Mimi Murphy's Medical Breakthroughs: Beating Pediatric Paralysis

By: Mimi Murphy
By: Mimi Murphy

Each year, about 11,000 people experience a spinal cord injury. The standard approach to therapy has been simply maintenance therapy to improve range of motion and teach daily care. Now, doctors at Washington University in St. Louis are using a new approach to help kids and adults alike.

Christopher Reeve may be the most famous patient receiving this care, but he's not the only one.

At first glance, Jessica Hill looks like any other five-year-old. But Jessica is anything but average. She was born paralyzed from the chest down. Today, she can walk on her own.

"I truly believed that if we could get some advanced physical therapy, that she could do a lot of things," said Jessica's mother, Leann.

Call it mother's intuition, but Leann was right. Searching for more than standard treatment, she sought out the help of neurologist John McDonald, M.D., Ph.D.

"Small children have a much better potential for regeneration. Although there's no proven effective therapy in children and that's the problem," said Dr. McDonald, of the Washington University School of Medicine

He uses activity-based therapy with all his patients. The key is optimizing activity.

"Although we have tools and machines to do this for adults. We don't have them for children," Dr. McDonald said.

Parents like Leann have adapted the adult-sized machines for their kids. Weight supported treadmills and electrical stimulation get the legs moving. Doctors hope the constant movement will help regenerate spinal cord function. It's working for Jessica.

"Now, she feels all the way down. We can put her on the edge of a table, she can kick her feet, she rides her bike," said Leann. "It's just absolutely incredible that she has made the progress that she has made.

She's determined and that's all that she really needs," said Leann.

Dr. McDonald has worked closely with Christopher Reeve who, more than seven years after his injury, has recovered limited movement in parts of his body. Jessica was Dr. McDonald's first pediatric patient.

If you would like more information, please contact:

Linda Schultz, Ph.D.
Spinal Cord Nurse Liaison
Washington University School of Medicine
4444 Forest Park Blvd., Box 8518
St. Louis, MO 63108
(314) 454-7892
schultz@neuro.wustl.edu


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