In the early days of the “mystery illness” that started as a cold and morphed into potential paralysis for their baby boy, Valerie and Donald Brooks had tons of questions about his future.
That was November 2018, shortly after Ryan Brooks was diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, a rare polio-like condition. Ryan was 10 months old when a cold swept through his Stafford County household, and while others got sick with coughs and sore throats, Ryan suddenly stopped moving his right leg.
It hung limply at his side. He didn’t kick it when his diaper was changed or put weight on it when he stood in his crib.
Specialists ended up treating him with heavy-duty antibiotics, steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin, or IVIG, which his mother called a “superhero serum” of antibodies to fight a variety of infections. She believes the quick treatment kept the damage from spreading throughout his body.
These days, Ryan continues to undergo physical therapy and wears a stiff brace on his right leg, which doctors say is weakened but not paralyzed. He’ll probably always need it in order to put weight on his right foot and strengthen the limb.
Ryan is always on the go, trying to keep up with his older siblings and do all the running and jumping, climbing and crawling that other 3 1/2-year-old kids do. That’s exactly what his parents want, but they’ve met obstacles as they’ve tried to find devices, toys and even organized activities for him.
“That’s our biggest challenge, letting him be a child,” his mother said. “We want to make sure he gets an opportunity to have a life like everybody else, and I think equipment is a big part of that.”
Her quest to find opportunities for Ryan led her to Sportable, a Richmond-based adaptive sports club. It offers competitive and recreational sports programs for those with physical disabilities and visual impairments. Since 2005, Sportable has provided more than 400 athletes of all ages the chance to play and compete each year, according to its website.
Valerie Brooks has arranged for Sportable to provide a clinic showcasing its equipment and offerings on Saturday at North Stafford High School. The event is planned from 10 a.m. to noon and 1–3 p.m. at the school, 839 Garrisonville Road in Stafford.
Participants can try out different kinds of adaptive sports, from wheelchair basketball to cycling, in rotations of 15 to 30 minutes. Sportable staff will help those interested try various types of equipment.
The event is designed for anyone with a physical disability or visual impairment, ages 3 to adult. Those interested can register at sportable.org or call 804/340-2991.
As Valerie Brooks contacted local groups and agencies that provide services, she was thrilled by the enthusiastic response from North Stafford officials, including Mark Coleman, the school’s assistant principal for athletics and activities, and Steve Hibberd, the adaptive physical education teacher. They told her they were excited to offer the clinic at their school.
She also connected with Kyle Hitzelberg, a program manager at Sportable, who grew up in Fauquier County and is eager to bring a clinic near his home area.
“I think she’s awesome,” he said about Valerie Brooks, noting that nothing would be happening if “she hadn’t been so adamant” about finding activities for her son. “I just happened to be in the office when she called, and I could hear the excitement in her voice about trying to get opportunities for him in the area, to give him the experience of something that all his peer groups have.”
As she watches Ryan do what she calls a “hoppity skip,” almost galloping along as his braced leg trails every so slightly, she’s glad to have been able to pull things together.
“Me? I’m just the mom, just advocating,” she said.
She’s been able to find toys that help support his legs, and he’s become a big fan of play push mowers. On a recent day, he said he wanted to go outside and cut the grass with his orange one—the Husqvarna model—and 11-year-old sister Raegan Bradley happily accompanied him.
Ryan likes for her or his older brothers, Aiden, 13, and Carter, 15, to mow with the real thing as he walks along beside them with his toy model.
“They’re all really patient with him,” their mother said. “If he wanted to mow the grass 10 times, they’d mow the grass 10 times with him.”
When the family is out and about, adults with prosthetics often approach Ryan and interact with him, and she’d love for him to meet other children with leg braces or similar devices.
“I want him to know he’s not alone,” she said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425