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Patient makes huge progress in spina bifida play group

Patient makes huge progress in spina bifida play group

When 2-year-old Annika first arrived at the spina bifida play group at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City, she was incredibly shy and didn’t talk to anyone. But her eyes were wide as she observed kids just like her – wheelchair-bound and with her same condition, getting out of their wheelchairs on their own, moving around and interacting with each other like any kid would. When she got home from the one-hour therapy play group, she had a whole new perspective. Her mom, Jennifer, was shocked as she saw Annika try things she never had before, like getting out of her wheelchair and navigating stairs.

Recreation therapist Laura Lewis-Hollingshead started the therapeutic-focused play groups in 2014, in comboination with physical therapy for kids who could benefit from therapeutic activities, but who didn’t require the one-on-one attention of a physical therapist. Placing children in groups of similar age and diagnosis helps them learn from each other and form strong social bonds. The program continues to expand as patients and parents connect and make incredible strides.

Real change

Jennifer has watched her daughter make huge leaps forward in the two years that she has been involved in the program. “We love play group because it gives her a chance to be with kids who are like her, which she doesn’t get on a day-to-day basis.” Annika is used to being the one who is different in her neighborhood. As she watches kids her age reach new developmental milestones like running and playing, it becomes more apparent how different she is. “At play group,” said Jennifer, “all the kids are on equal footing, they all have their wheelchairs.”

One day, as they prepared to leave for play group, Annika told Jennifer, “Mom, I’m going to Shriners and we all crawl.”

“It is the best thing that we have done for her so far with her therapies,” said Jennifer. “This has been extremely beneficial. I can’t say enough. Shriners Hospital is amazing.”

Lewis-Hollingshead loves that through the therapy-based play group, she achieves her goals as a recreation therapist by treating the whole child. “We’re not limited to just the physical goals like you would be in a normal physical therapy situation,” said Lewis-Hollingshead. “We actually broaden those to psycho-social goals as well. We focus on ways that these kids can interact and create friendships.” Those friendships are not limited to the patients. “They extend to the parents too. We create this support network, and that ties into the child’s wellness.”

A moment of clarity

Lewis-Hollingshead saw 5-year-old Annika in the hallway at the hospital recently while preparing to start a new spina bifida group for kids near 2 years of age. When she told Annika that the babies down the hall were starting play group just like she had at that age, Annika wanted to say "hello." The formerly shy Annika wheeled into the play group room she knows so well, locked her chair, scooched down to the ground at the level of the babies and started interacting. Jennifer wasn’t far behind and immediately became emotional about seeing how far her daughter had come. She told the parents what a great thing play group would be for them.

“One of the things I have always loved and appreciated as a recreation therapist working at Shriners Hospitals for Children is our mission and family-centered care,” said Lewis-Hollingshead. “It’s not just the child – the patient – it’s the whole family.”

Therapy dog with play grouptherapist working with patient