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Kenny Michaels is a regular terror, careening from room to room as fast as his little arms can propel his learner's wheelchair.

He wears a devilish, toothy grin, managing to chew gum at the same time.

When the 5-year-old towhead finally stops, it is not to rest, but to wrestle with his mother on the couch.

"He's this way from morning to night," Bonnie Grant says, pulling up her son's pants, which tend to droop from his paralyzed lower body during the nonstop action.

In an instant, the child drops down and pulls himself across the floor, looking to mix it up with his equally energetic sister, Billie Jo, 4.

If there is a down side to the day, as far as Kenny is concerned, it's that he'll miss seeing his favorite nurses at the Shrine Hospital in Erie, Pa., where he has undergone more than a dozen surgeries in his brief life. He was born with spina bifida, or open spine, which, in effect, cut off his feeling at the waist.

Hazardous road conditions have postponed the 200-mile round trip for an examination to measure Kenny's recovery from the last operation, in August, when doctors removed a steel rod that had held him together since the spine was fused a year earlier.

Nurses at the Shrine Hospital have fallen for this spunky imp, and vice versa, his father says.

"Tell the man who your girlfriends at the hospital are," says Kenneth Michaels.

"Susan and Chris," Kenny beams. Billie Jo dashes headlong into the room and tumbles over him, and they giggle together over the roughhousing.

Mom and dad are unconcerned.

"The doctors told us to treat him like a normal child," Ms. Grant says. "If you go easy on him, he hates it."

The next step in Kenny's rehabilitation, assuming that his spine has healed properly, will be learning to maneuver in a body brace with the help of a walker. It will offer the only escape from wheelchairs later in life.

He has been fitted for the brace, but he is too hyperactive at this point to start the therapy, Ms. Grant says.

Fortunately, the medical tab has been paid by Medicaid and the Shriners. But the family has little else to feel lucky about as Christmas nears.

Kenneth Michaels, an outgoing fellow who has been held back by reading problems, worked as a volunteer for seven years at the Rhode Island Food Center before health problems forced him to quit recently.

"He was very dependable. He did everything for us," says Linda Signer, the center's executive director.

The family recently moved from a tiny two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom West Side flat, but the extra breathing room carries a cost -- more than $100 a month in additional rent. That's a "big chunk" of the less than $1,000 a month they receive in welfare payments and food stamps, Ms. Grant says.

Buying gifts for the children will be virtually impossible, although they are easy to please.

"Give him something that costs 99 cents, and he's happy," the boy's father notes.

"They need more help than our food center could possibly give them," Ms. Signer says.

To Kenny, of course, Christmas Day will be another day to burn off excess energy, whether or not the living room has a tree or gifts to open.

There have been "too many surgeries," his mother notes, and once in a while, he cries in frustration.

"The day after the operation in August, he wanted his wheelchair," she says. "I told him, 'You're supposed to rest.' Nothing keeps him down."

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