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Building Dreams Together: Gabriel's story

Posted on Nov. 5, 2014 ( comments)
Gabe Leith
The Building Dreams Together campaign will support Children's Therapy Unit clients like little Gabriel, pictured with his mother, Julie Leith.

This is the first in an ongoing series of stories about some of the children we are helping through Building Dreams Together: The MultiCare Campaign for Healthy Children.

Today, meet 5-year-old Gabriel Leith. Gabriel was born with a condition that greatly affects his mobility and strength. But with family support and the dedicated team at the Children’s Therapy Unit (CTU) at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital, there’s no telling how far he can go.

Five months into Julie Leith’s second pregnancy, an ultrasound showed that her unborn baby was suffering from a congenital disorder. But it wasn’t until her son was born at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital that doctors could make the diagnosis: severe amyoplasia arthrogryposis multiplex congenita.

For Gabriel, the condition has resulted in joint contractures (permanent shortening of joints) and muscle weakness throughout his entire body. Unable to breathe on his own or swallow, Gabriel spent more than a month in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Tacoma General.

“The good news is, arthrogryposis is worst the day that children are born,” Julie said. “And cognitively, Gabriel is very bright. One of the NICU nurses described him as having an old soul.”

On Nov. 1, 2008, the little boy was strong enough to go home. He required a sleep apnea monitor, a feeding tube, a suction machine and oxygen.

“The first nine months I didn’t sleep much,” Julie said. “I worried he would stop breathing.”

Hope and support

Therapy is critical to improving Gabriel’s mobility, strength and function. During the first two years, “He saw a lot of local therapists,” said Julie, who lives in Chehalis.

Then someone recommended the Children’s Therapy Unit (CTU) at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital.

“Nothing compares. We’re able to get all the help he needs in one place,” said Julie.

The CTU pediatric therapists are committed to helping children with special needs become as functional and independent as possible. Every Friday morning, the Leith family makes the long drive to Puyallup for occupational, physical and speech therapy.

“Everyone there is wonderful,” Julie said. “They’re like family.”

Collaboration and creativity

“Having everything under one roof allows for a level of collaboration that is difficult to match,” said pediatric physical therapist Brenna Brandsma.

Her initial goal was to build Gabriel’s confidence and trust. “Now he really enjoys his therapy time,” Brenna said. “He is much braver and more willing to try new activities.”

Brenna works with Gabriel on everything from range of motion to stretching, sitting balance and mobility. She also manages his orthotics and equipment.

Steve Shores is a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in assistive technology for the CTU. He loves working with children and their families and “loves figuring out how to modify equipment so that it’s aesthetic, safe, economical and therapeutically functional.”

Steve and his colleagues adapted a motorized wheelchair for Gabriel. Because his head is the most functional part of his body, switches were integrated into the headrest so he could steer.

“It took some time for him to get comfortable, but then his learning curve skyrocketed,” Steve said.

Speech therapy is another crucial part of treatment. Jill Conner, a speech therapist, engages Gabriel in a variety of activities and games to help further his communication skills.

“He’s made tremendous progress in the past 15 months,” Jill said.

She finds that working with her colleagues “Really helps us meet the needs of the whole child.” For example, Steve will position Gabriel for a certain activity, then Jill will help the little boy successfully communicate with others during the activity.

Donor support is integral to the many programs and services that the CTU provides families like the Leiths.

“Some of our clients need services that insurance does not always cover,” said Brenna. “Without donor funding, we wouldn’t be able to do the work we do.”

Making great strides

Every day, Gabriel and his family face numerous challenges. He needs 24-hour care. He has a tracheotomy tube to keep his airway open as well as a feeding tube. He must wear splints, a torso brace and ankle and foot orthotics.

Yet Julie knows that the sky’s the limit for her son.

“A year ago, he couldn’t sit and hold his head up unassisted. Now he can.” He has also learned to walk using a walker. “He may not do things in the conventional way — but he’ll do it Gabriel’s way. The CTU can make anything possible.”

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