New Castle News

November 22, 2012

Photo Gallery, Video, Story: Youth who suffered brain injury at birth takes first steps at age 16

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — It was about 10 years ago that Danna Fleeson was encouraged to accept that her son never would walk.

“I was told by doctors that no matter what we tried, Andy would not walk and that we might as well do surgery to paralyze him from the waist down,” Danna said. “I cried for days. I was just not willing to give up on my son ever taking a step.”

Instead of agreeing to the surgery, Danna became even more determined to see him walk.

Last December, at the age of 16, Andy Fleeson took his first step. Then another. And another.

“I’m just so glad that I followed my instincts,” Danna said. “It was the proudest day of my life.”



ANDY’S BIRTH

Shortly after Andy was born April 10, 1996, at Ellwood City Hospital to Danna and Michael Fleeson by Caesarian section, he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. Danna, who already had two older sons with whom she had had relatively easy births, said that in the early months of her pregnancy with Andy, she suffered from extreme nausea and had to be hospitalized twice for dehydration that resulted from it. Labor pains started during her seventh month of pregnancy, but medication was administered to stop the contractions.

While Danna was in labor for about 3 1/2 hours for each of her first two sons, she was in labor for 14 hours with Andy, whose birth weight was 11 pounds, 11 ounces. His high birth weight was attributed to fluid buildup in his brain, which caused his brain to become pinned up against his skull, expanding it to 49 centimeters, or the size of a 3-year-old’s head.

Immediately after birth, Andy was transported to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. The next day, a shunt was inserted into the open hollows in his brain to drain the excess cerebral-spinal fluid into his abdomen during an 11-hour surgery. Danna was told that Andy’s hydrocephalus was “extremely severe — profound,” and may have built up undetected during her pregnancy.

Andy would need a lot of care — and love.



TAKING STEPS

During his early years, Andy received intensive physical therapy at the Jameson Rehabilitation Center and from an occupational therapist visiting the Fleesons’ Wampum home.

Andy, bound to a wheelchair and with limited communication skills, was enrolled in the Ellwood City Area School District. Three years ago, the Fleesons discovered New Horizon School in Beaver, a special needs school operated by the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit.

 Still feeling like there was more that could be done for her son, Danna consulted with then-pastor Jim Swanson from Bell Presbyterian Church in Ellwood City, who recommended she try Shriners Hospitals for Children in Erie. Andy was put in the care of Dr. William Schrantz, an orthopedist for Shriners hospitals in both Erie and Philadelphia. Schrantz recommended a surgery that would help with the stiffness in Andy’s legs.

“He said, ‘I am not promising you this is going to help him walk, but it will provide him with more comfort in his legs,’ Schrantz told Danna.

In December, during a therapy session at Shriners — and with no warning — Andy stood up.

Danna said she stared at the therapist and said, “It looks like he’s standing.”

The therapist replied, “He’s standing.”

But then, a day later came the second miracle. Holding on to a walker, Andy took a step. And he kept taking steps.

“He had never taken a step in his life, but somehow, he seemed to know the concept,” Danna said. “I was just overcome.”

Schrantz died in May at the age of 66 and when funding ran out at Shriners several months ago, Danna was referred to The Children’s Institute in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.

There, Andy has learned to ride a tricycle and receives intensive physical therapy that Danna says has helped him make further progress.



WHAT LIES AHEAD

Andy’s walking also is encouraged on a daily basis at New Horizon School. Although he does not speak, Andy understands anything that is being said. He works through a communication board at New Horizon, learning letters and numbers and receiving daily therapy. And his feet and legs always are in motion.

“I can see the progress every day,” Danna said. “He is a whole different child. He is so much more alert, he is able to sit up on his own, he can hold a drink and he can feed himself now.

“It is a slow process and he still has a long way to go, but I can see the progression every day.”

Andy is close with his brothers, Michael, 23, and Bryan, 21, a student at Penn State University.

“We are big Penn State fans and Andy sits in front of the TV and cheers for the Nittany Lions,” Danna said. He also likes NASCAR racing and his favorite driver, Carl Edwards.

Although New Horizon specializes in “vocational prep,” readying its special needs students for the future, Danna says she doubts that Andy ever will be able to live or function on his own, something she has come to terms with. The slightly-built Danna is able to carry Andy up and down 14 steps to get to the bathroom in her home.

“He’ll probably always remain with me, but I’m OK with that,” Danna said. “He’s my best friend. I can’t imagine waking up and him not being there. We do everything together, we go to restaurants and malls and amusement parks.”

Andy has a Wii video game system and recently, he beat Danna in darts for the first time.

“That was a big moment,” she said. “He was smiling away, he knew he beat me and he was pretty happy.

“My favorite saying is, ‘Don’t tell me to reach for the stars when there are footprints on the moon.’ Anything is possible, just watch my son take a step and you will believe that as much as I do.”

(Email: kcubbal@ncnewsonline.com).