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Born with a Broken Heart touches the soul

July 1, 1993

• Book by local author explains the struggle of a family to overcome decades of grief

Creola Alma (Pittman) Colón witnessed the deaths of two brothers (two others were dead before she was born), eight nephews and two sons to a phantom “cuhs” (curse) that stalked her family for more than 40 years. The curse struck quickly and violently, and most victims failed to live past infancy.

With the birth of her third son, Pablo Antonio Colón II, in 1989, Colón decided the curse had outstayed its welcome. She shared her family’s story with doctors, who determined the curse was a genealogical disease wherein an affected female carrier transmitted a mutated X chromosome to her child. The mutation resulted in a disease known as heterotaxy.

Colón’s family is the largest known heterotaxic family in the world. Heterotaxy results in the random arrangement of body organs—most prominently the heart, which often leads to fatal heart defects. Heterotaxy accounts for about 130 of the more than 32,000 congenital heart defects in babies born in the United States each year.

Colón, who serves as a surgery scheduler in the Ophthalmology Department at Rockford Clinic, began writing her first book, Born with a Broken Heart, with pen and paper in 1992. Then a corpsman in the United States Navy stationed in San Diego, Calif., Colón borrowed a typewriter from a fellow serviceman and continued writing her story before upgrading to a computer. Eleven years, four computers, two editors, 591 pages and 1,500 copies (so far) later, Colón has composed a tour de force that touches at the core of the human soul.

“This book is showing the evolution of a consciousness,” said the book’s editor, Ernest L. Stokes, former head of the English Department at West High School and current teacher at Auburn High School. “She became not only stronger, but more forgiving for all the stuff that had befallen her and hers. It turned me into a flaming feminist because of what these women went through and how they overcame.”

Colón grew up on Mossy Island, a poor, cotton-picking, African-American community in Mississippi. The book is as much about extreme poverty, the strength of overcoming and a belief in God as it is about heart disease and death.

Colón describes how her father, Stonewall Pittman, was a womanizer who rarely spoke to his children. Although not a model father figure, Colón describes her father as a decent man.

Most husbands in the community beat their wives and children regularly. Colón explains how she came to hate many men through her sisters, who were victims of abusive relationships. Colón herself would later find herself in an abusive relationship.

Colón said her mother, Irma (Coopwood) Pittman, served as a measure of strength. The book is dedicated in her honor, and a faded black and white picture of Irma holding young baby Creola is on the cover of the book.

Although she might not readily admit it, the author—a former fashion model for Bergner’s and Marshall Field’s—bears a strong resemblance to her mother. Only in her late 20s in the photo, Irma appears as if a woman at least twice her age, her face worn and weary from years of hard labor and the loss of two infant sons. And yet there is an unmistakable look of determination in her eyes, as if she somehow knew that 50 years later the photo would be on the cover of her daughter’s book. Irma, however, never lived to learn why so many of her children and grandchildren were dying; she died of a heart attack at the age of 48.

Mossy Island is portrayed as an extremely desolate community, yet the author finds light in the darkness and gloom. She recalls the joyful pursuits of her sisters, the legend of “Old Blackie,” her fear of caterpillars (which she still has to this day) and the pecans that would fall from the trees. She also recalls her mother fishing and hunting and cooking hot meals in a small, cramped kitchen during the summer when temperatures would reach more than 100 degrees.

“If we had not been so hungry, Mossy Island is such a beautiful island,” Colón said. “But we couldn’t see the beauty in it.”

The Pittman family put their faith in the white doctors of the South, but the doctors proved to be little more than false hope. As Colón described, “During those times, nobody would have really cared about black boys dying.” The Pittmans were often left to their own remedies, such as rubbing alcohol over the bodies of the babies or having a horse run up and breathe into a dying baby’s face.

The book opens with a chilling recounting of the burial of baby James K. Pittman, one of two twins born in 1953 who died within a year of their birth. It was a scene Colón would repeat many times in her life. An illustration by Todd Stokes that opens the first chapter depicts a very somber scene, and its title—“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”—is a phrase that makes Colón shudder even today.

Colón, who was 3 when James K. was buried, tells the story in such detail, it is as if the funeral were yesterday, not nearly 50 years ago. Such detail is evident throughout the book, even as she recounts the many deaths she witnesses.

One of the more haunting chapters is “Blue Babies,” in which the author recalls how the babies would turn blue shortly before they died. The deep blue tone was the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain. Because of the heart defect created by the heterotaxy, the children’s bodies actually outgrew their hearts, which meant that their hearts were no longer strong enough to pump enough blood through their small bodies. As a result of a lack of blood, there was also a lack of oxygen, creating the blue hue.

“You have to be very strong,” Colón said. “When I wrote the book, I thought I’d forget. But some things you never forget. The color of those boys … the blue babies … I’ll never forget that,” Colón said, tears streaming down her face.

Colón was the second child in her family to graduate high school (Froebel High in Gary, Ind.), she helped raise her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, she watched women reduced to tears in basic training, she served in the Navy during Operation Desert Storm, she watched two of her sons die and watched her husband as his life was destroyed by drugs and alcohol. When Colón says (and also writes in her book), “My overall thing is somebody is always worse off,” one can only feel sorry for ever feeling bad a day in his or her life. As Stokes lauded, “she is a modern-day heroine.”

“People say, ‘You went through so much.’ But to me, it doesn’t even compare to what my mother went through,” Colón said.

Colón admits the many years of despair made her question whether God existed. But she said she was able to overcome only because of her belief in the strength of Christ. She rationalized that maybe God chose her family for a reason.

Colón’s belief in the strength of Christ was reinforced when she dreamt a dark, evil force had come to take her child from her. She remembers waking up in bed after the dream, soaking wet from sweat, speaking in “a different tongue,” a language she had never spoken before nor has spoken since. She believes Christ, the force of light, was with her that night.

Through advanced medical technology, five heterotaxic Pittman boys—ages 1 to 19—are alive today, one of which is Colón’s son Pablo Antonio Colón II. Additionally, the birth of the first heterotaxic female, Takiya Ashlei Walker, on Aug. 15, 1996, opens a new chapter in the Pittman family’s fight against heterotaxy.

Stokes said: “That’s one of the beauties of the book because I came to realize through the book that there is no real control. That’s one of the hooks. It can be open-ended. It’s a springboard to stop most genetically caused diseases.”

Although Colón said she has a couple of theories, it is still a mystery how the genetic mutation began. She and doctors believe there must have been incest somewhere in the Coopwood (maternal) or Pittman (fraternal) family.

Colón will appear at Holiday Tradition Book Signing, from 3 to 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 5 at the Clock To

wer Resort, 7801 E. State St. Info: 398-6000. She also will appear at the Midway Village and Museum Center Holiday Festival Book Signing from noon to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6-7, at Midway Village, 6799 Guilford Rd. Info: 397-9112. Other tour dates and appearances available online at www.cacolon.com. The introduction and first chapter of the book can be read online at no charge.

Born with a Broken Heart ($15) is available at Borders Books & Music, 199 Deane Dr. (at the corner of East State Street and Perryville Road), at Midway Village & Museum Center, at book signings, online or by mail. Send checks (payable to LadyPitt Publications) or money order in the amount of $15 plus $3.95 shipping and handling to: LadyPitt Publications, P.O. Box 17103, Rockford, IL 61110. Questions: LadyPitt2@aol.com or 397-5031.

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