On a bitter cold February morning, Tamisha Walker huddled at a bus stop, chatting with three other young women. The conversation ranged from Facebook to favorite books and movies. Tamisha, like so many teen-agers, is a huge “Twilight” fan having read every book in the series. “We’re like penguins,” the 16-year-old joked.
The sight of the bus rounding the corner brought cheers from the group and perhaps a little nervous flutter in Tamisha’s stomach because this was not a typical trip to the mall. For Tamisha, who has cerebral palsy, this was another step in her very determined quest for greater independence.
Tamisha has many goals – going to college and becoming a nurse or teacher are among them – but on this morning, the more immediate goal was maneuvering her manual wheelchair up the ramp and into the bus. It proved more difficult than she thought.
“I was pushing really hard to get up the ramp, but I kept sliding back,” says Tamisha with a big grin.
The outing was part of Tamisha’s therapy at the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem where the Allentown teen had been admitted a month earlier. She learned that she will need to work on her upper body strength. She also discovered that the bus stop was not easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair, just one of many obstacles she will encounter as she continues to explore her community.
For the pretty, outgoing teen who wants to do more things with her friends and family, learning to take public transportation and get about on her own is crucial for her greater independence. “One of the nice things about these trips is we do a debriefing when we get back,” says Carissa Peppard, an occupational therapist who accompanied Tamisha to the mall. “We look at what we need to do differently in therapy to benefit the patient.”
Michele Shara, a recreational therapist who also went along, is mindful that Tamisha is at the stage of her life where she needs to stay socially engaged by being as independent as possible, especially since her family doesn’t own a car.
The pediatric unit team is helping Tamisha with some major physical adjustments following corrective surgery from her hips down to her ankles last June. The surgery was needed to address problems that had developed from increased tone in her muscles, causing her walk to become progressively more awkward. And, as a growing teen, developmental changes have also made it harder for Tamisha to get around with her braces and crutches, her preferred mode of mobility.
“It’s common for kids with cerebral palsy that as they get older, gravity starts to play into things making it harder to walk,” says Dr. Kimberly Kuchinski, a pediatric physiatrist on the unit. “Tamisha has a lot of increased tone or spasticity in her legs and as she gets bigger, it becomes more difficult to stand up straight and stretch, so the contractures get more fixed. She had kind of a bunny hop and wasn’t really using her legs.”
After the surgery, Tamisha was getting home therapy but she wasn’t progressing.
“I was in a lot of pain,” says Tamisha. “I was scared.”
“The whole point of the surgery was to help her walk better,” says Dr. Kuchinski, noting that Tamisha couldn’t navigate the stairs in and out of the family’s apartment. “If anything, she became weaker and she was pretty much wheelchair-bound at home.”
Tamisha’s orthopedic surgeon consulted with Dr. Kuchinski. It was decided that Tamisha could benefit from coming to Good Shepherd’s pediatric unit where the team would work on improving her gait and strength so she could accomplish one of her goals of returning to school using her crutches and leg braces.
“She refuses to go back to school at a lower level of function,” says Dr. Kuchinski. “And not in a wheelchair.”
Good Shepherd is also working with Tamisha on important daily living skills.
“Here I can take a shower by myself, I can dress myself, I can go to the bathroom by myself, I can do my own laundry,” says Tamisha, ticking off her list of accomplishments.
Fridays are “Food Friday” when she practices her cooking and baking skills in the unit’s kitchen. Her culinary talents so far include tacos, brownies and cupcakes.
Tamisha’s sunny and upbeat attitude reflects an inner strength that has literally made her a survivor. She and her twin sister Taisha, were born two months premature in Puerto Rico. They weighed only two pounds, 15 ounces. The difficult birth caused bleeding in Tamisha’s brain. She spent the first two months of her life in the neo-natal intensive care unit.
At about nine months, Tamisha’s mother, Zoritza Franqui, suspected something was wrong when Tamisha didn’t crawl like her sister. “She would just use her arms to pull herself across the floor,” says Zoritza.
When she was one-and-a-half years old, Tamisha was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Getting Tamisha to therapy, which typically required a long and difficult bus ride, was a huge challenge. Zoritza was only
16 years old and an inexperienced single mother, but even she knew that she could not stay in Puerto Rico with her girls..
“So, I just took everything I had and came here,” says Zoritza, who had lived in the Lehigh Valley years earlier as a child and still had family connections. “I had nothing to lose.”
Zoritza’s strong will has been passed down to Tamisha, who, with the support of her twin sister and her family, is fighting every day to achieve her goals. “One of my goals is to walk up stairs,” she says.
Two days later, with help from her therapists, she climbed a set of stairs, one very determined step at a time. And she did it the only way she knows how; she did it her way.