By Kimberly Pohl
Bernie Pedersen was growing, just not vertically.
As an 8-year-old, he stood about 4-foot-3 and weighed 52 pounds. Four years later, he was 4-foot-5 and 125 pounds.
Doctors brushed it off. With a 4-foot-11 mother, he'd probably be small as an adult, they said.
Then came the anxiety, emotional outbursts, muscle pains, depression, even suicidal thoughts. It took two years, but the proper diagnoses finally came: Pedersen had the endocrine disorder Cushing's disease and craniopharyngioma, a benign tumor associated with the pituitary gland. He'd need to have surgery and get all his hormones replaced artificially.
Now 29, the 6-foot-4 Palatine resident and Lake Zurich High School grad hovers over most and helps guide others through similar growth disorders. He volunteers with the Oak Park-based Major Aspects of Growth in Children, also known as the Magic Foundation.
The Safeco Insurance Foundation recently recognized Pedersen, an insurance agent, with its 2008 Community Hero award. In his name, the group donated $15,000 to the Magic Foundation, which provides support to more than 25,000 people and families affected by a variety of medical conditions affecting growth.
"I have 18 years experience with this and can provide a lot of insight," said Pedersen. "Adults, kids and their parents are scared seeing this for the first time. I try to support them and show them they're not alone."
Kids often share their fears about puberty with Pedersen, whose own adolescence was nightmarish. Before surgery at age 11 to remove his walnut-sized brain tumor, he played sports and took honors classes.
"He was a handsome, athletic kid who came back to junior high with 52 staples across his head and wandering eyes," said his mother, Susan.
Pedersen said he lost all his friends and ballooned to nearly 300 pounds by the end of his freshman year at Lake Zurich High. Surgery damaged his hypothalamus, which helps regulate appetite and metabolism. Other symptoms included impaired vision, short-term memory impairment, mood swings and fatigue. He did poorly at college.
In the past few years, however, he's found an effective cocktail of replacement hormones and medications. He graduated from Harper College, is studying for certification in the IT field and works at the Palatine insurance agency founded in 1952 by his grandfather, Bernard Pedersen, a longtime state lawmaker from Palatine who died in 1996.
The younger Pedersen is activities coordinator at the Magic Foundation's biannual conventions, which can draw up to 500 people. He leads discussion groups and speaks on panels.
"I show them that people can live a normal life on replacement hormones," he said.
Added his mom: "Bernie gives parents confidence that their child can also grow up and live a normal life."
For more information, go to magicfoundation.org.