It was almost three years ago when I met Noah Hanssen for the first time; his mother wheeled him into our therapy gym and I introduced myself as his new physical therapist. I wanted him to feel comfortable and safe – after all, new people and places can be intimidating for an 8-year-old, especially one in need of intensive therapy. And I’ve learned over the years when working with kids, sometimes we need a bit of a “warm-up” period before they show me their true personality.
But not Noah. Instantly I could tell that he is bright, adventurous, and active. His smile won me over in seconds, as he asked his most important question during our evaluation: “Can I play with that Nerf gun over there?”
Noah and I became a team over the next few months. Always fearless and unquestioning, he was motivated to try anything I asked of him, just so long as it was fun. He challenged me to get creative and cleverly disguise his therapy as rambunctious activities that any boy his age would love.
Noah was a back seat passenger in a car accident that paralyzed him from the chest down. The paralysis left him with weak respiratory muscles, little core strength, and unable to move his legs. It affected every aspect of his life – from self-care activities like bathing and using the bathroom, to mobility around his home and community. When I first met Noah, he was unable to sit without support, get in and out of his wheelchair, stand or walk. I had many goals for Noah, especially since he was young and recently injured, both of which increased his potential for recovery. My hope was that he would go from requiring assistance with virtually every task, to living his life independently and just being a kid. I centered our therapy goals on that hope. A favorite therapy activity was throwing balls or shooting Nerf darts to hit targets, knock over objects, or hit a fellow therapist who would entertain us by falling down dramatically when hit. From my point of view, we were doing this to strengthen Noah’s core muscles so that he could improve his mobility. From Noah’s point of view, we were just acting silly and having fun.
As time passed, Noah made consistent progress toward the goals we had set together. When not in therapy with me, he worked at home with his family to use and build on his skills. I think he came to understand the importance of the therapy for his function and independence, but of course he was also focused on the fact that it opened the door to goofing off and playing with his family and friends.
I can’t forget the day, about seven months after we began, that Noah returned to therapy following a break. His face lit up as he entered the gym – but only slightly brighter than my own. He was ready to begin the daunting task of learning how to walk with braces. Together we worked on putting his legs into the braces, as he told me how happy he was to be back in therapy, and to have me as his therapist again. He might as well have just told me that I won the lottery.
Noah’s adventurous and determined nature shone through the first time we tried the leg braces. He had no idea what to expect, yet he was ready to try without hesitation. After securing his legs into the braces, I helped him move to the edge of the therapy mat and transfer into his wheelchair. We went over to the parallel bars that would help him stand. He placed his hands on the bars as I explained what would come next. We counted together, “One….two…three.” I won’t ever forget the look on his face that day – a mixture of surprise and achievement. At one point he said excitedly, “I’m actually standing!” It was a proud day for Noah, his family and myself, but it was just the beginning of the long road ahead of him.
I continue to work with Noah today. I like to think that we are an inseparable team. But during a recent therapy session, I took a step back and watched Noah; no longer the child being pushed by his mother in a wheelchair. Today, Noah is walking. Who knew leg braces could be so much fun?!
Noah set an example for me of acceptance and determination after a life-changing injury. Now almost 11-years-old, he is an amazing boy who has overcome more than many will experience in their lifetime. To do so without questioning or complaint, and with motivation that is rarely seen in a young child, can be a lesson to us all. It’s really been an honor to have played a part in Noah’s journey – and we sure have had some FUN along the way!