|Morgan (above) & Jackson with Winston & Sienna (below)
“I had an itch for 7 months.”
This was Morgan Dunnigan’s description of what ended up being a spinal cord tumor. Her doctors couldn’t determine the cause of the itch until a pediatric ER doctor asked some specific questions. “[He asked] what the itch felt like and whether it felt like a mosquito bite. It actually felt like tingling when your foot is asleep.” Tingling can be a sign of nerve problems so he ordered special tests. After discovering the tumor, her doctor scheduled surgery to remove it. Unfortunately, as Morgan remembers, “the night before the surgery to remove it, the tumor paralyzed me.” Morgan was 6 years old.
Since then Morgan and her family have pursued many different avenues in her recovery. She says, “Right after the surgery I went to Kennedy Krieger in Baltimore and I go back every summer. In Dayton, a personal trainer helps with the home program on Mondays. Wednesday through Saturday I do pilates. I also do horseback therapy in fall. I joined the NRN on April 2, .” Morgan spent three months at the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) in Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. During that time she worked with a therapy team to recover her ability to walk. This therapy involves Morgan being suspended in a harness over a special treadmill that helps support her. Then she works on taking normal steps without errors with three trainers assisting her legs and hips. The goal of the NRN is to help patients recover as much function as possible without the need of crutches, walkers or wheelchairs. “It’s different from normal therapy because we practice the same thing over and over again.” Her practice has paid off. Morgan’s balance has improved and she’s been able to walk independently on the treadmill for 15-20 minutes without resting.
Morgan enjoys typical freedoms for a 12 year-old girl. She goes to school and is in 8thgrade. She enjoys reading, especially JK Rowling and Susanne Collins, and listening to music like Taylor Swift. She does her nails, goes to the pool, and rides an adapted bike. She recently went to summer camp which specializes in kids with different physical injuries. She ended her summer by playing at a high ropes course with her family – an activity she would not have been able to do before joining the NRN.
Morgan has come a long way but she still has limitations. “Keeping up with friends is hard. I can’t play sports. I can’t run. I can’t sweat on hot days. I spray myself with water so I can cool down.” Some of her limitations are also environmental. “I can fly on a plane but security always checks my back brace because they don’t know what it is. I take subways in D.C. and Boston, but not every station has an elevator so we really have to plan our trips because I can’t go up and down stairs very well.” In spite of these limitations, Morgan has not been discouraged, “Sometimes it’s a little sad. The only thing I can do is recover.”
Even small gains in function following paralysis can have a huge impact on someone’s life. It’s liberating, motivating, and healing. Sponsored by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the NeuroRecovery Network is dedicated to providing patients with the opportunity to recovery as much physical ability as possible. With additional funding the NRN can grow and be able to treat more individuals, like Morgan, whose lives have been affected by paralysis. Please consider making a contribution.
Special thanks to Winston and Sienna Basso-Schricker for interviewing Morgan, gathering much of the material for this story.
In 2010, Lori Fickes was pregnant with her son Jackson but didn’t feel a lot of movement from the baby. When Jackson was born, the doctors discovered a tumor in his spinal cord which caused paralysis. He was only a few weeks old when he began chemotherapy. He was five weeks old when he had surgery to remove the tumor; a procedure that many doctors were reluctant to perform. When he was four months old he started rehab.
Jackson, now 2 ˝ years old, is in a unique position. Most people with paralysis lose existing abilities like standing and walking. Jackson never learned how to walk or stand before he was paralyzed so his rehabilitation is geared towards teaching him these skills for the first time. Jackson’s rehab keeps him pretty busy. His dad, Brent, comments, “He has a treadmill with a harness at home and he walks on it 20 minutes a day 4 days a week. He also has a standing wheelchair and a physical therapy table to work with his arms.” Lori adds, “He has a walker and he can stand on his own if he leans against something. He just got his first wheelchair. The wheelchair has made a big difference. The other night at a cookout he was keeping up with all the kids and chasing [his brother] Ben around with the wheelchair and taking cookies off the dessert table.”
Thankfully his life isn’t all work and no play. Lori says, “Jackson likes to play basketball.” Jackson says, “I have a blue bike. I can steer all by myself.” The family took a vacation to Disney World in Florida, went to the beach, and also went to Cedar Point. However, finding access for Jackson still proves to be difficult at times. Lori explains, “Now that he has his own wheelchair, we have to be careful on planes because the wheel chair can get broken. At the beach the stroller wouldn’t work so we had to carry Jackson the whole time. Wheelchair accessibility is so hard. At Ben’s school we noticed that the buttons to open the doors are too high for a child to reach. When we went to Cedar Point, they wouldn’t let him onto many of the rides.”
With the help of his family, Jackson continues to work (and sometimes play) with doctors and physical therapists to regain function and coordination in his legs. He is treated by dedicated people at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and in collaboration with the Physical therapists at Nationwide, he goes to the NeuroRecovery Network at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center once a week. He gets into a harness and is suspended over a treadmill where 3 trainers carefully move his legs and hips to simulate walking. Jackson also tries moving his legs on his own. One of his favorite activities is to practice standing up by reaching for M&M’s. All this work is paying off because he’s gaining more ability every day.
Sponsored by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the NeuroRecovery Network is dedicated to providing patients with the opportunity to recover as much function as possible. With additional funding the NRN can grow and be able to treat more individuals, like Jackson, whose lives have been affected by paralysis. Please consider making a contribution.
Special thanks to Winston and Sienna Basso-Schricker for interviewing Jackson and his family, gathering much of the material for this story.