When 9-year-old Pressley Atkins arrived at Mercy Physical Therapy, she had not walked without crutches in six months. Her mother feared Pressley would never walk – or walk normally – again. Pressley could not put weight on her foot and the slightest touch was excruciating.
It had taken many visits to specialists to get a diagnosis: complex regional pain syndrome. The syndrome often develops after an injury and is believed to be caused by damage to the nervous system. Pressley’s trouble began with a sprained ankle that seemed to never heal.
Mercy Physical Therapist Assistant Chris Nichols was confident therapy would help, but he knew his team must be patient. The first step was gaining Pressley’s trust.
“We had to break through a lot of walls, show her what she could and couldn’t tolerate,” he said.
Therapists began helping Pressley work through “tactile feedback” by lightly brushing her ankle. At her first appointment, this was so painful that Pressley bawled. Some exercises involved tricking her brain with “mirror therapy,” blocking the affected foot from view and moving the other in the mirror. Eventually, Pressley could move her injured ankle.
Chris rewards young patients as they progress, and he asked Pressley what she wanted to do at certain milestones. First, she decorated his beard with glitter. Next, she pied him in the face.
“Chris was phenomenal,” said Melissa Atkins, Pressley’s mother. “He knew when to push her and when to take it easy on her. He kept her motivated and encouraged.”
The first time she saw Pressley walk on her own, with no crutches, it was Melissa who cried. “I was like a mama watching my baby walk for the first time,” she said.
Pressley completed therapy but had a setback when she got a deep bruise on her thigh. Her mother feared the injury could devolve into the pain syndrome again and brought her back to physical therapy. Chris asked Pressley what her reward would be when she completed therapy the second time. She said she wanted to run a 5K.
On a recent hot, sunny morning, Pressley grinned as she and Nichols crossed the finish line. Her grandparents and a group of friends cheered them on, holding signs and letting tears flow as they watched what seemed like a miracle.
“She’s made it back to being a kid and not having to worry about pain anymore," Chris said.