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Amazing Alesha

Alesha and Lesly

Alesha, pictured with Lesly Sanchez, is a patient care companion at Rady Children’s Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, where she plays with kids too sick to go to the playroom.

Former U-T Kids’ NewsDay patient continues to inspire

By Bonnie Ward

When Alesha Thomas graced the cover of U-T Kids’ NewsDay back in 2007, she was an upbeat and determined high school senior who didn’t let cerebral palsy stand in her way. Seven years later, Alesha’s strength of spirit and unwavering optimism persists despite her challenges.

She continues to inspire everyone who knows her, especially the children with cancer she visits each week. Every Friday, for the past eight years, Alesha, 24, has volunteered at the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego as a patient care companion. Having served 1,300 hours, Alesha stayed committed even during surgeries, complications, severe pain and the challenges of attending UC San Diego from the confines of a wheelchair.

“Her dedication is really exceptional, and the kids love her,” says Rady Children’s Volunteer Manager Sylvie Sneep. “She’ll play games and read stories. She’s a comforting presence and brings a special kind of empathy because she knows what it’s like to have an ongoing medical condition.”

Alesha is also a role model, Sneep says. “It’s inspiring for kids who are going through really tough times to see someone like Alesha who has persevered and graduated from UC San Diego and not let her disability define her.”

Her longtime Rady Children’s physician, Hank Chambers, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and director of the Southern California Cerebral Palsy Center at Rady Children’s, describes Alesha as a “fantastic and motivated” individual who has met the challenges of her disability head-on.

An internationally recognized expert on cerebral palsy, Dr. Chambers has treated Alesha since she was 3, when he performed the first of multiple surgeries to give her more freedom of movement.

“Without him, I wouldn’t be as functional and independent as I am today,” says Alesha. “He’s done everything in his power to help me function well. People come from all over the world to see him. If you’re one of his patients, you’re incredibly lucky to be in such good hands.”

Cerebral palsy is the most common movement disorder in children. It often occurs due to a brain injury before or during birth or during the first years in life. It affects about 1 in 278 children, says Dr. Chambers, also a professor of orthopedic surgery at UC San Diego.

Alesha was born 10 weeks prematurely, which caused bleeding in her brain. She was delayed in rolling over and crawling and diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 1. She started physical therapy at 18 months of age and then went to Rady Children’s for
specialized care and surgery.

“Before her first surgery, Alesha couldn’t sit, stand or walk,” says Rebecca, Alesha’s mom “At the age of 3, after her casts came off, she pulled herself up and walked with a walker for the first time in her life.”

This was the start of Alesha’s journey to control her disorder while trying to live a full life and working toward her dream of a career in medicine. By age 17, Alesha had endured six surgeries to straighten her legs and lengthen her tendons. Yet, she managed to graduate with honors from Point Loma High School. She also earned a degree in human biology from UC San Diego last December.

Andrew Skalsky, M.D., who is chief of Rady Children’s Rehabilitation Medicine Division and involved in Alesha’s care, was impressed, but not surprised by Alesha’s latest accomplishment. “She’s one of those people who goes out and finds ways to do things despite the challenges of her disability,” he says.

Her life greatly improved thanks to an intrathecal baclofen pump that was surgically implanted into her abdomen. The pump, which is monitored by Dr. Skalsky, delivers doses of the muscle relaxant baclofen into her cerebral spinal fluid, which according to Dr. Chambers, nearly controlled Alesha’s involuntary muscle contractions.

Today, Alesha works toward becoming a physician assistant specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Her dream is to work at Rady Children’s.

“I want to help all people with disabilities, but especially those with cerebral palsy,” Alesha says. “I know what it’s like to live that life.”

Advancing research on Botox therapy for cerebral palsy

The mention of Botox, a well-known wrinkle reducer, often conjures up images of smooth-skinned Hollywood starlets. But its ability to temporarily block muscle movement can also make it an effective medical treatment.

At Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, Hank Chambers, M.D., an internationally recognized expert on cerebral palsy, is participating in two nationwide, multicenter studies he helped design on how the muscle-relaxing properties of Botox and other botulinum toxin products can benefit patients with cerebral palsy.

“We’re just starting those studies, but from former studies we know that botulinum toxin decreases spasticity (muscle overactivity) and improves function, and it also may delay surgery,” says Dr. Chambers, who, along with other members of the orthopedic surgery and physiatry teams, has used botulinum toxin to help a number of his patients over the last 22 years.

Botulinum toxin is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating certain medical conditions but is not approved for treating cerebral palsy. Physicians, however, are allowed to prescribe botulinum toxin as they feel appropriate, a practice known as off-label use.

“Botulinum toxin has revolutionized the treatment of children with cerebral palsy,” says Dr. Chambers, noting that it can lead to marked improvement when properly prescribed and administered. “Sometimes these kids have arms bent and almost touching their face,” he explains. “Their hand is stuck there because their muscles are so tight, so they can’t do everyday things like work on a computer. But if we partially paralyze that muscle (with botulinum toxin), it allows them freedom of movement.”

Dr. Chambers is hopeful that the new nationwide studies, which will be larger and more carefully controlled than earlier research, will lead to FDA approval.

Originally published in U-T San Diego, October 2014