Five-year-old Elizabeth “Ellie” Wilson loves to visit her occupational and physical therapists at Silver Cross Hospital.
Today, that is. Her mother remembers a time when tantrums prevailed.
But that was at a time when Ellie was just coming back from a long coma and brain cancer and was unable to hold her head up.
“When she first started, it was challenging,” Krystal Wilson said. “Now she loves going to therapy. She has someone to play with her.”
Physical, occupational and speech therapy have been crucial in Ellie’s recovery from a very tough period in her life.
She was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer, when she was 3. Her parents noticed that after an afternoon nap one day, their daughter was just not herself.
“She couldn’t move as well,” Wilson said. “She had a very unstable walk. Her balance was definitely off. Her mechanics were off.”
At the hospital, doctors noticed Ellie’s reflexes were hypersensitive and her tongue was quivering , signs of a neurological problem. A CT scan showed the source — a golf ball-sized tumor at the back of her brain.
Medulloblastoma is a fast-growing cancer located in the cerebellum, according to the American Brain Tumor Association’s website. Although rare, it’s the most common malignant brain tumor in children. Symptoms include behavioral and appetite changes, headaches, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, problems with coordination and unusual eye movements.
The Wilsons were told their daughter was going to have to go through brain surgery to remove the cancer, then chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It was quite a shock, but Krystal said she was determined to look on the ordeal optimistically.
“I just cried a lot at first,” she said, “but we don’t focus on the negative. I am a very optimistic person. ... The thing that worried me the most right then was that I knew she was going to be so upset at losing her hair.”
Ellie was not happy at all about losing her waist-length light-brown hair. That might have been the most difficult thing for her at the beginning, her mother said. But that wasn’t the worst part for her parents.
Over the next two years, Ellie had 12 surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments and was in a conscious coma for six weeks.
The treatments damaged the part of her brain that “connects” her will to the rest of her body. She didn’t know how to tell her body to move. She couldn’t sit up, talk, swallow or even hold a crayon.
That began her journey with a team of therapists from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at Silver Cross Hospital.
They helped her regain her hand, arm, trunk and neck strength, little by little allowing her to do daily activities, including playing.
They used several strategies and equipment, including aquatic therapy and gait-training devices. Speech therapy gave her back her words and the ability to swallow food on her own.
“We continue to build on Ellie’s strength, coordination and endurance,” said Maribeth O’Connor, senior occupational therapist at the institute. “We also taught Ellie and her parents strategies to use to build strength.”
At home, the Wilsons helped their daughter regain her movement skills with such exercises as mixing a large bowl of cake batter and rolling out cookie dough. Today, Ellie still has problems to overcome with mobility and vision, but she has come a long way.
“She is spunky, stubborn, opinionated, happy and loves baking and having people over,” her mother said. “We’re having a Halloween party, and she’s so excited about making crafts and food for her friends.”