How a 5-year-old Changed Physical Therapy for Kids Who Need PT in the Future

Lucky McMahon is a very determined 5-year-old.

To see evidence of that determination, you don’t have to look much further than the child-sized climbing wall at the Decatur Memorial Hospital Sports Enhancement Center. The wooden wall, which can be adjusted to meet the needs of patients up to age 10, is emblazoned with stickers reading “LUCKY’S WALL.”

That’s because the wall—which has the potential to help many young patients in the years to come—is the direct result of Lucky’s persistence.

Lucky, who was born with hydrocephalus, or excess fluid in the cavities of his brain, has been working with pediatric physical therapist Lindy Miller at Decatur Memorial Hospital for the past year and a half. Children with hydrocephalus can experience mental and physical delays, and the therapy sessions are aimed at helping Lucky improve his balance, gait and coordination.

When Miller mentioned that a climbing wall might help him build his strength, Lucky was immediately fascinated by the idea.

“He would not stop talking about it,” said his mother, Paula McMahon.

Pediatric physical therapy helps children build their strength and skills, with an added emphasis on fun. A climbing wall, for example, can build core and upper-body strength while also improving balance.

“Children learn through play, so we have to make everything we do play-based and functional,” Miller said.

That attitude helps make what might otherwise be a frustrating experience for children into a fun opportunity to play and try new things.

“Lucky doesn’t know it’s therapy,” his mom said. “He just knows it’s fun to climb on things.”

Each week at his therapy sessions, Lucky began asking Jeff Brown, executive director of rehabilitation at DMH, and Denise Crutcher, manager of Rehabilitation, to acquire a kid-sized climbing wall for the Sports Enhancement Center.

But he didn’t stop there. Before long, he’d made the same request of Santa Claus. During a special meet-and-greet event, he even asked Chicago Cubs player Ben Zobrist—who wryly referred Lucky back to Santa Claus.

When Miller heard that Lucky’s quest for a climbing wall had now reached major-league baseball, she knew he wasn’t going to stop asking anytime soon.

“I turned to Jeff and Denise and said, ‘This is getting serious—we have to get this child a climbing wall,’” she joked.

Physical therapy staff were able to make the purchase thanks to a $1,750 grant from the DMH Foundation. The money came from a fund established in memory of Fannie Bassett, a former volunteer who worked with pediatric patients. The Foundation is able to help DMH staff with purchases that might otherwise fall outside their usual budgets.

Unfortunately for Lucky, the new climbing wall was delivered at an inopportune time—the week that Illinois began a stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. So it wasn’t until late June that Lucky first got an opportunity to climb the wall. Now, as he gains confidence, climbing it is a highlight of his therapy sessions.

“He’s pretty excited,” Miller said. “He always gives a thumbs-up when he likes something, and I’ve gotten several thumbs-up.” She added that many of the other children who attend therapy at the facility are excited about this new addition as well.

The therapists at DMH are “like a second family” for Lucky, who also receives speech and occupational therapy. His mom credits that team—and her son’s own fierce determination—for helping him exceed all the expectations that doctors and experts have set for him.

“If it wasn’t for the therapists and the help they’ve given him, he wouldn’t be where he is today,” Paula McMahon said.

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