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Mary Bridge Children’s provides support beyond medicine for kids like Christopher

There is more to healing than just medicine and often, these extra layers of support — emotional, spiritual and social — can make all the difference in a patient's life and treatment.

By Kortney Scroger

There is more to healing than just medicine and often, these extra layers of support — emotional, spiritual and social — can make all the difference in a patient’s life and treatment.

That was the case for Christopher, 8, a caring and social kid who loves to make new friends and bring light to any interaction, something he’s able to continue doing thanks to the medical interventions he’s received at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.

“There are so many layers in health care,” Chrisopher’s mom Leah explains. “There's the medicine and the physical part of it. But to add the emotional and spiritual support, health and camaraderie and friendship with Child Life and the extra players that there are obviously takes care and resources. When Christopher first came, he didn't trust anybody. He didn't speak our language. He didn't understand. But having people who were able to take the time, smile at him and hold his hand and then, of course, the skill and craft of the surgeons and the nurses, was amazing.”

According to his mom, Christopher and Mary Bridge Children’s have something in common — they’re both “magical.”

Beginning an intensive health journey

The first years of Christopher’s life were difficult to say the least. He was born in Silistra, Bulgaria with meningomyelocele spina bifida and complete paralysis of his lower body. At 7 months old, he developed hydrocephalus — a buildup of fluid in the brain that can cause brain damage — which was treated by a team of visiting surgeons with a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt.

Christopher was adopted by the Absher family when he was 2 1/2 years old. The first thing his parents did was take him in for a medical evaluation and that’s when his journey at Mary Bridge Children’s began.

"He went to our family’s pediatrician right away because, as an orphan, he hadn't really had anything in the form of therapies or medical evaluation and no follow-up on his shunt or spina bifida,” Leah says. "What was probably scheduled as a 20-minute appointment, was like an hour and a half appointment both because of Christopher’s complexities and because she sincerely cares.”

Leah says that the initial visit with Dr. Lillian Koblenz provided reassurance for her that they had support for Christopher’s medical needs.

In September 2016, Christopher underwent his first surgery (a meningomyelocele repair) to close the spinal defect protecting any exposed nerves or parts of his spinal cord with pediatric neurosurgeon Ronald Grondin, MD, and plastic surgeon Frederick Ehret, MD.

Unbreakable bonds with his medical family

Since beginning his care at Mary Bridge Children’s, Christopher has had six surgeries, including a recent bladder Botox operation.  Christopher still gets nervous going in for procedures, but those nerves are eased by his friends in Child Life Services and his trusted providers.

Child life specialist Valerie Chance helps prepare Christopher for his procedures by explaining what will happen and empowering him with choices like what he wants his anesthesia mask to smell like (using flavored ChapStick) and letting him play with the iPad.

Kevin Gandhi, MD, has created a bond so strong with Christopher that just knowing Dr. Gandhi will be involved in the appointment or procedure is enough to calm some of Christopher’s nerves.

"We never walk out of an appointment or a procedure not understanding,” Leah says. “Dr. Gandhi is always drawing pictures, trying to make sure that that my husband, Christopher and I understand. I know he's busy, but he never makes you feel rushed — he's just a great human. Before this last surgery, the only thing that calmed and reassured Christopher was that Dr. Gandhi would be there. Christopher trusts him.”

Donor-powered therapies

In addition to the bond with his specialists, Christopher visits Mary Bridge Good Samaritan Children’s Therapy Unit (CTU), where he’s done speech, physical and occupational therapies as well as learned English.

“Our first three wheelchairs for Christopher were borrowed from CTU while we waited for insurance to approve his wheelchair," Leah says. “The generosity of CTU and the advocacy of people like Meredith (Christopher’s physical therapist) has been remarkable.”

According to Christopher, the best thing about CTU is the swing, but his physical therapist Meredith Graham Lawver “puts him to work” first. Currently, he’s working on transferring: moving from the seat of his wheelchair to another surface and back.

“Meredith is really helpful in engaging with Christopher in activities that he can do at home and in the community,” Leah says. “He’s dependent on a wheelchair and community engagement looks different for him. Help like this goes beyond the scope of just the CTU, but in his broader life regarding independence and enjoyment.”

Healthy and happy third grader

Christopher’s time at Mary Bridge Children’s is far from over, but with medical advancements and his strong spirit, he continues to make incredible strides. This year, he’s in third grade and ready to make lots of new friends and has even joined Cub Scouts.

“Mary Bridge Children’s and its services has made all the difference in Christopher’s life — basically whether he lived or died,” Leah says. “The care he receives gives him the strength to continue to go to his appointments, which have the potential to be traumatizing. To the people who care for Christopher and the donors that make this care possible: Thank you. You’ve made a world of difference in keeping Christopher healthy and happy.”