When Lily Wilkinson was three, her neck was broken in an automobile accident leaving her paralyzed below the waist. A moment of screeching tires and crumpling metal, and her new life appeared etched in stone before she had ever entered kindergarten. After months of intensive care, her parents were told she would never be able to use or feel her legs again.
Now, two years later, she sits in her wheelchair with her feet in the pedals of what looks remarkably like a typical exercise bicycle. She appears fairly relaxed, but she's not. She's actually engaged in a state-of-the-art restorative therapy created at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger. Thin wires have been attached by adhesive strips to her legs, producing electrical currents that inspire her muscles to pedal away, igniting activity throughout Lily's nervous system. All the while she's watching cartoons that she really likes but, surprisingly, not as much as she likes kindergarten. "I like to go to school," she says. "I get to do fun things in class, except my brother doesn't because he's in second grade." Like most young girls, she clearly takes pleasure in her brother's misfortune.
However, unlike many other kids in her class, Lily is faced with profound adversity. What impresses many who meet her is that she happens to be coping with that adversity by exuding great calm, steadfast determination, and a strong sense of hope.
After the car accident, Lily's mother refused to surrender her daughter to a hopeless diagnosis. From a family friend, she learned about Kennedy Krieger and made some phone calls. Encouraged for the first time since the accident, she relocated her family to Baltimore so Lily could receive care from the Institute's renowned staff. Lily's mother says, "In three months here, she improved more than she did in an entire year at her previous rehabilitation center in Florida. Her legs move continually now. When she's mad, she pulls them up and doesn't know it."
Lily's improvement can in good measure be credited to the center's activity based restorative therapies and its team of doctors and therapists, who carry out the procedures crucial to rejuvenating cells and reminding a patient's body how to move.
Seated in her wheelchair, Lily looks around. The pulsing current that moved her legs has stopped. She appears warm, as if she's had a workout. Then she smiles. Dinosaurs thunder across the television screen in front of her. The image of a Tyrannosaurus rex reflects in her eyes. "My dreams for when I'm older are I will walk, and I want to go shopping alone." She pauses. "Oh, and I want to be a doctor too."
To learn more, visit www.spinalcordrecovery.org.