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Written by Elizabeth Earley
Photographs by Ken Mountain

Chesapeake Teen’s Tumble on Trampoline Leads to Spinal Cord Injury

Regains physical abilities during 5-week inpatient rehab at CHKD

Fourteen-year-old Bradley Breeden of Chesapeake had a natural talent for flips and twists.

His mother, Denise Cowan, bought him a competition-style trampoline, so he’d have a safer spot to land than the ground. Bradley did what a lot of trampoline enthusiasts do. He altered the trampoline to be able to jump higher and do more flips in the air.

He removed the padding around the trampoline's frame, and also removed about a third of the springs attached to the net, to create a higher jump. A friend would jump on the trampoline right before him, which propelled him higher.

He did all those things, that is, until October 8, when one of Bradley's friends, along with his sister came running into the house to tell Denise that Bradley fell on the trampoline and couldn't move.

Denise raced outside, "It's OK, baby, just pray.”

Bradley could tell that he was off-center before he landed, with his neck across the now exposed frame of the trampoline.

Denise called 911. Within minutes, the ambulance had arrived, and they were on their way to CHKD.

Staying calm but with tears streaming down her face, Denise could only think, "What kind of life will he have if he can't move?"

Fortunately, when he arrived at CHKD, he was at the region’s only Level 1 pediatric trauma center, which includes a comprehensive team of pediatric surgeons, specialists, nurses, therapists, and other clinicians to care for trauma patients from the time of injury through rehabilitation.

Dr. Ann Kuhn, medical director of trauma services, said such cases are ranked at different levels, and Bradley’s injury was considered a “Level 1,” which is the most serious, and requires the quickest, most comprehensive response. Kuhn and others at CHKD worked for years to have CHKD designated by the state as a pediatric trauma center in 2018 to treat these types of injuries.

Bradley had no movement in his lower limbs, and pain in his neck and back. An examination and scans showed he’d suffered a spinal cord injury. Two vertebra were fractured and had slipped out of place. Within hours, he was in surgery. After 10 days of recuperation, Bradley was moved to CHKD’s inpatient rehabilitation unit, where he could begin the arduous work of regaining the ability he had lost.

Bradley at CHKD's rehabilitation unit after suffering from a spinal cord injury.CHKD’s rehabilitation unit is the only inpatient facility for kids in the state. A multidisciplinary team helps children recover from strokes, traumatic brain injuries, neuromuscular diseases, and spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Charles Dillard, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor who is medical director of CHKD’s traumatic brain injury program, said spinal cord injuries are relatively rare among children -- about 20 percent of overall spinal cord injuries -- but the hospital saw a higher number than usual in 2020, due to accidents, trauma, and gun violence.

According to the American Spinal Injury Association, the incidence of spinal cord injuries in children in the United States is 1.99 cases per 100,000 children, which sends an estimated 1,455 to hospitals annually for treatment.

Spinal cord injuries are complex because they can involve internal organs, such as the bowel and bladder, the circulatory system, as well as nerves, muscles, and limbs. A mental health component is also common, and extremely critical, especially in cases where children sustain permanent disabilities.

“All of these specialists are available to the patients and their families, and that’s a tremendous advantage,” Dr. Dillard says. “When you’re dealing with a complex condition, like a spinal cord injury, it’s important to help children reach their highest potential and to do that from a pediatric perspective. Kids need to play and to have fun, those are therapeutic activities, too, and can be used to help children recover physically and mentally.”

Bradley at CHKD's rehabilitation unit after suffering from a spinal cord injury.When Bradley was transferred to the unit, he could slightly move his lower extremities and wiggle his toes, but he still was experiencing numbness.

Bradley went from barely being able to lift his ankles, to sitting up, to standing, to walking.

The unit has a state-of-the-art therapy gym with “ZeroG” technology, a robotic body-weight support device that glides across an overhead track the length of a therapy gym ceiling.

The system, which is operated electronically by a physical therapist, allowed Bradley to practice walking and doing lunges without fear of falling. His main physical therapist, Michael Graham, could adjust the system to allow him to gradually bear more weight as he regained strength.

"What these people do are amazing," Denise said. “You take for granted the training these therapists and nurses go through, until you need them and see them up close and personal, and realize they really are angels."

Bradley was released just before Thanksgiving 2020 but continued going to therapy sessions at CHKD twice a week for several months. He’s still working on improving his fine motor skills and strengthening his muscles, but he’s come a long way from the day in October when he couldn’t move at all.

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