The Children's Institute Blog

National PT Month: Ethan's Story

Posted: Oct 31, 2017 by The Children's Institute

Ethan Theis – who was born, like 1,500 Americans every year, with spinal bifida – has undergone three surgeries in the past six months. Following the last one, which took place in May and addressed scoliosis of his spine, the 13-year-old Lower Burrell, Pa. boy went from assisted walking to no longer being able to sit up on his own.

But, on a recent Wednesday, Ethan, who we’re profiling as part of National Physical Therapy Month, smiled broadly as left his wheelchair and starting swimming laps – back and forth, back and forth – in The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh’s therapeutic pool.

“The pool helps because I’m not really restrained by gravity, so I can move around a lot more,” said Ethan, as he waded through the water with two yellow weights. “I enjoy [various types of] therapy but this is certainly easier.”

Spinal bifida isn’t slowing down Ethan. He’s been taking part in physical therapy fairly regularly since undergoing surgery on his hip about five years ago. When he’s not in treatment, he’s doing adaptive kayaking or taking part in sled-hockey. (During a recent tournament with Children’s Institute staff, many patients enjoyed knocking unsuspecting therapists onto their sides and watching them squirm – but not Ethan. “I was kind of a softie and gave them tips,” he laughed.)

About a year ago, Ethan also took part in a neuroclinic here at The Children’s Institute that worked on his strength and physical endurance. Physical therapist Megan Fisher has been conducting the clinic, which pairs 30 minutes of physical therapy with 30 minutes of more independent instruction, for a few years now.

“It’s about total body strength – we’re looking at upper body, core, lower body, but also balance, coordination skills, endurance training,” Megan said. “I only have a half-hour so it has to be very focused, goal-driven, based on what the patient and family want right now.”

Neuroclinic treatments can involve everything from treadmill walking to activities for improving gait to ladder drills, depending on the patient’s abilities, Megan said.

“I love the neuro-world,” laughed Megan. “You see these gains, these changes in objectives and measures. When you see those changes in a neurologically impaired child, it’s exciting. You share that information with the parents and that’s when they get those big smiles on their faces.”

Christina Sublinsky, Ethan’s mother, is smiling. But she is straight-faced when she says, only half-joking, “I recommend this place to everybody – for everything.”

“This is the best place to come – they’ve just changed our lives for the better,” Christina said. “The quality of care, the opportunities you get. Ethan is super excited to come here. They just know what he needs.”

Ethan has been coming twice a week to physical therapy since his scoliosis surgery in May. That one surgery, more than others, left him shaken, his mother said.

“I got him in here as soon as I could,” Christine said. “He was scared, too, because he couldn’t do anything he could before. Now, he’s doing laps in the swimming pool.”

Ethan, in the meantime, has interests and takes part in activities like any other teenager. Well, maybe any other ambitious teenager. Inspired “to be a weirdo,” he says, by Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, Ethan is learning the once-touted universal language Esperanto and writing a book where characters speak in a language of his own creation.

“It’s just hard with his diagnosis,” his mother said. “Ethan’s had therapy his whole life. He needs to keep moving.”

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