When Jenny and Jon Zabrocki’s 8-year-old son, Mesfin, woke up one morning in August complaining of neck pain, they were understandably concerned. Soon Mesfin’s legs became numb and he had trouble breathing. A few hours later he was in a helicopter flying from the suburban hospital where he was initially seen to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago downtown. There a multidisciplinary team of experts diagnosed and treated him for a neurological condition that can result in permanent paralysis.
The Zabrocki family was intimately familiar with Lurie Children’s former location, Children’s Memorial Hospital, where Mesfin’s sister, Faye, 10, had received care for spina bifida
since she was a newborn. Little did they know that the new hospital would play a huge role in their son’s life.
Mesfin was initially seen at their local hospital. He was referred to Lurie Children’s after an emergency department physician suspected he had Guillain-Barre syndrome and consulted with a counterpart at Lurie Children’s. An ambulance was ordered to transport him downtown. Before it arrived, though, a discussion between members of Lurie Children’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), Children's Service Board Emergency Transport Team
and Division of Neurology raised the concern that Mesfin’s symptoms were instead due to a spinal cord lesion. A helicopter was ordered to immediately transport Mesfin to Lurie Children’s.
At a nearby gas station to fill up their car for the 45-minute drive to Chicago, Jenny and Jon looked up and saw the helicopter carrying their son, whose paralysis was getting worse by the minute, take off for Lurie Children’s.
“We were in shock,” says Jenny. “I looked at Jon and said, ‘I think our life is about to change.’ He said, ‘I think you’re right.’ Mesfin had never been sick before, so this was very frightening.”
By the time Mesfin arrived at Lurie Children’s Kenneth and Ann Griffin Griffin Emergency Care Center
just 13 minutes later, he was met by a team of specialists in emergency medicine and neurology. He immediately underwent an MRI scan, which revealed the cause of his symptoms: transverse myelitis.
The neurological disorder results from inflammation of the spinal cord caused by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues . This disrupts the transmission of nerve signals, causing pain, weakness or paralysis. A number of conditions can trigger the illness, including viral infections of the respiratory or gastrointestinal tracts.
“Transverse myelitis in the cervical region can result paralysis of all muscles below the neck,” says Leon Epstein, MD
, the Derry A. and Donald L. Shoemaker Professor of Pediatric Neurology and head of the Division of Neurology, who was on service when the referring hospital called and ordered the helicopter transport. “About one-third of children with this condition do not recover at all, one-third recover partially and one-third recover completely. We cannot know what Mesfin’s course would have been without rapid transport and early treatment, but clinical experience suggests he would have been left with substantial neurological deficits. This was a chance we could not take.”
Mesfin was transferred to the PICU, and immediately started a course of high-dose steroids to decrease the inflammation. Throughout the night his nurses performed breathing tests every hour, because his diaphragm was partially paralyzed.
The steroids quickly took effect. By morning Mesfin’s breathing was less labored. Soon he could lift his legs and wiggle his toes. Within 48 hours he was taking his first few steps. After six days as an inpatient, Mesfin went home and began three weeks of physical therapy.
“To see this type of excellent outcome in a potentially devastating neurological condition, we needed to have highly trained pediatric intensivists, neuroradiologists and an experienced transport team that is always ready,” says Dr. Epstein. “Lurie Children’s is the only children’s hospital in the region with this type of fully staffed Neurocritical Care Program.”
Having been so familiar with Children’s Memorial because of Faye’s frequent visits and surgeries there, Jenny says they appreciated Lurie Children’s private rooms and improved amenities.
“Lurie Children’s is just amazing!,” she says. “Mesfin loved being able to chose his own movies to watch on the big flat screen TV. Also, the private rooms enabled both Jon and I to stay overnight in his room, which we never could have done at the old hospital. There’s so much more room, and because we weren’t sharing a room his siblings (Emily, 12; Faye; and Will, 8) and friends could visit, which made a huge difference in lifting his spirits.”
Now, two months after being air lifted to Lurie Children’s, Mesfin, now 9, has made a full recovery. The busy third-grader loves soccer, super heroes and playing video games with friends.
“It’s just amazing,” says Jenny. “The outcome could have been much different. The quick response of Mesfin’s medical team and their overall care and compassion changed his life."