Defining Determination

Story by Dr. Suzanne Prestwich, Medical Director of the Pediatric Rehabilitation Unit

Alex CurtisI wouldn’t be surprised to look up the definition of “determination” in a dictionary, only to find a photo of a smiling John “Alex” Curtis.

On the day he was admitted to our inpatient rehabilitation unit, his mother told me, “You know, Alex is a very special child.” Of course, all of us parents think the same about our kids. But throughout his time with us, Alex proved his mother right.

Alex came to Kennedy Krieger Institute for intensive inpatient rehabilitation after he had an operation elsewhere to fix a chest wall abnormality called Pectus Excavatum. If severe and untreated, the condition can affect the ability to breathe. Unfortunately, a complication occurred during the procedure and Alex woke from surgery unable to walk.

I remember within those first few days, Alex told me in a matter-of-fact way that he was going to walk again. I hope for a full recovery for all of my patients, but experience has told me that nothing is guaranteed. Alex, however, didn’t need my hope or guarantee: He knew he would walk again. There was simply never any doubt in his mind.

After spending full days working hard in physical and occupational therapy, he would spend the evening hours lying in bed, mentally willing his legs to move. I can imagine him privately pleading with his body to cooperate, to do what his mind was urging. Finally, about 4 weeks after the surgery, Alex moved his toes for the first time. He was so proud of himself.

With more hard work and determination, Alex was soon moving his legs and getting stronger every day. First he was walking with the physical support of his therapists. Then, with crutches. Eventually, he didn’t even need those, and he was cruising through the halls of Kennedy Krieger independently.

Kennedy Krieger Institute, rehabilitation, paralysis, physical therapy, occupational therapyNot only was Alex determined to walk, he was focused on his education, and, while in the hospital, he maintained a full academic course load and earned excellent grades the entire time. Alex was also a role model and inspiration for the other children in our hospital, always cheering them on as they faced their own hurdles. His attitude and motivation were truly contagious.

One of my fondest memories of Alex involves his hair. You see, he was not going to cut his hair until he left rehab. He considered it sort of a badge of honor. Well, let’s just say it began looking quite shaggy after a while. I teased him that he should get it cut but, as always, he had his own plans. I brought in some hair barrettes for him to wear as a dare–and he did, all day long throughout therapy! His good-natured sense of humor always made my day.

When you meet his mom, it’s easy to see where Alex gets his determination. Serena is a true, Steel Magnolia-style Southern lady. When adversity struck her son, she stood by him with unwavering resolve. She was always polite and soft spoken, but also determined that nothing would interfere with her son’s recovery. Not only was she a good role model, she was one of the best parent advocates I have ever met.

Kennedy Krieger Institute, inpatient rehabilitation, paralysis, physical therapy, occupational therapyAt home now in Virginia, Alex continues to do outstanding things. He is taking International Baccalaureate courses in high school, and he is learning how to drive. I know he will achieve whatever goals he sets for himself in the future. With his mother to cheer him on, there is nothing he can’t do. I look forward to hearing of Alex’s future successes, as I am certain that one day we will all see his face again, but for a different kind of achievement. After all, his determination is truly unstoppable.

 

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