BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - At six-years-old Eli Starkey is quick to show you a bright smile and an impressive baseball swing. However, when he was born his parents didn’t know if he’d survive, or if he did if he’d ever be able to walk or even talk.
“I didn’t even get a chance to hold him,” Vanessa Starkey recalls of her son’s birth.
A complication during delivery cut off oxygen to Eli’s brain, leading to what doctors categorized as severe brain damage. He was immediately rushed to the NICU at Baton Rouge General Hospital for a cutting-edge treatment called a whole body cooling protocol.
The whole body cooling protocol was developed for infants who have experienced a lack of oxygen and blood flow leading to brain damage. It must be administered within the first six hours of life and involves cooling the baby’s temperature to between 33.5°C and 34.5°C, or 92.3°F and 94.1°F. From there the body is slowly warmed back up. The whole process takes 72 hours.
Pediatric physical therapist Anna Howard says the protocol is not unlike applying ice to an injury. It does not undo the damage, but it does stop brain cell death and keeps the damage from becoming worse.
Without it, a child who experiences brain damage as a result of lack of oxygen and blood flow can be left with lifelong challenges, including physical and mental disabilities.
“What we know is with the cooling protocol these kids have many fewer poor outcomes,” said Howard.
In Eli’s case, he had a bleak initial outlook. His parents say that his first brain scan after the treatment showed very little brain activity. Doctors told the Starkey’s not to lose hope, and additional brain scans did show slow progressive improvement.
Once the cooling treatment was done, Eli also immediately began intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, and eventually speech therapy. Howard was part of that very first session when Eli was just three days old and still in the NICU.
Howard explains that Eli had to learn all the natural reflexes that a baby is usually born knowing, like suckling and grasping. It was her job to teach him those basic skills and build on that foundation over the years. She says because a baby’s brain can be easily molded, thanks to a concept called neuroplasticity, early therapy intervention can teach the healthy parts of the brain to compensate for the damaged parts.
“The brain is so teachable and so moldable that if you get in there and you give good input and good technique and you get the body moving through some really normal expected moving patterns then you can have such an effect on how a kid’s long term trajectory looks,” said Howard.
Eli is living proof of that. He spent 31 days in the NICU. After he was discharged, his mom drove him an hour twice a week to Baton Rouge General to continue his physical, occupational and speech therapies. His therapists, including Howard, work on Eli’s communication and speech, fine motor skills like writing, and balance and coordination.
They’ve made that trip every week for six years, although now Eli is down to one session a week. Vanessa Starkey says she can count on one hand the sessions they’ve missed.
“He’s so determined and that’s what keeps me going,” said Vanessa.
Today, Eli is a typical boy who loves learning, plays sports, and is quick with a joke and a big smile. The only hint of his tough start in life is a slight limp on his right side. His parents say the BRG NICU and his therapists saved his life. Howard says Eli’s hard work and his family’s dedicated support is what has allowed him to thrive and beat the tremendous odds he faced.
“When a neurologist says he may never be able to walk, he may never be able to completely talk 100 percent, you go against the odds and you say he’s not going to fall behind,” said Vanessa.
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