By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
As the music of the late reggae artist Bob Marley plays in the background, 11-year-old Olivia smiles.
She was introduced to the soothing sounds as a baby and has never tired of the beat, says her mom, Tori Bradley.
Olivia, “Liv” for short, doesn’t communicate in the traditional way – she is nonverbal and legally blind – but she knows what she likes. A smile, a nod or a laugh are some of her tools.
Today, Liv is at the Riley Outpatient Center for her weekly physical therapy session with PT Laura Heinekamp. The little girl has cerebral palsy and epilepsy as a result of suffering shaken-baby syndrome at the hands of a caregiver when she was just 3 months old.
Her mom moved with her from the Chicago area to Indianapolis several years ago and has been taking Liv to therapy at Riley since 2017.
Heinekamp has been her physical therapist for most of that time.
“She understands her body so much more since we started,” Heinekamp said. “She’s sitting up beautifully and can sit independently for a short time. Her legs have gotten a lot stronger.”
As Heinekamp works to loosen up Liv’s muscles and do a little stretching, she encourages the child constantly, as does Liv’s mom, who attends the therapy sessions regularly with her boyfriend, Chuck Helton. Together, they are cheerleaders for Liv as she transitions from sitting to standing to swinging to riding a bike.
All of it with assistance from Heinekamp, who typically co-treats Liv with occupational therapist Mary Carter. The latter therapist was out last week, so Heinekamp did her best to combine both forms of therapy into her session.
She used an icepack and vibration on the girl’s legs “just to wake up her body.”
“She loves high-intensity vibration,” the therapist said, as Liv laughed. “Does it tickle?”
“Help me, we’re gonna sit up now,” Heinekamp said. “Good job, Liv. Show them how tall you can sit, my friend.”
She helps her into a sitting position and encourages her to reach for animal pictures stuck on a pole. The activity strengthens her grasp and fine-motor skills.
It’s good practice for Christmas, Liv’s mom said, “so she can rip her presents open.”
Bradley said at home, Liv loves her piano keyboard and a switch-activated monkey that makes noises. The music of Bob Marley and Veggie Tales plays pretty much 24/7, she said.
“The Alexa is in her bedroom,” Bradley laughed.
Typically, therapy is a highlight of Liv’s week, her mom said.
“She loves therapy, she’s ready to go, but we all have our days when we’re not feeling it,” Bradley said.
On those occasional days, Liv purses her lips and gives her mom the side eye.
“She’s got that preteen sass going on.”
Heinekamp, who works with infants up to age 18, has a special place in her heart for Liv and appreciates the support Bradley offers at home.
“Mom is Liv’s biggest advocate. I think Liv is where she’s at because of everything Mom does at home,” she said. “She takes everything we give her here and follows up at home. She’s just awesome.”
Bradley admits to being a guarded mom, worried that certain activities – like swinging -- might leave her daughter dizzy or nauseous, and “she can’t tell me how she feels.”
So when she first put her in an adaptive swing at home, she pushed her so gently for such a short period that it barely registered with Liv.
“Now when Laura puts her in the swing (in the therapy gym), she lights up like a Christmas tree. She loves it,” Bradley said.
Liv’s system under-registers sensations, Heinekamp said, “so we have to go big. Big vibration, big swing.”
Liv’s joy was on full display for all to see last week as she giggled while Heinekamp pushed her in the modified swing, then later strapped her onto an adaptive bike and guided her through the hallways of the unit.
Both activities help increase Liv’s body awareness and strengthen her muscles.
Bradley recalls when Heinekamp first put Liv on the bike, she would gently place Liv’s hand on the handlebars, but Liv would drop it almost immediately. She would slouch and drop her head.
“But we still did it. We still worked at it,” Bradley said. “Now, she gets so excited, she does not let go of the handlebars, and you can see her propel those pedals. Her head is up. It’s so nice to see.”
The joy her daughter expresses goes straight to Bradley’s heart.
“I tell Laura I expect to cry every time in therapy. It’s a given.”
Heinekamp said every three months, she and the therapy team update Liv’s plan of care, based on her progress.
“We want to achieve as much as we can toward those goals – sitting independently, transferring to stand, helping with stand pivots to different surfaces, standing duration and propelling her bike,” she said.
“She has rocked those goals.”
As a physical therapist at Riley, Heinekamp and her peers have a lot of different roles, work in a variety of clinics and see kids of all ages and abilities.
“It’s a challenging but rewarding and exciting and exhausting job, all at the same time.”
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com