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news item News Friday, December 6, 2019 Thursday, December 5, 2019 1:16 PM - Thursday, December 5, 2019 1:16 PM

When dreams become reality

Olivia's journey

Olivia wearing prom dress with parents looking on

Olivia is a 19-year-old patient of Shriners Hospitals for Children — Canada and is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She was born prematurely with what was first diagnosed as a “mild case” of cerebral palsy affecting her right arm and leg. Olivia and her family live in a small rural town and the closest major hospital is a five-hour drive away.

Fortunately, they were able to address the main issues concerning her leg, and her first surgery was performed when she was young. Olivia underwent a successful heel chord lengthening procedure, which facilitated walking on a flat foot. However, there was still no solution found for her arm, leaving Olivia to experience much of her childhood with her hand in a fist, curled up tensely at her chest, which “drove her nuts.” Typical school activities such as sports or music were a struggle for her with only one hand – and the more stressed she got, the tighter she would clench.

Olivia was 13 when her mother, Nicole, discovered Alyssa, a past patient of the Canada Shriners Hospital and fellow Cape Breton native. Alyssa made local news when she was crowned Miss Canada, and spoke openly about her journey with cerebral palsy and the care she received at the hospital. This opened a door of possibilities for Olivia and her family, and led them on their path to the Canada Shriners Hospital.

“If somebody told me that Olivia couldn’t ever do certain things based on her condition, that’s one thing,” said Nicole. “As a parent you don’t want to be told your child can’t do those things because of where she lives, or that she could do those things if she lived somewhere with more specialized hospitals and surgeons.” This inspired Nicole to reach out to Alyssa's family, and soon after they were on their way to Montreal.

Olivia has been in and out of the Canada Shriners Hospital since her first visit, working closely with orthopaedic surgeon Chantal Janelle, M.D., FRCSC, and occupational therapist Nathalie Bilodeau to find solutions to help her with her arm. “Dr. Janelle was hesitant to do anything permanent and really took her time to do various tests on Olivia because she didn’t want to make anything worse, which was really reassuring as a mother,” explained Nicole. Over the years, Dr. Janelle tested medications in different areas of Olivia’s hand and arm to paralyze specific muscles. The objective was to provide an opportunity to observe and develop the most successful course of action for surgery.

When she was 17, Olivia came in for her surgery. “Dr. Janelle took a muscle from under her hand and transferred it on top of her hand, so what was pulling her hand down was now pulling it up,” explained Nicole. “They also cut her finger flexors, lengthened them, and reattached them so they would have more stretch.” Typically, a patient would go back home and do occupational therapy in between hospital visits, but due to the fact that this was an ultra-specialized procedure, Olivia had to come back and forth quite frequently. First, it was weekly visits, then monthly, and in October she came in for her six-month checkup. At first glance, you would never know she has cerebral palsy, as her arm rests comfortably at her side. “I don’t know where we would be without Dr. Janelle,” said Nicole.

While Olivia and her family say their experience with the Canada Shriners Hospital has been wonderful from start to finish, it is not quite over yet. With Olivia turning 19 in November, Dr. Janelle wants to make sure they have done all that they possibly can for her while she is still a patient. Olivia studies early childhood education and her goal is to one day give back to the Shriners Hospitals for Children health care system through teaching young children. With all the trips she and her family have taken from Cape Breton to Montreal, Olivia has fallen in love with the city and hopes to move here permanently someday. “The shopping is way better,” she said. “I even got my prom dress here.”

Olivia graduated from high school last year and was very nervous about this special occasion. Before her surgery, she never took pictures without hiding her arm behind her and now, just in time for her graduation and prom, Olivia was able to pose proudly with her arm at her side. She spent the entire year practicing for the moment, rehearsing how she would walk on stage to accept her diploma. “I wanted to be able to shake his hand just like everyone else,” said Olivia. And that is exactly what she did. “It was cool. It was really cool.”