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A Grateful Gift
Less than 24 hours after he was born, Philip Keelty had his first major surgery an operation to repair the hole in his spinal column that defines his birth disorder, spina bifida.
Before Philip turned four, doctors installed a shunt to carry cerebral fluid from his brain to his spine and performed corrective surgery to allow him to walk with only a slight limp. While the procedures he endured were considered groundbreaking when he received them in the1960s, Philip Keelty's condition would be considered mild by today's standards for a disorder known for its debilitating effects.
"We felt very lucky," say his parents, Mary and Jim Keelty. "Some of these kids go through crisis after crisis," adds Mrs. Keelty.
Depending on the location of the gap in their spine, people with spina bifida can experience anything from numbness in their feet to total paralysis from the waist down, as well as a host of complications and related conditions that can include learning disabilities, bladder problems, and infections.
Philip Keelty died last year from a heart attack, after what his mother remembers was an active, fulfilling life a life she attributes in part to the excellent care he received.
"After he died, a lot of people said they didn't even realize he had spina bifida," recalls Mrs. Keelty. "We just treated him normally. Consequently, everybody else did," Keelty adds.
Now, the Keelty family is helping to ensure that other children with spina bifida have the same shot at reaching their potential that Philip did. The Keelty family recently made a generous gift to Kennedy Krieger's spina bifida programs. In recognition of the family's contribution, the Institute's spina bifida center was recently renamed the Philip A. Keelty Center for Spina Bifida and Related Conditions.
Patients at the Keelty Center are assessed and treated through bimonthly group and individual clinic visits. With a team of neurosurgeons, Orthopedic specialists, social workers, and other professionals, the staff members work together to address the array of concerns associated with the disorder.
"The people there are so caring and compassionate," emphasizes Mrs. Keelty, "from the first person you see to the most expert surgeon. When you go there, you get answers."
The center's involvement with patients begins before birth, when doctors counsel parents whose prenatal ultrasounds indicate signs of spina bifida.
The wide range of complications associated with spina bifida once led to premature death in most patients. But with improved prenatal detection and refined treatment techniques, patients' life spans are increasing every year, while the number of new pediatric cases is dropping.
"The early work in spina bifida was designed to make patients as healthy as possible," recalls Dr. Eric Levey, director of the Keelty Center. "We're now at a point where we can effectively treat most medical problems. Now we need to focus on helping children and adolescents with spina bifida become more functional adults."
In the future, Dr. Levey hopes to implement social programs that would help teen and adult patients with spina bifida learn to live and work independently a goal Mary and Jim Keelty support completely. "If this will help one other person with spina bifida live a healthier, happier life, says Keelty, "it will be worth it."