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“Look at All He’s Done.”

December 09, 2009

It’s 7 a.m. on a beautiful fall morning and 9-year-old Frankie Muniz is wide awake and ready to take on the day.

“Good morning Frankie,” occupational therapist Carissa Snelling says in a bright sing-song voice as she enters Frankie’s room on the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem. “Hey buddy. Did you have any dreams last night? Did you dream about Harry Potter?”

Frankie turns his head and smiles. It’s difficult for him to talk because of the tracheotomy in his throat, but in the dimly-lit room his big brown eyes shine with joy. It is a major achievement for a little boy with a severe brain injury sustained in a car accident, who just 5 weeks ago lay with a wide, fixed gaze, unresponsive to sound, sight and touch.

“You wouldn’t believe what he was like,” Carissa says. “His prognosis was very poor. He’s amazed everyone. We call him our miracle man.”

Carissa unzips the side of the veil bed in which Frankie sleeps – so-called because of its tent-like structure with mesh sides – and helps this thin little boy with the red scars on his head sit up. Frankie gingerly moves his spindly legs clad in casts over the side of the bed and Carissa helps transfer him into a manual wheelchair for the start of an intense day of therapy.

Seven miles away on Good Shepherd’s brain injury unit in Allentown, Frankie’s father, 29-year-old Frank, who was also in the accident, is struggling to recover from multiple traumatic injuries to several major organs. He spent about 40 days in a coma in Lehigh Valley Hospital’s intensive care unit before coming to Good Shepherd on August 17. Though separated by distance, father and son are bound in spirit and bolstered by their family’s love and spiritual faith as they work slowly but surely through the tragedy that took the life of Frankie’s mother, Jessy.

“It’s been hard,” says Frank who had the heart-wrenching task of telling Frankie that God wanted his mother with Him. “At first the doctors told me they’d done everything they could do. It totally broke my heart. I wanted to die.”

As Frank works on building his strength and stamina, he is motivated by his son’s recovery. Frankie is relearning everything all over again. Today, he’s focusing on the basics of everyday living – getting dressed, washing his face, brushing his teeth, putting on Chapstick, eating breakfast. Frankie’s progress has astounded everyone on staff and each day brings a new accomplishment which is recorded in a scrapbook.

“We always keep a camera on hand because you never know what miracle you’re going to see,” Carissa says.

The miracle of this day is actually threefold. With a little help from Carissa, Frankie ties his shoe. He then picks out his own clothes, opting for his favorite Batman tee-shirt. Later in the morning, he’ll delight everyone by riding a special tricycle and going outside for a spin. All are firsts since he’s been admitted.

As Frankie emerges from his room, clean and dressed, Carissa can’t wait to share the day’s first accomplishment with her colleagues.

“Did I hear you tied your shoes today?” exclaims Jamie Zanelli, RN, as she emerges from another room. “I am so proud of you!”

The accolades continue and Frankie beams as he slowly wheels himself in to breakfast where Carissa is trying to get him to use his weakened left hand more. A healthy appetite will provide fuel for the day ahead. There’s a lot on his agenda – physical therapy, more occupational therapy and speech therapy with work on chewing and swallowing.

There’s even school. Mary Becker, an educator with the Bethlehem Area School District, provides classroom instruction to every child on the pediatric unit who can participate. Children are given IQ and other cognitive tests to evaluate their learning capacity. A program is then tailored to their needs and capabilities.

“Frankie was my first,” she says. “The difference in seeing him when I first came and even just six days later was spectacular. Of course every child is different. Many of them are non-verbal. I try to involve as many senses as possible.”

For Frankie, sensory stimulation was key to gradually pulling him out of his non-responsive state. An intense two-week program was designed. Every 15 minutes, for eight hours a day, therapists took turns stimulating Frankie’s senses.

Family also has played an essential role in Frankie’s recovery — as well as his father’s — with daily visits from his grandparents Francisco and Ana Perez, and aunt Yenixsa (who left their home in Puerto Rico to help), little sister Kelly, 5, (who also sustained some injuries in the accident) and cousin Tiffany, 3.

“Prior to the accident, Frankie was a very active, energetic child,” says Yenixsa. “He loves PlayStation and riding bikes. He loves to make people laugh and he loves animals, especially dogs. After the accident, he wasn’t able to move, not even a finger. Now look at all he’s done!”

Father and son have a long, hard road to travel, but Frank is grateful for the loving care they’ve both received at Good Shepherd. Sustained by the love of his family and his Catholic faith, he believes there is new purpose to his life.

“Thanks to God, I’m alive today and being given a second chance,” he says. “I have to be there for my kids.”

For more information on Good Shepherd’s programs and services, call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422).