Molly Rader uses a tiny walker to make her way through the halls of Blount Memorial’s Pediatric Rehabilitation clinic at Springbrook. She’s barely above knee height, and the walker is even smaller than she is. Wearing her pretty green and pink ruffled dress, and little pink glasses, Molly holds tight with both hands, and wills her feet and legs to move her body forward. After a few steps, she stops and sits down. She’s taken a lot of steps today, and will take a few more before she’s done, but for now, she’s earned a break. At nearly 3 years old, she’s already been through quite a lot.
“It’s been a huge challenge,” said Molly’s mom Amanda Rader. “No one wants to hear that there’s going to be something ‘wrong’ with their child. Now that we’re on the other side of it, we see it as a blessing. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been beautiful, too.”
Molly was born with Down syndrome. A heart defect kept her in a neonatal intensive care unit for more than a month after she was born. She then had open heart surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and spent almost six weeks in recovery. She’s been in some form of therapy her entire life.
“The biggest thing we’ve been working on is feeding,” Rader said. “When she was born, she was unable to eat, so the feeding and speech therapists have worked with us to try to get her to do that. She still has a gastrostomy tube (g-tube), but she’s taking the majority of her food by mouth now. It’s been almost a three-year process,” she added.
Molly and Amanda visit Blount Memorial’s Pediatric Rehabilitation clinic up to three times per week for various therapies. “Everything from walking to sitting up to rolling over to signing and being able to communicate; essentially anything that has to do with her development, they work on here,” Rader said. “Without early intervention and the support of our therapists and doctors, I don’t know how we would’ve done it. It’s very overwhelming. There are the little things you take for granted, such as eating, rolling over or grabbing things with your fingers. I have five children, and I never thought about those things with the other four. They’re big accomplishments for her,” she said.
Occupational therapist Brooke Roell has worked with Molly for almost a year, trying to get her to do more weight bearing on her legs and arms. “We’re working on overall strength and endurance,” Roell said. “Those are the biggest things, but we also work on her hand-eye coordination and her fine motor skills.”
Before long, Molly is scooped up by her mother and taken to another room. This one is brightly colored and has a swing, something Molly can’t seem to get enough of. “She loves to swing, and she needs to swing,” Roell said. “She’s missed out on a lot of mobility, so swinging gives her brain that movement that she’s craving. She loves it. It’s her favorite thing.”
“I would never have known that she would enjoy swinging,” Rader said. “She seeks what’s called vestibular stimulation, so she likes the swinging motion. Most children who are able to walk and crawl get that stimulation from moving. Molly really doesn’t get that because she can’t. When her therapists let her swing beforehand, her therapy is a million times better.”
“I would’ve never known to put my child on a swing to give her vestibular stimulation and get her brain firing,” Rader said, adding that she too has learned a lot from Molly’s therapy. That’s why Molly now has a swing at home so that she can swing every day. When she isn’t swinging, Molly enjoys music, singing and dancing. Like many little girls her age, she’s very into Disney’s “Frozen.”
“We’re very much a team,” Rader said. “You don’t just come here for 30 or 45 minutes to do your therapy and leave. The therapists here educate you, talk about goals and give you things to do at home. They have the best interest of the child in mind, and do everything in a kind and loving way.”
Roell says teamwork is part of the program. “Therapy is not once a week for these kids, it’s every single day,” she said. “We need the parents to be able to carry over the therapy at home, too.”
While swinging back and forth is Molly’s focus at the moment, moving forward is what her mother and therapists are concerned about. “When her mobility improves, we should see her become more independent with tasks such as feeding herself and drinking from a cup,” Roell said. “She will probably become more verbal when she gets some more mobility, as well. We want to see her improve with skills that are normal for her age, such as putting together puzzles, drawing pictures and coloring, something she’s just started doing.”
By and large, Amanda’s goals mirror those of any parent. “Our hope for Molly is to give her every opportunity we can provide for her,” Rader said. “In the short-term, we are trying to get her weaned off of her g-tube so that she can do 100 percent oral feeding. We’re working on talking and sign language, and Molly currently has about 20 signs that she uses appropriately to communicate. We want her walking and getting more weight bearing on her legs. Those are huge goals, but long-term, we just want her to be happy, healthy, have friends, be loved, love others and be as successful as she can be,” she explained.
“When you have a child with special needs, a lot of times parents will focus on all the things their child can’t do,” Rader said. “When you come to a place like this, they teach you to focus on all the things your child can do and will do eventually. To me, that is just priceless,” she said.