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Helping a Toddler Overcome Paralysis

Physical Therapy

Child Development Center Helps Two-Year-Old Overcome Mystery Paralysis

Like a lot of two-year-olds, Lucian Olivera loves bubbles. But unlike most kids his age, when he chases a string of iridescent bubbles or kicks a bright-colored balloon across the floor at Simi Valley Hospital’s Child Development Center, Lucian is not just playing—he’s working on creating a happier and healthier future for himself.

When he was only 11 months old, Lucian began exhibiting some alarming symptoms not long after fighting off an infection and fever. Instead of crawling on all fours, he started pulling himself forward with just his arms, dragging his legs behind him. His parents, Israel and Erin Olivera, reached out to physicians for help, but even after weeks of medical tests, no one could diagnose his problem.

A doctor referred Lucian and his parents, who live in Moorpark, to the Child Development Center in July 2012. Although he didn’t have a diagnosis yet, the longer Lucian waited before starting physical therapy, the harder it would be for him to regain mobility in his legs.

“When Lucian came in, both of his legs were pretty much paralyzed,” said Child Development Center clinical supervisor and physical therapist Karen Newsome. “At the time he got sick, he was just starting to take steps on his own. We had to go back and start all over again.”

In a process called developmental sequencing, Lucian’s physical therapists—Newsome, Kelsey Stewart and Ruth Stern—approached his therapy as if he were just starting to learn to walk. They began with exercises to strengthen his core muscles and help him balance while sitting.

Lucian progressed from crawling on his own to pulling himself up, then from using furniture to help him move around to using a walker. Two years later, he’s working on walking with two canes, and he’s even walking on a treadmill with a bit of assistance. Braces on both legs help to keep him steady.

“As with all of the children we work with, a big aspect of our therapy with Lucian is incorporating play with our treatment,” Newsome said. “That helps to make the therapy more motivating, and we’re seeing Lucian continue to make progress. He’s a very determined little guy.”

Even as he continued making great progress in his therapy, the cause of Lucian’s paralysis remained a mystery.

“I’ve been doing this kind of work for 30 years and have never seen this type of paralysis, in either an adult or a child,” Newsome said.

In April, the Oliveras finally got the diagnosis they had been waiting for. Researchers at Stanford University who have been following several cases like Lucian’s in California gave the condition a name: California polio-like syndrome.

According to a report from KABC in Los Angeles, the California Department of Public Health is aware of at least 20 cases around the state that are similar to Lucian’s. Although the disease appears to be caused by a virus, there is no evidence that it is rapidly spreading.

Although the damage to Lucian’s leg is likely permanent, Julie Wong, manager of the Child Development Center, said only time will tell how far he can come toward regaining strength to stand and walk independently.

“Hopefully, his brain will find a way to pick up the function of walking in a different way,” she said. “He’s young, and he’s motivated to move around, so it will be exciting to see what happens with him. Through everything, he always has an amazing smile that brings such joy to all of us.”