Audra Critcheloe helping others with disabilities

Fifteen years ago Audra Critcheloe was born with a challenge that she has faced with courage and determination … and an ability to understand and help others with similar challenges.

Audra was born without fingers on her left hand and underwent surgery approximately one year later to give her the ability to grasp objects and perform activities which would not have been possible otherwise.
Audra, who has accomplished and coped with much, overcame so many challenges so well that she was asked this year to be a junior counselor at a hand camp for children with similar challenges.
Challenges such as these never end, and coping and dealing with them are ongoing. Meet Audra, who at 15, is an inspiration to all who know her.
A Little of Audra’s History
Audra’s mother, Kathy Critcheloe, said, “When my little girl, Audra, came into the world, I did not hear those words, ‘It’s a girl!’ All I heard was, ‘Doctor, come look.’
“No one was in a hurry to tell me or show me. And, in what seemed like an eternity, I finally got to see what all the talk was about. Audra had been born without fingers on her left hand. (But) without realizing what was in her future that she would face, all I could see was a beautiful strawberry blonde little baby girl that I had waited so long for.”
Audra is still a beautiful strawberry blonde, with a winsome face, and an engaging, big smile that is reflected in her eyes.
St. Louis Shriners’ Hospital Calls
Her mother said that in the first weeks of her life, Audra had visitors from every doctor and agency for disabled children, trying to explain how this had happened.
“At the suggestion of my dad (Marvin Nichols) I made an appointment with one of our local Shriners. We gave him pictures and he took them to their next meeting.
"Shiners Hospital in St. Louis called us the next Monday morning to make an appointment. Although Audra was only eight days old, and the youngest one to be seen at the hospital at the time, I was soothed by the hope and love shared by the nurses, doctors, therapists and volunteers.”
They advised her to take her baby girl home and enjoy her.
One Year Later – Surgery
When they returned to Shriners’ Hospital one year later, the first of her surgeries was scheduled for that summer. Two toe joints with the growing centers attached were taken and transplanted in the index and middle fingers. The others were not transplanted because they did not have knuckles.
The first post-op night was difficult for her mother.  She said that while she knew that her daughter was in the best hospital in the world for her disability, she knew she was in extreme pain by her pulse, which would go over 140.
“While my sister would go get the nurse to give her morphine, I tried to soothe her by singing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’”
The next morning found Audra as happy and cheerful as ever, although the blood did not go back into her hand as fast as hoped for. They had to stay in an 80-degree room for five days, with no breaks, to promote blood profusion. The following Tuesday, Audra went into surgery again to have the sutures removed. More trials followed, such as little Audra removing her own pins, necessitating several trips to the local emergency room.
Hope Realized with Accomplishments … and Disappointments
Audra used her hand more and more the next year and progressed to the point that she was able to accomplish anything she wanted.
Everyone needs coping skills, but they learned that in Audra’s world, she must have them.
“Dr. Manske (of Shriners’ Hospital) calls this her ‘golden thumb,’ because you can’t have a pinching action without it,” her mother said. “And they actually grew one time when we went to the hospital.”
School was an ongoing adjustment for her. Audra believed in herself, but more importantly, she believed in God, and still has the faith and hope that has carried her through so mush.
In the first grade, a boy was staring at her hand, and Audra said to him, “God made me this way, Is that OK?” She went through her school years with that boy, and now they are best friends.
She became irritated when an art teacher stood behind her just in case she needed help using scissors to cut. The teacher said that she finally walked away and went to help children without disabilities who could not cut.
Audra has the determination to match her red hair.
As Audra went on in her school years, she found that less and less people could accept her or see the beauty inside of her. The older she got, the more rejections she would face.
She attended basketball and volleyball camps, and took tap dancing and ballet lessons. She went out for the teams in school, but the coaches would not put her on the teams, for fear she could not perform adequately and they wanted winning teams.
However, she excelled as a ballerina and tap dancer.  Audra became interested in playing a musical instrument in school, and the band teacher let her try out privately to choose an instrument. She decided on the trumpet and now attends all the games and plays in the band.
Challenges Will Continue Throughout Life…
… but at 15, Audra is already a very grounded, sensitive young woman, and enjoyed the Hand Camp held at Potosi, Mo., where she was one of two junior counselors.
She received an invitation through the mail to be a junior counselor and responded. The first day, however, she said to her mother, “I don’t belong here at hand camp.”
She felt the other kids were so much worse.  The counselors were paired up with a therapist. There were seven children in her group, which also included siblings and parents of the kids attending.
The YMCA was in charge of the activities, which included a nature house (animals which they got to pet and hold), horseback riding, archery, and rock climbing and rappelling back down. Audra said she especially enjoyed the rock climbing.
Several of the kids played musical instruments, and music was a sort of outlet for them. The groups had to make up a cheer and Audra’s group won second place.
One girl, who had no thumb, her four fingers were fused together in twos and she wanted to learn how to put her hair in a pony tail, and Audra helped her learn. Audra also shared with the parents and would answer their questions about how she would cope with things. She also taught a little girl how to put in pierced earrings.
She helped one parent who was disturbed when her daughter would come home from school and shut her bedroom door. Audra has done the same thing.
“The mother said, ‘So I go after her and make her tell me what happened that day,’ and I said, ‘Don’t force her to do anything,” Audra said. “She already lived through it once; don’t make her live through it again.”
Audra was able to help her through her own experiences, as she did the same thing, and needed to have down time before sharing. She advised the mother to let her daughter alone and not press her to talk.
The mother expressed her appreciation to Audra for helping her understand this action of her daughter’s that had distressed her so much because she didn’t understand it.
Audra …
…at 5 feet, 8 inches tall, is a graceful, slender dancer, with beautiful red hair and a friendly, winsome smile.
She is looking forward to receiving her driver’s license in March (she has been taking her Grandpa Nichols with her for driving training hours), and she is anticipating college in the future.
She is now a sophomore at Vandalia Community High School.  She attends the Parkview Methodist Church and has attended church camp.
She has a compassionate heart and cares about others.  She made little purses for all the women at Brookstone Estates one year and tucked a little Holy Bible into each one.
What did Audra learn as a junior counselor? She said she felt that so many kids were so much worse off that herself and, after seeing kids who could not accomplish and do the things that she can perform, she felt a revelation on the way home from the camp.
Audra said to her mother, “Thanks for doing that, taking my toe joints.”  

Audra Critcheloe

Audra Critcheloe participates with her team in a cheer that won second place at the hand camp.

Audra Critcheloe participates in one of the activities at the hand camp at which she served as a junior counselor.

Audra Critcheloe demonstrates for other female youths with disabilities how they can fix a ponytail.

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