Written by Kristin Riddick
“Spirited” and “determined” are two words that unmistakably describe Cheryl. Born with cerebral palsy, Cheryl has had a lifetime of experience with physical therapy and the medical system, seeing the best and worst practices along her journey.
Cheryl started physical therapy through her preschool at just 18 months of age. She learned to walk without assistance, but had difficulty going long distances and fell often. Her siblings kept her active at home by playing chase and encouraging her to keep getting back up, no matter how many times she fell. Over time, her mobility changed as she underwent a series of surgeries meant to fix her tight muscles and various musculoskeletal issues in her legs. The surgeries did not go as hoped, and Cheryl was restricted to a wheelchair for mobility. Finally, at 9 years old, her doctor told her what no one wants to hear: that she would never walk again.
Cheryl, full of grit and determination, did not take no for an answer. Six months later, after hard work, she entered the doctor’s office walking again, this time with the use of crutches to stabilize her. She moved through the world with her crutches for years. But as she got older, Cheryl again had to use a wheelchair as musculoskeletal problems, surgical complications, and balance issues took their toll on her mobility. Cheryl felt her world closing in as she could “do less and less.”
Physical therapy, which had been provided for Cheryl throughout her school years, was no longer available once she graduated high school. She and her mother called every outpatient clinic in Northern Virginia to find someone who worked with adults with cerebral palsy. They were told repeatedly that cerebral palsy was a “preexisting condition” and that Cheryl had no hope of progress as an adult. Cheryl finally found therapists nearby who agreed to work with her through hydrotherapy and strengthening machines. Despite Cheryl’s commitment to the work, there was something missing. The therapists were often at their desks or working on other tasks while Cheryl was on the machines. They had little time for questions or discussion of the treatment plan. She continued to attend therapy for strengthening, but she was resolved to find a way to walk. Cheryl took treatment into her own hands and used her neighbors’ steps to practice her walking. She made small gains but was still frustrated by frequent falls and an inability to walk for longer distances, even with her crutches.
Finally, Cheryl was told about The Gait Center in Richmond, several hours from her home in Northern Virginia. Willing to do anything to walk again, Cheryl made the drive to meet David Lawrence and immediately agreed to continue her therapy there. Cheryl grew in strength and endurance under David’s expert eye and guided care. Her persistence was rewarded when her favorite singer, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, noticed her new skills and asked her to duet with him at a show. Cheryl walked on stage singing “Walk This Way.”
Cheryl continues to progress with David. “David teaches you how to walk. He doesn’t just do physical therapy- he teaches you how to change,” she says. All the therapists at The Gait Center encourage her to keep working hard towards her goals and don’t “let [her] get away with anything.” With her increasing mobility, Cheryl is able to pursue more of her interests, such as attending NASCAR races and riding motorcycles. Walking proudly to the front row with her pink crutches, Cheryl has not missed a single Aerosmith concert in Virginia, Washington D.C., or Maryland.
Mission Gait’s vision is for patients like Cheryl to have access to the same high-quality, personalized physical therapy, no matter where they are located. Our hope is that through education, more therapists across the country will be empowered with the skills and resources to treat complex patients effectively and help them reach their goals- whether it is climbing mountains or dancing onstage with their favorite rockstar.