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SANDY BROTHERS WITH RARE MALADY DEFY PREDICTIONS AND LIVE WITH GUSTO

Mark, Christopher and Jason Christensen will never score the go-ahead touchdown, slam the tie-breaking basket, or slap in the winning goal.

But already in their short lives, the brothers have tallied more victories than have most adults - and many more than medical science predicted.They've run, swum - even ridden big wheels and scooters - despite the rare form of muscular dystrophy that has jelled their muscles and weakened their immune systems.

The children all suffer from Dubowitz syndrome, which afflicts only seven people nationwide. But each of Bill and Sherry Christensen's children was born with brown hair, big brown eyes and the life-threatening, debilitating disease.

As yet, medical specialist don't understand why, but they suspect the rare form was inherited through a recessive gene, like most types of muscular dystrophy. More puzzling to doctors is how the children have managed to have relatively normal lives despite repeated medical setbacks.

Mark, 81/2, has undergone four surgeries. He's been hospitalized for pneumonia seven times - once during the same week Christopher, 6, and Jason, 21/2, were also being treated in the intensive care unit for pneumonia at Primary Children's Medical Center.

It's the only time Jason has been hospitalized, but modern medicine repeatedly has helped Christopher battle the pneumonia that frequently declares war on his already fragile frame.

Even when snuggled in their own beds in the family's Sandy home, Mark and Chris' lung muscles get a much-needed rest when respirators, which sound like vacuum cleaners, pump for them.

Braces in their shoes support weak ankles. And because of scolisis of the spine, Mark also wears a body brace during the day. Some year soon, physicians will fuse his spine and surgically correct a defective aorta.

But that's all in the future.

For now, Mark and his younger brothers' biggest challenge is walking tall when just about every muscle wants to crumble.

"Just an easy little push of some child would really devastate our kids. They fall over like tumble blocks," said Bill, owner of Christensen Creative Films.

Dad and Mom are always near to pick up them up.

For the past 8 1/2 years, the Sandy couple has taken turns being on emergency medical watch - at home or in hospitals where they've painfully watched their sons fight for life when other toddlers could fight no more.

Because of the cumbersome respirators - not to mention the childrens' susceptibility to injury and disease - it's been difficult for the family to take vacations. Only with support from understanding neighbors are Bill and Sherry able to have an occasional evening alone.

The disease that has disrupted their childrens' lives has also strained theirs - physically, emotionally, financially. "At times we are overwhelmed with it all, but we are just so grateful to have them and for modern medicine and equipment."

Bill and Sherry say their childrens' illness has, in a strange way, bound them; the boys' courage has given them strength to face daily challenges.

"We tend to adapt, take each problem as it comes - and hope that the problems don't worsen," Sherry said.

Mark, who forged the way for his younger brothers, has only once acknowledged he has "muscular dystrophy," - that "thing" that makes him different from other kids at Quail Hollow Elementary School.

Sure, he and his brothers are small and underweight for their age. But mentally they are very sharp - "even to the point of just not normal, but a little more quick, faster," Sherry said.

"All of the boys are very observant. They notice things more than other kids would, because instead of just playing around, they have to sit more quietly and watch what is going on."

Mark, Christopher and Jason work hard at living, whether they are playing Nintendo, doing art work or racing miniature toy cars.

"They all love life. In fact, when Mark gets excited, he actually jumps up and down," Bill said. "They've always been a delight to have around."

Because Dubowitz syndrome is so rare, doctors - who wrongly predicted that Mark would never walk - have been careful not to look too far into the future. However, they're optimistic that the childrens' muscles won't weaken even more and could even get a little stronger.

"The muscle doctor said they may never play football, but his gut feeling is that they should be able to live long lives. That continues to give us hope," Bill said.

In reality, no one knows for sure. No one knows if respirators and other medical equipment will be lifelong companions for the boys. But Bill and Sherry aren't dwelling on the unknown.

"One thing we both have felt is that if we were to lose them tomorrow, we are grateful to even have been associated with them - to have known them," Bill said. "That has kept us going for a long time. We are so grateful that they are our kids. We wouldn't have it any other way."