, has picked up the torch and is aiding Katie and “Totally Preventable” in raising funds to further develop their FASDs education efforts.
“Considering the obstacles Katie has — and continues to have overcome, her outlook on life is so amazingly positive,” said Uhler.
“She always has a smile on her face and a kind word for someone. She is an outstanding spokesperson for our educational outreach to high school students and the subject of a documentary, already in the works, as well as an autobiography. We are planning to begin our high school tour in the fall.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, prenatal alcohol exposure is “the leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disorders in the United States.
Nearly 40 years have passed since it was discovered that drinking during pregnancy can result in a wide range of disabilities in children, of which fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe. Yet up to 30 percent of women report drinking alcohol during pregnancy.”
The NIH stresses that disabilities associated with the syndrome “can persist throughout life and place heavy emotional and financial burdens on individuals, their families, and society.”
While there are certain facial features often associated with FASDs, the NIH states it has now been determined “that the neurobehavioral effects associated with FASD, such as intellectual disabilities, speech and language delays, and poor social skills, can exist without the classic defining facial characteristics.”
But beyond the human tragedy, Uhler said the cost of this “epidemic” is staggering.
Of the estimated 40,000 babies born annually with symptoms of prenatal alcohol exposure, symptoms may include physical defects, cognitive deficits and behavior problems. Growing up, many will need special education services, and many are unable to live independently.
Some are eventually incarcerated, added Uhler, meaning the societal cost of additional care for these individuals is in the billions.
“It’s important for pregnant women — or women trying to get pregnant — to remember that there isn’t a safe level of drinking,” he said. “I’m just as passionate as Katie on this issue and I think her father would be proud.”
“I think I got my compassion from my dad,” she said. “For all of our ups and downs, we’ve always been the eternal optimists. I like to think I am an inspiration.”
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email her at email@example.com or call 530-477-4203.