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news News Wednesday, May 8, 2019 Wednesday, May 8, 2019 12:18 PM - Wednesday, May 8, 2019 12:18 PM

Thanks to new legs, Alexa takes her first steps

Specialized team helps girl learn to walk and play with her brother

Thanks to new legs, Alexa takes her first steps

Alexa can’t wait.

Before her physical therapist enters the room, the 3-year-old in the hot pink pants has scooted across the bed and undone the Velcro straps that will fasten the practice prosthetic legs onto her body.

Her mom, Jacqueline, has waited for this moment since before her daughter could even sit up alone. She has longed to replace the heartache she felt when the doctors amputated her daughter’s legs in order to save her life. For three years in Cuba, she tried everything to get artificial legs for her daughter. “I took her to the doctor to check into it, but there are no resources or technology available,” she said.

In walks physical therapist Zaida Coronado. Her job is to teach Alexa how to stand and eventually walk with her new legs. To accomplish this, Coronado lets Alexa play with plastic toy food held just out of her reach. This helps her to balance and use muscles in ways they have not been used before.

“One of her legs was amputated above the knee,” Coronado explained. “The other was amputated below the knee.” This asymmetry makes using the right leg, the one with the amputation above the knee, more of a challenge.

After playtime therapy ends, Coronado gives Alexa a small walker to push. Alexa grins. Her mom beams the way a mom does when her toddler takes those wobbly first steps.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Jacqueline said. “Everyone has been so attentive and caring. I am grateful beyond words for what they have done for Alexa.”

Learning to live with amputations 

The path that led Alexa to Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa began with a stomach virus.

Jacqueline took her sick 3-month-old to a hospital near their home in the Havana suburb of Marianao, where they live on a tree-lined street. “In Cuba, you don’t have a doctor to make appointments,” she explained. “You must go to the emergency room of the closest pediatric hospital.”

The nurses admitted Alexa. One day in the hospital, as Jacqueline changed her baby’s socks, she noticed that her tiny toes were purple. She showed the doctor. She was just cold, the doctor said. The clinical staff kept saying this for about a week. Then the purple turned to black and started creeping up one of the child’s legs.

The staff called in a specialist, who diagnosed an aggressive bacterial infection that Alexa had contracted in the hospital. The legs had to go, the specialist said. Otherwise, the baby would die.

A surgeon removed her left leg below the knee. On the right, they had to remove the leg above the knee in order to remove all of the infection. Alexa went home and grew into a happy toddler. She saw her brother walking but thought her legs would eventually grow.

“This is normal for her," her mom said. “She thinks she is just little.” Jacqueline took Alexa to a doctor to see if she could get artificial legs, but the country lacked the resources to make prosthetic legs for someone her age and size.

Tampa hospital offers hope and healing

A neighbor connected Jacqueline with Karen Caballero, an anchor at TV/Radio Marti. The Miami-based station broadcasts news to Cuba. Caballero was able to connect Jacqueline with Armando Quirantes, who heads a Miami-based organization called Prosthetics Without Borders. He helped mother and daughter obtain charitable visas and brought them to the United States, where he planned to build Alexa her first pair of legs.

However, things weren't that simple.

“We went to see a specialist, and after taking X-rays, he realized that she was going to require surgery again because her [right] leg was not operating correctly,” Jacqueline explained. “Then we had to start looking for a hospital to perform the surgery.”

For three months, the family searched unsuccessfully for a hospital that would accept Alexa. Then a friend told Quirantes about Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa. The hospital staff agreed not only to perform the surgery, but also to design the legs and teach Alexa how to use them properly. Alexa made her first visit in the fall of 2018.

“It made me feel very happy to be able to get Alexa to a place where they knew what to do and could help her walk,” her mom said.

Pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Maureen Maciel, M.D., explained the need for the surgery.

“In the years since that [amputation], her thigh bone had grown longer, creating pain at the tip of her amputated [right] leg," said Dr. Maciel, who is also the hospital’s chief of staff. “That makes it impossible to walk with a prosthesis. When I saw her, I felt that she would benefit from a surgery to shorten and smooth out that bone so she would not have pain, and she would be able to use a prosthetic leg. She did very well with the surgery.”

After she had healed completely, senior prosthetist Bryan Sinnott of Pediatric Orthotic and Prosthetic Services – Southeast, LLC, at the Tampa Shriners Hospital, designed temporary practice legs so she could learn to walk while waiting on the permanent legs she would wear home to Cuba. "You watch how a mom takes in the fact her child is standing, it's a wonderful thing," he said. “I'm just lucky to be a part of all this."

For several weeks, Alexa worked with physical therapist Coronado to practice standing and walking. “What helped Alexa out was her fun spirit, wanting to play, that determination she has to actually be independent, trying to put her prosthetics on all by herself and wanting to walk,” she said. Those qualities will continue to motivate her once she returns home to Cuba, where she will finally get the chance to walk with her brother.

Alexa can’t wait.

Alexa using walkerCloseup of Alexa's prosthetic legs