Anna Faura is positively giddy with excitement. It’s a Thursday afternoon at the Dornsife Pediatric Therapy Suite on Good Shepherd’s south Allentown campus and for the pretty and energetic 12 year old, that means one-on-one time with the ZeroG, a gait and balance system that brings life-changing technology to children like Anna.
For Anna, who has cerebral palsy, this is one of the best days of the week because for the first time in her life, Anna is walking as she’s never done before, experiencing mobility without relying on her walker. Suddenly, the world seems to hold greater possibilities for a girl on the verge of becoming a teen-ager, who is yearning for more independence and literally is making strides to achieve that goal.
“She has some girl-power attitude and that’s what you want her to have, independence and a high functioning level despite her disabilities,” says Anna’s mother, Melissa, marveling at her daughter’s enthusiasm and progress. “I consider the ZeroG state of the art and so innovative. She’s just blossomed since doing this.”
That Anna is able to keep her sense of delight is all the more remarkable for a young girl who had to learn to walk not once but twice. Melissa and Anna’s father, Xavier, know that beyond the uncertainties Anna will face as she grows older, two things have been a reassuring constant in their lives, Good Shepherd and a daughter who is their “angel on earth,” bringing them light and love and joy.
Melissa first became acquainted with Good Shepherd in the 1990s when she worked there as a dietitian in the rehabilitation hospital and then again some years later as a clinical nutrition manager.
“Little did I know then that I would need and value their services on a personal level for my daughter,” she says.
Anna was born on October 3, 2003, delivered by Caesarean section. Exposure to the entero-virus during birth led to viral encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. For the first two and a half weeks of her life, Anna was kept in the neonatal intensive care unit. The tiny infant struggled with fever, uncontrollable seizures and a low heart rate. Unable to breathe on her own, Anna was on a ventilator. It took four days before the diagnosis was confirmed, an excruciating time for Melissa and Xavier who didn’t know if their baby would survive.
“She almost died,” says Melissa. “We had her baptized three days after being born.”
Finally Anna stabilized enough to go home but there were more struggles ahead. It took two months to finally get the seizures under control and as time passed, other problems became apparent: Anna wasn’t reaching the normal developmental milestones. She was non-verbal, she couldn’t sit up on her own when she was 10 months old and she didn’t start to crawl until she reached 18 months.
Melissa also noticed that Anna wasn’t reacting to light and movement. “You could pass by her and she wasn’t tracking,” says Melissa.
A specialist determined when Anna was two months old that she had cortical visual impairment, a disconnect between what she saw and what her brain was able to process. “It was like an uphill climb of Mt. Everest because it was one obstacle after another,” says Melissa.
The cerebral palsy diagnosis came when Anna was a year old. Immediately Melissa and Xavier began exploring therapies that would help their daughter be the best she could possibly be. They had plenty to work with. “She was the most loving and happy child,” says Melissa. “She was able to adjust to anyone who picked her up, she didn’t cry much and she was comforted easily.”
At two, Anna began physical therapy at Good Shepherd’s outpatient pediatrics program through early intervention. A year later, occupational and speech therapies were added. Having worked for Good Shepherd years before and witnessed some powerful recoveries with neurologically impaired patients, Melissa knew that if her daughter was to thrive, Good Shepherd offered the best chance.
“I loved the interdisciplinary approach to improving patient outcomes,” says Melissa. “It was just incredible for me to see how the team worked together. It was so worth coming to work every day.”
As Anna grew, the need for orthopedic surgery became more apparent. In 2013, Anna’s femurs were fractured and rotated then realigned on her hips with plates and screws to prevent her legs from turning inward. Anna was admitted to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Emily Howatt Pliskatt Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem where she had to learn to walk all over again.
When Anna arrived, she could only stand for 15 seconds. After two and a half months, with leg braces and a walker, she walked out.
“What a joy that was,” says Melissa. “I thought she was never going to walk again but she showed us that with her spirit and sense of hard work and determination that she could do it. She’s teaching us every day.”
Melissa credits much of Anna’s recovery with the excellent teamwork between Good Shepherd’s outpatient and inpatient therapists. “Within a very short period of time, they knew exactly what to do with Anna,” says Melissa. “The care was seamless.”
Once again, Anna resumed outpatient therapy. When the RJ Foundation generously provided funding for purchase of the ZeroG, Anna’s physical therapist, Amanda Kleckner, began evaluating Anna as a possible candidate. A harness fastened to an overhead track helps support Anna’s body weight allowing her to walk without holding on to anything and giving her a sense of greater independence.
“She needed to work on hands-free ambulation and I liked the ZeroG for her because it decreases her fear of falling since it catches her,” says Amanda. “Anna now is getting more mobility outside of her walker and her gait pattern is improving because she’s taking longer steps and has less hip rotation.”
Amanda also uses a treadmill in Anna’s sessions with the ZeroG, helping her progress even more. “She can get 1000 steps in a short amount of time by going faster on the treadmill,” says Amanda. “The repetition helps with neuroplasticity, retraining the muscles and nerves.”
Whatever nervousness Anna had during her first session with the ZeroG was gone by the third session. Fear gave way to fearlessness and that has become evident at home where Anna, under the watchful eye of her brother, Juan, and parents, now can walk through the downstairs hallway on her own and delights in climbing up and down the stairs with more confidence than before she began using the ZeroG.
“If I go to hold her waist, she’ll move my hand off her waist as if to say, ‘Mom. I’ve got this,’” says Melissa.
Excursions to the park near their home bring out even more of Anna’s hunger for independence. Melissa and Xavier beam when they watch how much faster Anna moves using her walker as she makes a beeline for the park. Watching their daughter’s confidence bloom exceeds what these devoted parents ever imagined.
“I think our hopes for her in the beginning were not that great,” says Xavier. “But after the surgery and what Good Shepherd has done for her, it’s good.”
Adds Melissa, “Good Shepherd is a blessing to our family. The therapists are highly dedicated to improving our daughter’s functional abilities and it’s providing her with the latest technology to advance her. When she’s doing the ZeroG, she’s just happy and as a parent, that’s all you want for your child.”