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Walking Tall

Alesha ThomasTeen endures surgeries, challenges of cerebral palsy in quest for excellence

Alesha Thomas has been through a lot in her 17 years, but she has met every challenge with courage and a remarkably upbeat attitude.

Rebecca, Alesha’s mom, is a Type 1 diabetic, and Alesha was born 10 weeks prematurely. A brain scan indicated Alesha had some bleeding in her brain that might cause future complications with motor skills.

“Alesha was delayed in rolling over and crawling,” says Rebecca. “When she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 1, I wasn’t terribly shocked because I knew there could be possible problems with her motor skills.”

At 18 months, Alesha started a physical therapy program, which she continues to this day. Early physical therapy consisted of range of motion exercises, but after her first surgery, the sessions became more intense.

Dr. Hank Chambers, a Rady Children’s orthopedic surgeon, performed Alesha’s first surgery in April 1993 when she was just 3 years old. He lengthened muscles in her groin and hamstrings as well as tendons in her calves. Following surgery, casts were placed on her legs for six weeks.

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

Alesha received a gait analysis test in Rady Children’s Motion Analysis Laboratory before her second surgery in 1996. This helped Dr. Chambers create a treatment plan to improve her gait.

Alesha’s legs were so bent that she couldn’t stand up well,” says Dr. Chambers. “During two surgeries in 2005, we had to cut her thigh bones (femurs) to straighten them. We also cut her leg bones (tibias) so we could rotate them in the correct direction.”

He believes the last surgery in November 2005 should be her last. She has had six surgeries in the last 12 years yet managed to attain a 4.0 grade point average last year at Point Loma High School. This fall she is a senior, and she plans to attend a four-year university that offers a premed program after graduation.

Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 babies are diagnosed with cerebral palsy annually. It is the second most common neurological impairment in childhood. The damage most often occurs because of an injury to the brain before, during or after birth.

According to Dr. Chambers, Botox therapy has changed the treatment of cerebral palsy. A small amount of Botulinum toxin, the same bacteria that causes botulism, is injected directly into a specific muscle to alleviate spasms. Although it is safe in small doses and relieves spasticity, the Botox effect eventually wears off and injections need to be re-administered every few months.

Botox did not work well for Alesha because she has fixed contractions rather than spasticity, so she was a candidate for orthopedic surgery.

Rady Children’s Orthopedic Department is participating in a National Institute of Health study of oral baclofen, a medication that decreases spasticity in cerebral palsy patients. If oral medication is ineffective, an intrathecal baclofen pump can be surgically implanted. The pump releases prescribed doses of baclofen into the cerebral spinal fluid.

Currently, Alesha is participating in a research study in collaboration with Dr. Doris Trauner, a neurologist at Rady Children’s and UCSD Medical Center. The UCSD study examines neurological function of cerebral palsy patients through a functional MRI.

Alesha loves sports and plays basketball, soccer and rugby year-round on the San Diego Hammer Adaptive Sports Team. The team travels nationwide to compete with other adaptive sports players. She recently received her junior varsity letter in basketball from the San Diego Adaptive Sports Foundation.

She is also a dedicated teen care companion volunteer in Rady Children’s Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, where she plays with children too sick to go to the playroom. “Cerebral palsy has definitely impacted my life,” says Alesha. “I saw how the volunteers in the orthopedic area helped patients, and I wanted to give something back.” She plans to go into medicine and to eventually become a pediatrician.

Alesha credits Dr. Chambers for inspiring her to work with children. “He is amazing — he’s improved the quality of my life so much,” she says. “If not for him, I would be stuck in a chair today — not playing sports or volunteering. He’s given me my independence.”

Dr. Edgar Canada has been her anesthesiologist for all six surgeries. “The scariest part of surgery is going under anesthesia,” she explains. “I know I’m safe with Dr. Canada – he’s the one I’ve put my trust in.”

Alesha wears braces on both legs that give her support when she stands or walks. Recently, she has been able to walk with crutches instead of her walker, which allowed her to walk on a beach for the first time.

Rebecca says Alesha recently spoke at a March of Dimes Symposium at the Salk Institute about living with cerebral palsy and the need for more research. She also participated in the Rady Children’s Radiothon to raise money for the Hospital.

“She has come through 16 years of treatment very successfully,” says Rebecca. “She is definitely a role model for other cerebral palsy patients and has inspired many ordinary people because she has overcome so many challenges.”

Dr. Chambers agrees. “Alesha’s a very special kid – she has such a great attitude,” he says. “She doesn’t let her disability get in the way of her life, and her dedication to helping children is truly remarkable.”

— Diane Yohe

Originally published in Kids’ NewsDay, San Diego Union-Tribune,
December 4, 2007.