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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Cartoons help cultivate success for young AVM survivor

June 30, 2021

Cassie Cudney describes her 7-year-old son, Norris Payton, Jr., as a goofy, caring, compassionate and intelligent kid who’s also full of energy.

“Norris is just the light in every single room,” Cudney said. “He’s always looking for ways to make the world and the people around him better and happier.”

Cudney is relieved to see her son back to enjoying his favorite hobbies, like drawing, singing along to the Pokémon theme song and pretending to be Sonic the Hedgehog as he races around the playground of Madonna's Omaha Campus. These small moments are ones she was worried she would never see again.

Norris came to Madonna after suffering from an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain. Brain AVMs are when blood vessels become tangled, disrupting the connections between the arteries and veins. While incredibly rare, these blood vessels can rupture, leading to a brain bleed and other serious complications. For Norris, mom says she didn’t know of the issue until early April, when he complained of a headache. The next thing she knew, Cudney and her son were rushed to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center for emergency brain surgery.

“It was in the left lobe of his brain that deals with speech and language and his motor function,” Cudney said. “When he woke up, we weren’t sure if he’d be able to walk or talk or understand anything at all.”

At first, success was just watching Norris follow simple commands like holding his head up or moving his arm. Upon his arrival to Madonna's pediatric unit, his progress and his personality shined through when his care team found unique ways to incorporate Norris’ interests into therapy. In physical therapy, he developed his balance and leg strength by pretending he was Sonic, racing to collect coins. In speech therapy, he found his voice and improved his cognition playing “I Spy” with stickers of his favorite Avatar characters. In Madonna’s Therapeutic Learning Center, coordinator Denise Shearer made sure reading lessons were even more fun, with the help of Ash, Pikachu and Team Rocket.

“With our kids it’s so important we incorporate things that are motivating to them so we get a lot more participation,” said Rachel Stonacek, a Madonna pediatric speech therapist. “When they’re excited and they’re motivated, we get a lot better outcomes.”

Stonacek said her favorite memory with Norris was the first time he used his voice by counting his stickers. That was on a Friday. By Monday morning, Norris proudly told Rachel he had done his speech homework over the weekend.

“Mom and I were both crying because it was unexpected,” Stonacek said. “His progress really took off from there, and that same day we started describing his stickers and practicing word finding. It was incredible.”

Stonacek said family participation made a huge impact in Norris’ recovery. His mom and grandma made sure to carry over all care team goals and homework into the weekend, so he didn’t skip a beat.

Two months after his emergency brain surgery, Norris walked out of Madonna on his own. But first, he accepted a Madonna Spirit Award and had a quick dance party with his therapists. He will continue his rehabilitation journey with TherapyPlus, Madonna’s outpatient therapy services, and is expected to continue to make progress. Cudney said she will forever be grateful for Madonna, as she cherishes each moment she can spend with her son.

“Nothing in life will be able to explain the feeling of being able to keep my child. My whole child with his whole personality,” Cudney said.

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