Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 22, 2013

Boy wraps presents to overcome illness

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Wrapping Christmas presents isn't a chore this year for Christina and Julius Probert.

It's a labor of love for mother and son.

Every morning, Christina and Julius, 10, join family friend Tammy Paull-Mackenzie for a ritual of wrapping presents in a storefront in the nearly half-vacant Traverse City Outlets mall off U.S. 31 in Garfield Township.

They fold wrapping paper, tie ribbons with care, then place bows so they look just right.

"I like wrapping," Julius said.

The trio doesn't wrap for fun. It's business dictated by heartache and a desire to overcome one child's devastating illness.

Christina Probert and her husband, Justin, started the Christmas present wrapping business, Misc. Presents, a few weeks ago to help their son Julius cope with treatment-resistant epilepsy, an ailment that's possibly combined with degenerative neurologic disorder called toxic encephalopathy.

Julius is believed to be just one of four children in the nation with both conditions.

The maladies mean Julius can't be physically active without risking seizures, brain-swelling or worse. His condition forced him from school at Interlochen Community School, and prompted the Proberts to form the present-wrapping business to keep Julius active without risking his health.

"I got a lot of questions from people asking me, 'Is this going to be his life?'" Christina said. "Will he have to sit still (forever?) ... then I just decided, 'No, we are going to do more.' I heard on ... about how organizations are having a hard time finding places to do gift wrapping and it was an 'ah-ha' moment."

Julius' medical condition emerged about 15 months ago when his mother noticed some strange behavior. In one instance he could not find his locker at school, no matter how hard he tried.

"He started eating the wrapper of an M&M package," Christina recalled. "It was definitely not normal."

Julius' teacher at Interlochen Community noticed unusual behavior, too.

"I had Julius in my classroom for the beginning of the last year as a fourth grader, and he got sick," said teacher Betty McGrew. "He was having some unusual activities, outbursts and things that were not normal for Julius. He was dazed at times and staring off into space."

Officials at Munson Medical Center diagnosed Julius with epilepsy, but the child's concerning behavior continued. He suffered from memory loss and terrifying seizures. Christina took Julius to see his doctor since birth, Michael Eldredge, at Kids Creek Children's Clinic.

Eldredge observed the child and ordered him sent to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan.

Julius and his family spent nearly 12 weeks there. All doctors can say is that Julius suffers from both treatment-resistant epilepsy with symptoms similar to toxic encephalopathy. The child's brain swells if he becomes too active -- he also suffers from impaired speech, hallucinations, and has to have an oxygen tank when needed. He will sleep for three days straight, then stays awake for three days.

He's gained 55 pounds, thanks to the steroids used to treat him.

"The only thing in his tests that weren’t right was a rare form of strep (throat,)" Christina said. "They basically think it went to his brain."

Christina started the business three weeks ago with her husband and Paull-McKenzie because she didn't want Julius "sitting in front of a computer all day."

She's since been stunned by community support. Habitat for Humanity loaned business furniture, and other area businesses filed present wrapping orders after learning of Julius' plight by word of mouth and fliers issued by area parent-teacher organizations.

The trio wrap presents for a fee, with 10 percent going to charities. The Proberts plan to continue the business after Christmas with holiday themes for occasions such as Valentine's Day.

Christina said she's grateful for every day with Julius after watching several families lose their critically ill children during their stay at C.S. Mott.

"Our lives have changed, but we still have him," she said.