Two-year-old Liam is enjoying a new ride thanks to the Go Baby Go ride-on car program for patients at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago. The cars are specially engineered for kids like Liam whose legs work differently than typical children. “It was very exciting. We have been counting down the days for a while now. It’s going to give him a little more independence which is what he’s been looking for,” his mother Amber Garr said. The family from suburban Chicago picked up Liam’s red VW convertible before a recent speech therapy appointment.
Liam’s mother has been familiar with the hospital for years. Several relatives have osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), a condition in which the Chicago Shriners Hospital receives national recognition for their specialized treatments. Back in August 2016, when her son, Liam, was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy, it was the pediatrician who suggested bringing him to the MDA clinic at Shriners Hospital. “I didn’t think of Shriners Hospitals for muscular dystrophy right away because I always associate it with the OI care of my relatives,” Amber said.
Liam and his half-brother, Morgan, began seeing Kenneth Silver, M.D., and the MDA team in December of 2016. Liam also receives feeding therapy from a speech language pathologist at the hospital. Morgan’s mother, Samantha McDaniel, explains what it has meant to get treated at the hospital. “The Shriners Hospitals team is so great, so attentive and willing to help with what we need.”
Through their care team at Shriners Hospital, the family learned about the Go Baby Go program, which helps children with special needs be able to move independently through battery operated ride-on toy vehicles. Ann Flanagan, the co-director of rehabilitation services at the Shriners Hospital in Chicago, is the coordinator of the program. “Kids want to be outside, have fun, be mobile and be a kid. And sometimes kids with certain conditions don’t have a way to do that. They may have paralysis or partial paralysis in their legs and can’t operate a typical car,” she said. The Go Baby Go cars are bought from retail stores and fitted with special controls to help kids with mobility challenges in their legs be able to drive them independently. Instead of using a foot pedal to hit the gas, these cars use a large red push button mounted on the steering wheel.
Liam’s mom said that due to his medical condition, the family couldn’t just buy a ride-on vehicle from the store. “He doesn’t have very much strength in his legs. He can’t bear weight on his legs so he wouldn’t actually be able to push and hold the pedals down. So, it’s a lot easier since he has a button on the steering wheel. He can just push it and use his arms to go.”
The cars, buttons and other modifications, such as a safety harness and extra support, are provided thanks to the Orthopedic & Rehabilitation Engineering Center at Marquette University. Ph.D. researcher Ben McHenry actually customizes each vehicle in about two hours’ time. “We’ve done Fisher Price ride on cars, a lightening McQueen car, a Frozen convertible and a Frozen jeep. And I’ve just purchased some Minion convertibles,” he said. Go Baby Go is funded through an anonymous donor at Marquette. Vehicles are also provided to families at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Dr. McHenry works with physical therapists at the hospital sites to decide how to modify each vehicle. “The therapists will know about the child’s medical needs and limitations and can help us assess how much trunk control each child needs. That might mean a child gets a car with a 5 point harness versus a lap belt seatbelt.” When Liam’s brother Morgan, just a year and a half old saw his Frozen vehicle, it had special piping attached to the back which functions as a support. “He has less trunk support so it looks like they made a back support for his vehicle so I’m excited about that,” McDaniel said.
The red button can also be put in a specific spot for therapy purposes. “The therapist can also tell us if the child has a dominant vs. non-dominant side in how they function. Some therapists want the vehicle to be therapeutic so we will put the button on the affected side to encourage a child to stretch their affected limb to make the vehicle go. Therapists love that we are making play part of the child’s therapy,” Dr. McHenry stated.
Flanagan said the program has other long term benefits for kids besides just giving them freedom to play. “The toy cars can also help us teach children cause and effect. Research is finding that the way we learn is often through movement. But when you can’t move like a typically developing child it may be harder to grasp certain concepts,” Flanagan said. “These cars can be a first step to helping children learn about their environment. They may be a first step towards teaching a child to navigate a power wheelchair for example.”
Interested in Go Baby Go for your child?
For families interested in Go Baby Go for their child, here are some of the eligibility requirements:
If your child meets the above criteria and you’re interested in a Go Baby Go vehicle for your child contact Ann Flanagan at 773-385-5575.