Freddy Spencer is kinetic.
He paces and points out the window of his real estate office as if to all the houses his agents have sold in this dismal market.
He gestures toward the antique tin ceiling in the new Century 21 Advantage office. The adornment, he said, demonstrates how much he wants to provide a beautiful office space for his agents.
Spencer jumps up and nearly runs around the massive conference room to tap on pictures of a 90-unit condominium complex and a development he built, noting that he lets his agents list the properties.
“I am a non-competing broker,” he said. “Do you know what that means? I don’t compete against my agents when it comes to sales.”
He rattles off his company’s stats: a 52 percent increase in sales from 2008 to 2009, a 33 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 and a 10 percent increase in 2011. The number of agents has increased to 65 from 12 when he and a partner opened the office in 2007 and will soon be 70.
All this, despite a trifecta of trauma: Spencer’s agency launched as the industry was beginning to crash; his mother died in 2008, a loss he still keenly feels; and his son, after beating the odds against surviving, was born in 2009 with a severely defective heart.
Silence and tears
Spencer’s buoyancy deflates when the talk turns to his child, Paxton. He collapses into a chair, his head in his hands, and collects himself.
“It was bad,” he finally said. He looks up. He looks away. Tears well up in the corners of his eyes.
It was the day a doctor broke it to Freddy and Jessica that their unborn son had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. Spencer explained Paxton’s diagnosis in plain terms: “He didn’t have the left side of his heart.”
The news got worse. “They told us that he could have cerebral palsy,” Spencer recalled. “That he could be mentally retarded. He could have cystic fibrosis.”
As it turned out, HLHS is Paxton’s only condition, Spencer said, sounding upbeat again. As if having half a heart, a condition that will never go away and will require countless more surgeries, is a relatively simple obstacle to overcome.
“It is his enthusiasm, upbeat attitude and energy that strike you,” said Dave Denton, one of Spencer’s agents. It’s a sentiment shared by his friends, his pastor and his wife.
They got the bad news the day of Jessica’s 20-week ultrasound, and both of them thank God for that because it allowed them to prepare for his birth. As if anyone could prepare for that. As if anyone can prepare for a defect that strikes twice in 10,000 births, according to the National Institutes of Health. In contrast, Down syndrome affects about 12 children out of 10,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One option, one they never considered, was terminating the pregnancy.
Looking at family pictures with his obviously joyful 21-month-old son, his 7-year-old daughter, Emma, his wife, Jessica, all smiling, and it’s hard to believe this child was at risk — is still at risk.
On May 16, Paxton will have his seventh surgery, and there will be many more as he grows up.
Praying for Paxton
Spencer said the terrible magnitude of the diagnosis took a while to sink in after the ultrasound. “It didn’t really hit us until we walked out into the parking lot. We just stood out there for 30 or 45 minutes, just hugging.”
Spencer doesn’t dwell on that moment for long. He revs back up and points out that the ultrasound that showed the heart problem was the last they’d planned before his birth. “Thank the Lord,” he said.
Not knowing about the problem could have meant his son’s death because with HLHS, it’s critical that treatment begin immediately. It’s an illness that once spelled death within days of birth. Now, doctors immediately put the newborn on medication to make sure a natural hole in the heart does not close. This allows the remaining portion of the heart to do the work of pumping the blood to the body and the lungs. If the hole is allowed to close, the blood is not pumped to the lung, and the child suffocates.
Paxton was born in St. Louis and then rushed to nearby Cardinal Glennon, a hospital that specializes in critical pediatric care. There wasn’t even time to bring the baby bedside — Jessica didn’t even get to hold him for two days. Instead, big sister Emma was the first one to hold him at Cardinal Glennon.
There, his illness didn’t call for the usual treatment. Instead of the typical procedure to ensure blood flows to the lungs, Paxton underwent another procedure to restrict the flow but not reroute it. When Paxton was 5 days old, Jessica said, the medical professionals started talking about a heart transplant. “We had to meet with the transplant expert. Maybe we’d have to list him for a transplant.”
Instead of panicking, Jessica said she and Freddy prayed — just as they had all along.
Then, once again, the unexpected happened.
At his next checkup, the defect had gone away. “It’s a big miracle that he didn’t need that (transplant),” Jessica said.
Of course, the boy remains in danger. He’ll continue to need surgery, and as he gets older, his heart condition will limit his activities. One study showed that during a 15-year period, only 39 percent of 840 children with HLHS lived to 15 years of age.
For now, he’s like any young boy, climbing onto the table, getting up onto the tractor, to the horror of his mother, who tries not to be overprotective. “We just take it day by day,” she said.
Jessica and Freddy also laud her employer, Boone Electric, which gave her the flexibility and insurance coverage she needed to manage Paxton’s medical expenses.
Jessica started working three days a week while she was pregnant with Paxton so he doesn’t have to attend day care, where his weakened system could put him at risk. His dad watches him at home on Mondays. When Jessica works, a woman she met through an HLHS support group takes care of him.
Scott Sutherland, a family friend and the senior minister at Forum Christian Church, said the Spencer couple’s faith and attitude have been remarkable.
The two families were neighbors until the Spencers moved to Harrisburg, though they still attend Forum Christian Church.
Sutherland has been with them every step of the way and went to St. Louis for each of Paxton’s six surgeries.
Each time at the hospital, Sutherland said, Freddy and Jessica would pray and turn Paxton over to God. “They kept their eyes focused on what mattered: family and faith.”
Back at the brokerage
Both Paxton and his father’s company thrived. With the broker out of the office for 85 days in 2009, the crew still posted increased housing sales and hired more agents.
His agents stepped up, and they improved the agency’s use of technology, Spencer said. “We didn’t miss a beat.”
In the hospital, he kept close to the action with email. If an agent had a question about a contract, they could scan the document and send it on to Spencer for his review.
Spencer even found solace in his work. At first, he’d head to the hospital in his T-shirt and jeans and tried to fight the fatigue of spending days in the hospital. “Then,” he said, “I started dressing up while waiting for Paxton to heal. I found myself getting more accomplished. I noticed the way I spoke on the phone was different.” He didn’t know why he felt the need to start dressing more professionally. “For some reason, I felt better.”
Spencer’s office has been recognized as the most productive in Century 21’s Heartland Region, a 12-state area, and for three out of the past five years, one of his agents was named Rookie of the Year for the region.
Spencer attributed the success to his training, his ability to motivate and his willingness to change and provide technology and support.
Denton, who’s been a real estate agent for 28 years, agreed and disagreed with Spencer’s points.
When Gaslight Properties/GMAC closed in 2008, Denton and his wife, Carolyn, began to shop for a new place to work. Century 21 Advantage, he said, wasn’t even on his list. Denton didn’t need the training Spencer provides. A closer of more than 1,050 transactions in his life, he didn’t need the motivation.
So why did he join Century 21 Advantage? Spencer called him and asked him to come by. Denton said he was struck by his enthusiasm and energy. After he joined the team, he was impressed by Spencer’s willingness to call his own past customers and pass the leads on to his agents. “His goal is to make the agents successful,” Denton said.
And it isn’t just that a successful agent means more cash in Spencer’s pocket, Denton said; Spencer has a gift for making agents feel accepted, needed and important.
“Instead of looking at how can he get more out of his agents, Freddy is willing to do what it takes to help his agents,” Denton said. The office is filled with big-screen TVs for displays and other electronic gadgets. Spencer freely admits he’s a gadget guy.
There’s something else there, too, Denton said. He asks if a visitor noticed the prominent display of each agent’s family picture in the front lobby. “The first thing they do when you join, they send you to a photographer to get your (family) picture made,” he said. And each agent gets a $100 birthday gift each year. With 65 agents, he said, that’s a lot of money.
Another agent, Karla Wilcoxson, joined Century 21 Advantage just about the time Spencer’s son was born. “He was pretty much in the hospital all the time,” she said.
Wilcoxson, the regional Rookie of the Year for the franchise in 2010, said Spencer kept a positive attitude, was supportive and available by phone and email.
And it wasn’t just her calling him. “He was always checking on me” and providing reassurance.
Denton acknowledged that while Spencer was out, sacrifices had to be made, but the agents took care of their business and helped one other. “We all filled in,” he said.
Lessons learned, changes made
If you stop by Century 21 Advantage on Mondays, you won’t find Spencer; he’ll be taking care of his two kids. He spent one Monday and a few other days hunting and fishing with his father. But it is rare for him to be away from his family now.
He’s learned his lesson. Twice.
A native of White Plains, Spencer started his career working for Walmart and rose to management in a year. He was managing the Tire and Lube section in Macon when he met Jessica, a native of Shelbina. She had seen him with some friends and dropped by the store to see him. They began to date, and in 2000, Spencer was promoted again to a larger store, this time in Columbia. In 2001, Freddy and Jessica wed. And in 2003, he left Walmart and went into real estate.
“I got tired of Walmart’s long hours,” Spencer said. His daughter was born in 2004, and he was happy to be home. But he kept putting in the hours, and by 2007 he had enough money to start his own office and bought into Century 21 with a partner.
But he’s changed, and others have noticed.
Since Paxton’s birth, Spencer has hired more people to help him, delegates more and is more organized and focused, Denton said.
Spencer credits his son’s illness for the change: “I’m a better friend, a better husband, a better work colleague.”
At home, Jessica notices a difference, too. “Having lost his mom and having a son with severe medical problems has taught him to pause and appreciate life more,” she said. “He is a businessman, but he knows there are far greater things than money and material possessions.”
Paxton, Spencer said, is a blessing in his life.