Donut therapy – it’s not what you might think

Patient Stories |



He started life as a micro preemie, but now this 4-year-old donut-loving boy is breaking through barriers, thanks to his Riley team.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer,

It was Donut Day in the Riley Children’s Health outpatient physical therapy gym last Thursday, and Tyler Riddle was dressed for the occasion.

He told his mom he wanted to be a chocolate donut for Halloween, and there he was, dressed like a donut while doing donuts on the floor outside the therapy space, spinning around and around.

What he didn’t know was that physical therapist Creola Woolery and occupational therapist Jenna Trost knew their young patient was coming in dressed as a sprinkled donut, so they pulled on adult-size donut rings themselves in a surprise move.

It made for an oh so sweet afternoon, as Tyler, 4, squealed with delight when he saw the therapists and rushed into their arms to make something like a donut sandwich.

Tyler is a rambunctious boy who has progressed by leaps and bounds since he was born 16 weeks prematurely in January 2019.

Literally, he leaps and bounds through his days, his mom, Ashley said.

“He frolics. That’s the best word to describe it. He’s a happy, skippy, jumpy guy, and now he runs too.”

Walking, much less running and jumping, seemed unlikely when Ashley and Shane Riddle looked at their 1-pound, 12-ounce preemie, who was transferred to Riley Hospital for Children within days of his birth at 24 weeks and two days’ gestation.

“He’s doing all the things they thought he wouldn’t do,” Ashley said. “He is smart as a whip, and he remembers everything.”

Tyler, who is in developmental preschool, has benefited from multiple therapies through Riley and First Steps, including the combined occupational and physical therapy he receives from Trost and Woolery each week.

A weak core, toe-walking and a sensory processing disorder are a few of the things being addressed in therapy, but to watch Tyler in the gym, you wouldn’t know he had faced so many challenges in his young life.

He knows the drill during his therapy session – climbing through a large tire, jumping with both feet over small obstacles, dropping paper “donut” rings onto plastic targets, sitting at a desk to color letters, jumping on a trampoline and riding a large trike through the halls to find more paper donuts on the walls, to which he attaches orange paper sprinkles.

Only orange will do because that’s his favorite color, his mom says. Even his eyeglasses are orange.

“I love how we’re dressed like donuts and nobody bats an eye,” Trost laughed as she followed Woolery and Tyler down the hall. “Can you tell we work in a children’s hospital?”

They make it fun, but therapy is about real work too, said Woolery, who has been working with Tyler for about a year.

“A lot of the things we do for physical therapy like coordination Jenna also does with him for sensory regulation,” she said. “Our obstacle course gets at both of those at the same time.”

Tyler has always been active, always wanting to get up and go, she added, but sometimes the things that require a little more control are more difficult.

Take running, for instance. Tyler was more comfortable skipping and galloping until recently.

“One of the big things we noticed was when we were going outside one day, he was actually running versus galloping,” Woolery said.

That might seem like a small thing, but it was a big deal for Tyler’s parents, according to Riley Outpatient PT supervisor Sarah Johnson.

“His dad actually saw him first run on the playground and was very emotional,” Johnson said. “As you can imagine, when parents aren’t sure if their little ones will reach certain milestones, it’s always a big deal when they do.”

Woolery also is working with Tyler on walking heel to toe rather than on tiptoes, something most of us do without thinking.

In Tyler’s case, it takes a lot of focus, but eventually it will become more natural to him, she said.

Riding a bike was another challenge – the reciprocal movement with his legs was difficult for him – but he shows off his skills when he goes on the great donut hunt outside the gym.

“When Tyler first started therapy, our main goal was regulation and getting him to participate and engage with us,” Trost said. “It’s huge that he’s sitting here doing tabletop activities, then an obstacle course, while Creola is giving him directions and he’s following those. He’s come a long way.”

Both therapists say that speaks to his parents’ work with him at home.

“Having a parent who is committed to a home exercise program and does everything we ask them to do is just the best.”

Ashley Riddle, who has two younger children at home, is a fierce advocate for her son, so seeing how hard the Riley team works to help him move through obstacles means the world to her.

“Every week, he asks, ‘When can I go see Miss Jenna and Miss Creola?’ Whether he looks forward to playing with them or terrorizing them, I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “I would like a little bit of his energy.”

When the hourlong session is up, you might think the therapists would take a quick break before their next patient, but they have a routine.

Tyler and his mom head to the glass elevators in the Maternity Tower with Woolery and Trost. They say goodbye when the elevator doors open, then Woolery and Trost rush over to the other side of the atrium so they can wave to Tyler as the elevator takes him and his mom down to the lobby.

He grins and waves with the enthusiasm of a little boy who can’t wait to see them again.

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,

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