BY DOREEN WACHMANN
BREINDY Herskowitz was born prematurely, weighing just two pounds 10 ounces.
She was placed on a respirator and her lungs, which were not properly developed, collapsed within 24 hours. Her chances of survival were slim.
But the ninth child of a New York Satmar family defied the odds, not only to survive, but also to inspire others by her faith in God, despite all her major handicaps and struggles.
After three weeks, Breindy was taken off her respirator and two months later, she finally went home to her large family, weighing just four pounds, 12 ounces.
Months later she was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
Breindy, who is the subject of Shaindy Perl's My Life on Wheels (Israel Bookshop Publications), said: "I am a prisoner of my own body. I cannot control it.
"When I want my hands or legs to move in a certain way, my body rarely responds exactly as I wish. At the same time, though, other parts that I do not want to use will jump into action, since my brain cannot isolate the correct muscle.
"If I am concentrating on making polite conversation, and it always takes effort for me to talk, my right arm and left leg will suddenly shoot out in opposite directions with a will of their own."
For five years Breindy's mother struggled to raise her acutely disabled daughter alongside her large family, until she was forced to make the painful decision of putting her into foster care.
Aged five, Breindy was as small as a two-year-old.
She recalled: "I was still young and completely dependent on the compassion of others. I often felt there wasn't anyone to listen to me or understand me.
"I was surrounded by people and yet I was very much alone. I began to withdraw. I became a quiet, sad little girl, who kept my thoughts and feelings deep inside me."
Breindy became so inhibited that one day at school, she finally let her guard down.
She recalled: "It was as though a dam had burst. I could not stop crying and all my fears came tumbling forth."
Breindy's sister-in-law, who was working in the school, became so concerned that she took her niece out of foster care and tried to raise her alongside her own baby.
Breindy said: "The short period I spent in her house was one of the best in my entire life.
"After a few days I felt as if a new life had been blown into me. Not only was I doing better physically, but I was recovering mentally and emotionally.
"I felt like a human being. I wasn't just a lump in a wheelchair. My mind was engaged."
But her sister-in-law could not look after Breindy long-term and after six weeks she was transferred to a newly-opened home for the severely handicapped in the Satmar town of Kiryas Yoel.
But none of Inzerheim's handicapped residents shared Breindy's mental acumen.
She said: "There wasn't anyone in the home that I could relate to.
"Unlike the others in the home, I had no severe mental limitations or cognitive impairments. I wanted someone to schmooze with, but there was no one who could provide the companionship I so desperately craved.
"Some couldn't speak at all. Others would only groan and make strange sounds. I often felt like an alien who had mistakenly landed on the wrong planet!"
She continued: "Because of my appearance - my limbs are scrawny, my wrists and fingers are often bent in odd positions - people who meet me for the first time often assume that my condition also affects my intellect.
"My slow, slurred speech will probably only confirm their suspicions."
However, Breindy's social plight eventually improved when she began to spend time at a regular Jewish school where she made friends.
These classmates were followed by a series of amazing young volunteers who came, not only to visit Breindy, but also to take her home for festivals and on holidays, including a remarkable trip to Israel.
However, Breindy's social situation began to deteriorate later when her volunteer friends went off to seminaries and began to get married, while Breindy was left single, still needing institutional care, now in a newly-opened Shvesterheim in Monsey, New York.
She said: "I have watched with mixed emotions as my friends moved on, married and established families of their own.
"I have also observed, quite enviously, older singles who, while being denied that happiness, were still able to find other means of fulfilment, such as through careers or involvement in chesed organisations.
"My school years are over, so I can no longer occupy myself with learning and growing with my peers, although my head works well, I don't have what I need to use it for. What exactly am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?"
Now aged 30, Breindy told me that life is still a "daily struggle".
So how does she manage to keep her deep religious faith?
She said: "For some time I was very depressed about my condition. Eventually I realised that my life is not going to get any easier.
"I learned to accept the job Hashem wants me to do in this world. I try not to focus only on the difficult things, but to make the best of everything for my sake and the sake of everyone around me.
"I think that every person can choose to be aware of Hashem's blessings or to focus on the negative and see one's whole life as black.
"I've tried it both ways. I can definitely say that I see the difference in myself since I changed from having a negative attitude to an accepting one."
She added: "Of course, this is not easy. It is a constant struggle. Part of accepting my situation was to accept myself the way I was created.
"In order to be happy, I really had to absorb the fact that I am a person of value. If I say I am nothing, then I will definitely be nothing.
"When I didn't value myself and refused to accept what was happening, I was extremely unhappy. I had a hard time expressing myself, cried a lot and was in pain all the time.
"Once I accepted myself for who I am, I was able to realise that Hashem loves me and wants what is good for me.
"Fortunately, these attitudes have really changed things for the better."
Breindy's purpose in telling her story is to inspire others to make the best of their lives, however challenging the circumstances.