The Littlest People

There are maybe 200 primordial dwarfs in the world, and Houstonian Sienna Bernal is one of them. She's also trying to be a regular 11-year-old girl.

Which is a shame, because at the open house, Sienna was only too excited to show off her new classrooms and teachers, darting down the halls like a preteen possessed. She would barely introduce one teacher before high-tailing it to the next, as they smiled at the enthusiasm they had already come to expect. The world's most passionate tour guide, Sienna pointed out obvious things like restrooms and the cafeteria as if they were exotic species.

Sienna's energy — some might accuse her of being hyper — is actually something Chrissy has to keep tabs on. A personal trainer, Chrissy wants Sienna to be active and healthy, but Sienna hasn't been able to gain weight for a long time and has plateaued at a scant 27 pounds. She can't afford to burn too many calories and lose weight.

Of course, her small, slight stature prevents her from participating in a lot of sports in the first place. But one activity at which she excels is the Nintendo Wii. The controller fits comfortably in her hand, and in several games in particular, her avatar is extremely nimble. It turns out Sienna wields a mean fake sword — her favorite game, she explains, is one where you use such a weapon to "hurt people to death." (Joey Bernal ribs her about that particular game, whose antagonist looks a touch wimpy. "You're beating up a nerd with glasses," he kids. "What's up with that?")

Sienna high-fives her instructor, throwing her whole body into it.
Photos by Troy Fields
Sienna high-fives her instructor, throwing her whole body into it.

Sienna of course brings this energy to another activity that allows a good workout — her weekly special-needs taekwondo practice at All-Star Martial Arts in Cypress.

She excels in this class, which welcomes kids with every special need imaginable. The patient, compassionate instructors lead 20 or so kids who plant their feet, or wheelchairs, on marked spots on the orange gym mat covering the floor. In addition to the exercise, the instructors talk about things like focus, effort and always giving your best. If you're a white belt, you don't practice like a white belt; you practice like a yellow belt. That's how you get better.

When class begins, the kids are told to do 25 jumping jacks, 20 punching jacks and then hit the ground for push-ups. Sienna nails all of these, pausing occasionally to brush a persistent lock of hair out of her eyes. She's focused, eagerly awaiting instructions.

Next come front-kicks. The senseis drop to their knees and hold out pads for the students to whomp on. A lot of the boys yell at the top of their lungs while they kick, as if the volume will guide their feet to the pads' sweet spot.

When it's Sienna's turn, she kicks high and hard, but she's quiet. She smiles when she connects with the pad. She high-fives her instructor, throwing her whole body into it. Then she smiles again and runs to the back of the line, waiting for her next turn.

Back at home the following weekend, a conversation about how the doctors gave Chrissy the option to abort Sienna and keep Sierra has turned into something part absurd, part philosophical and part Abbott and Costello.

"You know what 'abort' means?" Sierra asks her sister.

"No," Sienna says.

"They could have killed you," Sierra says.

Sienna: "Why did you have to have a choice?"

"She was gonna say 'no,'" Sierra says. "I mean, she's not gonna kill you."

But this only confuses Sienna, who asks, "What would happen if you say 'no'?"

"I did say no," Chrissy says.

"That's why you're still alive," Sierra points out, respectfully refraining from adding a big "Duh!"

Sienna is still perplexed, and squeezes out a mostly unintelligible question that ends with "What?"

"Never mind," Chrissy chuckles. "Never mind, Sin."

"Like, what would happen if you said 'Yes?'" Sienna asks.

Chrissy: "Then you would not be here."

Sierra: "And I would not have a twin."

Sienna eventually puts it together and announces, "If I didn't have lived, [I'd] be dead."

Chrissy laughs again. "That's right. If you didn't live, you would be dead."

It's a bit jarring to see a family talking so openly about something like that. But this kind of bluntness has marked Sienna's life from the beginning. Even after her 108 days in natal intensive care, there were many subsequent hospital visits, and every time, doctors labeled Sienna as "Failure to Thrive." Based on what the doctors told Chrissy and Joey, Sienna was never supposed to be around this long.

That's why the words of the doctor who first recognized Sienna's primordial dwarfism are such a source of comfort and encouragement to the Bernals even today.

Right after the doctor's "aha!" moment, Joey says, "The very next sentence out of his mouth was, 'I expect her to live a long and fruitful life.' He actually said that she had just defied all odds."

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