Three-year-old Melissa Lopez is one of the jokesters of the Shriners Hospital recreation room.
She careens around a kitchen play center in her wheelchair, then ventures over to a piano. Circling, she laughs and coaxes her mom to give chase.
Greeting nurses in English and Spanish, she buzzes up and down the hallways as if she owns the place.
“This is the sixth time we’ve been here,” says her mother, Cynthia Lopez, 27, of Fresno, Calif., who is staying in a family housing unit adjacent to her daughter’s room at Spokane’s Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children.
Melissa has spina bifida. She might stay a week at the hospital, waiting for a pair of leg braces she has outgrown to be refitted.
“She’s going to walk,” says Cynthia Lopez. “We’ll just have to take it day by day. They just have to see how these braces work.”
The family is just one of a few dozen who passed through the hospital last week.
Another woman spends her vacation there so her granddaughter can learn to walk; a teenager from Orient, Wash., is there several weeks for skin grafts on his burned knee; two children are having their legs lengthened; others are getting spinal fusions to strengthen their backs from scoliosis. A 15-year-old from Billings, Mont., who lost an arm in a car accident is learning to use an artificial limb.
The Shriners organization has had a hospital in Spokane since 1924. The old building along Summit Boulevard in northwest Spokane was replaced in 1991 by a 96,000-square-foot building across from Deaconess Medical Center on the South Hill. The two hospitals share some facilities, enabling the children’s orthopedic hospital to do more sophisticated procedures.
There’s a huge recreation rehabilitation room at Shriners. One floor is dedicated exclusively to surgery, another to 30 patient rooms, an activity center with computers and games and a classroom staffed by two Spokane School District 81 teachers.
Surgeons handled 1,359 operations last year, and 6,261 patients were treated in the outpatient clinic. All hospital services are free of charge.
One of those going in for surgery is Emily Breck, 18, a Kalispell, Mont., native who suffers from dwarfism. At 3 feet 10 inches, she hasn’t let her height stand in the way of finishing high school and pursuing a career in bookkeeping or interior design.
What slows her down is the stress her condition put on her back and hip. She spent three weeks at Shriners in 1988 for a spinal fusion. She was fine until a small fracture in her hip made it hard for her to walk for more than 20 minutes or climb stairs.
But Emily has her eyes on big things, one of those being her fiance, who stands 6 feet 3.
“We’re the odd couple in our town; people definitely notice us,” Emily says. “At school dances, all the guys would get on their knees and dance with me. He will, too, I guess.”
Emily’s surgery involves bending her pelvis and making a larger hip socket. Then the hip can be rebuilt. She hopes to walk without pain in about two months.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to most,” she says before the operation. “Hikes in Glacier (National) Park and getting out and going shopping for once.”
At the rehab clinic, Austin Dannen learns to lift and bend his newly improved leg.
A soft-spoken 13-year-old who lives in southwest Spokane, Austin was born with one leg shorter than the other.
He had a surgical procedure that extends the length of a limb by adding metal pins to the bone. For 17 months, he walked with a 20-pound cage around his right leg, an Ilizarov frame.
Each day he has to turn the screws 1 millimeter.
At the hospital, the brace and pins are replaced by a cast, which will remain on his foot for six weeks. When removed, his leg will have grown 3 inches.
Eventually, he may have to come back to Shriners for an operation to slow down the growth in his good leg. There are a lot of calculations involved, and slowing growth is almost as tricky as lengthening a limb. In the end, he’ll sacrifice a few inches of height for having two legs the same length.
After his therapy, Austin works at a computer in the recreation room. He says he wants to be a physical therapist when he grows up.
“Do you want to see the screws that were in my leg?” he asks, rushing back to his room on crutches to retrieve the plastic bag.
Waiting in the hospital outpatient clinic, Evelyn Moorhead is at the hospital twice a week with her son, Zachary Michael, 5.
Zachary suffers from hydrocephalus, or excess fluid on the brain. It slows his physical development. At 42 pounds, Zachary is really more like a 2-year-old physically and mentally. His head is enlarged and he can’t walk. In his therapy session, he practices taking his T-shirt on and off.
He sat up for the first time on his second birthday and he’s often hunched over. His mother has to carry him around most of the time.
Zachary has a shunt on the side of his head that pumps the brain fluid through a tube hidden under his skin to the abdomen.
“That’s his lifeline, in a sense,” says his mother.
If the tube were to stop functioning, her son could die or suffer severe brain damage.
Since spending two weeks at the hospital in December, Zachary has made significant progress, Moorhead says.
He started eating with utensils, sat up by himself and talked in sentences.
“I need this to happen. I want him to walk; carrying him around is quite the little task,” says Moorhead.
Though her husband was in the Air Force for 12 years, the couple is now self-employed and has no health insurance. They’ve decided to move to Spokane from Kalispell to be closer to the hospital.
Sitting on a platform in the rehab room, Zachary is attentive to therapist Leslie Dykemann. Some M&Ms; are in a wooden box and the boy sticks his hand through the cut shapes. He figures out how to open the box and digs out the chocolate treats.
“Yippee!” his mother gushes. “You’re just such a cute boy today.” She leans over and kisses her son on the side of the head.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo