The front of Erika Burritt’s t-shirt reads – “One Tough Cowgirl” – that sums up the effort she’s displayed during her rehabilitation journey. On May 24, 2011, Erika woke up with a sore back that she chalked up to a long ride on her quarter horse, Poker. The 13-year-old has been riding since she was 4 and began showing horses in 4-H at age 8. Erika thought a heating pad and a nap would relieve her pain. But, the young teen panicked when she woke up and couldn’t move her left leg.
Doctors at the local hospital in Osceola, Neb., ruled out Guillian-Barré Syndrome and sent Erika by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Omaha. An MRI determined Erika had contracted transverse myelitis, a condition resulting from inflammation of the spinal cord. How she got the rare disorder is unknown, but researchers believe it often occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues.
Erika arrived at The Alexis Verzal Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital expecting a few weeks of therapy. Instead, she’s finally finishing her outpatient treatment after 8 months of rehabilitation. “I sure never expected it would take this long!” said Erika.
Initially, the active seventh grader, who loves swimming and softball, could only tolerate five minutes standing upright with assistance. She made one goal, “I just want to walk again.” And that’s the goal Erika’s working toward with guidance from her Madonna team.
“Why me?” or “I can’t” are not phrases in Erika’s vocabulary. No stranger to hard work, she devotes everything she has to her recovery. “Erika is so dedicated and never stops trying or believing in herself,” said Janelle Smith, RN. Despite the long road ahead, Erika shares her positivity with everyone. “She always brings a smile to the nurses’ and young patients’ faces,” said Janelle.
Ericka never complains during the challenging sessions on the FES bike, Lokomat® or during aquatic therapy. “She is the most mature 13-year-old I’ve ever met,” said Sarah Stevicks, PTA. “Erika is always upbeat and willing to do whatever her therapists ask.”
In August, Erika began the Rehabilitation Day Program. Her recreation therapist encouraged her to participate in activities at Windsong Equitherapy, a therapeutic riding program taught by a certified instructor. “It was so fun getting back on a horse,” said Erika. In addition, therapists rotate activities – like the Bowflex to strengthen her upper body and cupcake baking for fun – to keep the teen motivated. Her hard work paid off in September when Ericka proudly took her first steps with a walker.
Erika’s parents, Dave and Gail, offered continuous love and support as their daughter progressed through months of intensive therapy. Gail took advantage of Madonna’s on-site housing to be close to Erika. “I am so grateful for that – I wouldn’t want to make that long drive every day,” said Gail.
Back home in Osceola, the fire department organized a fundraiser and friends sold “Cowgirl” t-shirts to benefit the family. Nearly 400 cards were sent to boost Erika’s morale on her birthday. “I appreciate all that support so much,” said Erika.
Erika rang in the New Year with her family and friends back home. She has returned to school part-time. “I’m staying positive and working hard.” Just as you’d expect from a tough cowgirl, Erika continues to make monumental gains in her outpatient therapy at Madonna.