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Finding Joy

Liz Cook didn’t hesitate to take on the most heart-breaking foster child imaginable. What Liz gave in love and security has come back in the smile of a little girl with joy in her name and her heart.

As a foster mom, Liz Cook was accustomed to taking on children from some pretty difficult home situations. But nothing prepared her for the heartrending sight and medical complexities of 14-month-old Hannah*, a beautiful little girl with golden hair and a golden spirit waiting to be free.

“The foster agency called and said they had a referral in the hospital, but we’re not sure she’s going to make it,” says Liz recalling that day in February 2017. “She was really touch and go. She was the size, weight and ability of a two month old.” Hannah*, and her two cousins, all three whom Liz agreed to foster, had been rescued from an abusive home. Hannah faced a long road to recovery and lifelong impacts from the abuse. “When I met her, she had more tubes coming out of her body than I’d ever seen,” says Liz. “There was no life in her. Nothing. I was pretty terrified.”

But Liz is not one to walk away from a child in need, no matter how challenging. The 37-year-old director of training for a college campus ministry has fostered several children from newborns to 17 years old. As daunting as the prospect was of fostering a child with such significant disabilities, Liz took one look at Hannah, promising then and there to love and care for her. “I committed to visiting her every day,” says Liz. “At that point she was mostly stable.”

That promise was sealed with hope when Liz held Hannah in her arms and the little girl who seemed beyond reach whimpered for the first time. “It meant she felt safe enough to express something without fear of being hurt again,” says Liz. “I promised I would keep her as safe as I could.”

Within a few days after that first meeting Hannah had progressed enough to be transferred to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem. Liz had never heard of the pediatric unit but was impressed by the staff and the warm, child friendly environment with accommodations for parents to stay overnight.

Hannah’s care team of physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapists soon discovered the complex intertwining of Hannah’s physical and psychological challenges. “She was one of the most timid kids we’ve seen,” says Kendall Shelly, the occupational therapist who worked with Hannah. “Just trying to hold and handle her was a challenge. We worked a lot on increasing her tolerance.”

Feeding was a major hurdle for Hannah who arrived malnourished and weighing only 15.5 pounds. The World Health Organization says the average weight for baby girls her age is 20.7 pounds. “She was refusing to drink,” says Liz. “She had been force-fed a bottle by a five year old and wanted nothing to do with it.”

The goal was to wean Hannah from a feeding tube and transition her to a bottle and pureed foods. “Hannah had refeeding syndrome,” says Liz. “It’s like when a child has been starved. We needed to introduce food slowly and deliberately because she could get sick and her body reject food.”

Therapists also focused on the basics that normally come naturally to babies. “She was a 14 month old who wasn’t able to sit up on her own,” says Kendall. “We worked a lot on developmental milestones, helping Hannah to build up her strength and play with toys at a more appropriate level. She also loved watching people’s expressions and playing in the mirror.”

Music opened doors to Hannah’s rapid development. “Music has been so healing for her,” says Liz. “I love that Good Shepherd recognized she was motivated by music and used it in her therapy.”

From the beginning, Liz was involved in all Hannah’s therapy sessions. On weekends, Hannah’s cousins, who also are living with Liz, visited and were included in those sessions. “That was fantastic,” says Liz. “Good Shepherd has that awareness that you don’t just work with the patient, that you have to work with the family and consider the surroundings.”

The training Liz received at Good Shepherd gave her the confidence to take Hannah home, 6 knowing she had the skills to care for her daughter. That day came just one month after Hannah was admitted. “They thought she was going to be there more like two months,” says Liz, “They discharged her early because she was just plowing through her goals and then some. She could sit and crawl on her own, support herself, eat, all the things that were critical to her being safely discharged. She’s a fighter. She was incredibly abused and hurt, yet she didn’t give in to that. As soon as she had appropriate care she immediately started turning corners and thriving.”

The care tools in Liz’s arsenal didn’t just help her with Hannah. “I’ve been able to identify problems much faster in other children placed with me and get help sooner,” says Liz. “I’ve learned what it’s like to care for a child with special needs even when their disabilities are invisible. I’m not nearly as scared by challenges because I’ve lived through them with Hannah.”

When Hannah went home with Liz, she had gained two pounds and no longer needed a feeding tube. The little girl who was painfully timid had transformed into an engaging child. “We didn’t see much personality when we first got her,” says Kendall, “but as she progressed and was able to tolerate physical touch and play, that’s when she began to flourish. Now she’s in a loving home and thriving.”

Hannah turned 5 in November and is continuing to make progress with outpatient therapy at Good Shepherd Pediatrics Program in Allentown. Denise Roncolato, a pediatric occupational therapy assistant, is helping Hannah learn skills she’ll need for kindergarten next fall: how to write her letters and numbers, develop visual motor skills for reading and follow directions.

“She is the model patient and quite the little spirit,” says Denise. “She’s funny and a little stubborn because she has a very independent streak, but cooperative and compliant. She is strong and motivated to learn and do things. If she doesn’t know how to do something, she’ll figure it out.”

Hannah loves riding her two-wheeler and being outside running, swinging, sliding and camping. “We’re just a very active family,” says Liz.

Hannah’s brain injury is expected to last throughout her life, but with each day, she lives up to her middle name, Joy. “From day one she has exhibited an insane amount of joy, and that is contagious to anyone around her,” says Liz.

In August, Liz adopted Hannah, adding a happy chapter to Hannah’s life. The radiant smile on Hannah’s face reflects the security and love she has come to know. Against all odds, the little girl who began life deprived of love, found a forever family and her own heart that just wants to give back. “She says, ‘I will share my toys mommy. I will take care of them,’” says Liz. “That’s just who she is.”

* Editor’s Note: At Liz Cook’s request, Hannah’s last name is being withheld.

To support Good Shepherd Pediatrics visit goodshepherdrehab.org/donate or contact the Development Office at 610-778-1075.