Brooke the Immortal: An American Child May Hold Secrets to Aging

By Philip Bethge

Brooke Greenberg is almost 18, but she has remained mentally and physically at the level of a toddler. An American physician is trying to uncover the child's secret, because he wants to give mankind the gift of eternal life.

It is possible that the key to immortality is hidden in this delicate girl, who is only about 76 centimeters (2 feet, 6 inches) tall and weighs seven kilograms (15.4 pounds). Her arms and legs are as fragile as the branches of a young tree. Her laugh sounds like the whimper of a puppy; she has hazel eyes. And when Brooke Greenberg wants her mother she stretches out her tiny arms, shakes her head slowly, and twists her face into a lopsided moue.

"Come here, Brooke, yes, you are a pretty girl." Melanie Greenberg, 49, picks up the fragile looking child and gently strokes her back. "She loves being held," says Greenberg, a mother of four. Brooke's sisters are named Emily, Caitlin and Carly. Brooke is the second youngest. She will be 18 in January.

Other girls her age are driving, going out dancing and sleeping with their first boyfriends. But for Brooke it's as if time had stood still. Mentally and physically, the girl remains at the level of an 11-month-old baby.

"Brooke is a miracle," says her father, Howard Greenberg. "Brooke is a mystery," says Lawrence Pakula, her pediatrician. "Brooke is an opportunity," says Richard Walker, a geneticist with the University of South Florida College of Medicine. They all mean the girl from Reisterstown, a small town in the US state of Maryland, who may hold the answer to a human mystery. At issue is nothing less than immortality: Brooke Greenberg apparently isn't aging.

She has no hormonal problems, and her chromosomes seem normal. But her development is proceeding "extremely slowly," says Walker. If scientists can figure out what is causing the disorder, it might be possible to unlock the mysteries of aging itself. "Then we've got the golden ring," says Walker.

He hopes to simply eliminate age-related diseases like cancer, dementia and diabetes. People who no longer age will no longer get sick, he reasons. But he also thinks eternal life is conceivable. "Biological immortality is possible," says Walker. "If you don't get hit by a car or by lightning, you could live at least 1,000 years."

An Unprecedented Case

Brooke Greenberg was born prematurely on Jan. 8, 1993 at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She weighed only 1,800 grams (about four pounds) at birth. It soon became clear that she wasn't normal. Almost all of her organ systems were altered. Her hips were dislocated, so that her legs pointed awkwardly toward her shoulders. She'd hardly been born before she was placed in a cast.

The first six years were torture for Brooke and her parents. On one occasion, seven holes in the child's abdominal wall had to be repaired. Because food kept entering her windpipe instead of her stomach, a gastric feeding tube had to be inserted. She fell into a 14-day coma when she was four. Then doctors diagnosed a brain tumor (the diagnosis later proved to be incorrect). "The Greenbergs had gone out already and made the preparations, buying a coffin and talking to the rabbi," pediatrician Pakula recalls.

Pakula practices in a medical building near the Greenbergs' house. He wears a tie adorned with cartoonish hippopotamuses. A tall stack of paper -- Brooke's file -- sits on his desk. "This can't be lost," says the doctor, placing his hand on the documents. He knows what a treasure the file represents.

The most surprising thing about Brooke is that she hardly ages at all. Her body stopped growing when she was two years old. She hasn't grown a centimeter or gained a pound. Pakula injected the girl with growth hormones, but nothing happened. He studied the medical literature and consulted specialists worldwide. "She was presented to everybody who was anybody in the medical world at the time," says the 77-year-old pediatrician, "but she didn't match anything any physician had seen before."

The Greenbergs waited and hoped -- one year, two years, 10 years -- but nothing happened. Their daughter's facial features have remained unchanged. There are no signs of puberty. "Brooke's nurses, her teachers, even her father can't consistently sort photos of her chronologically," says Pakula. Only the girl's hair and fingernails are growing normally.

'She's a Miracle'

At the family's house in Reisterstown, Howard Greenberg points to photos on the walls: Brooke at three, next to her one-year-old sister Carly, who was already bigger than she was at the time; Brooke in a playsuit on her 12th birthday; Brooke at 14, at her Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of initiation.

Greenberg hurries from picture to picture. Brooke looks the same in all the photos. Her mouth is always slightly lopsided and her eyes just a tough too far apart. "She's a miracle." It's something that has to be said, again and again. "What's she missing in life? Nothing. She hasn't got a worry in the world. She isn't broken. We're the ones who are broken." This is the father's way of explaining away his daughter's condition. "If you look at it that way, it makes it much more bearable," he says later on.

At first Melanie Greenberg took care of Brooke on her own, but now she has help. Feeding Brooke through the tube takes 10 hours a day. She goes to a school for disabled children from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Much of the rest of the time she spends in her room, sitting in her bed and watching television, or bobbing back and forth in her light-blue baby swing.

"She can do this all day," says Melanie Greenberg, lifting her daughter into the air and carefully placing her on her thin little legs, with her feet twisted inward. "It was not easy, it was very hard," she says, "but I'm sure there is a reason for Brooke to be here. Something is in her, something that could help millions of people."

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