Even though 10-year-old Samantha Winters has spent the last two months in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down, she stands by her conviction: she's going through this for a reason.
Rewind to November, and the only inkling that something was wrong with the Brentwood resident, was her complaint of mild back pain. Her mother, Tisha Winters, suspected she might be coming down with a common cold. But later, while at a routine dental cleaning, her older sisters, Michaela and Aubrey, said they overhead Samantha complain of back pain again and also that her hand felt strange. They realized things were serious when she couldn’t get out of the waiting-room chair and one of her legs dragged when she tried to move it.
"The hygienist said, ‘I think you need to take her to the ER,’ and by the time they got to Sutter (Hospital), her entire leg was numb," said her aunt, Christy Pease.
While at Sutter, the paralysis began to spread and Samantha was rushed by ambulance to Children’s Hospital Oakland where she was originally diagnosed with transverse myelitis and later acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a neurological disease that spiked in the number of cases in 2014 and is currently on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) watch list. Cases have mostly been found in children, with symptoms compared to that of polio, leaving some dependent upon intubaters to breathe. However, AFM patients have tested negative for poliovirus. In its ongoing investigation, the CDC indicates it is gathering data, monitoring and confirming cases, exploring treatment options, testing specimen, consulting with experts and educating health care providers and the public. The compiled evidence supports the role of viruses, including enteroviruses, in AFM. Aside from regular hand-washing and disinfecting, there is no medical prevention to avoid this disease. At this time, there is no specific treatment either.
“In Samantha’s case, she tested positive for rhinovirus (the common cold), but instead of making her sick, the virus attacked her spine,” Pease explained. “She fortunately didn’t need to be intubated to breathe, but she does need speech therapy because her diaphragm and lungs are not strong … they’re saying her recovery rate is pretty good but they believe she’ll come home in a wheelchair.”
Samantha’s parents, Tisha and Sam, have been living at the hospital since she was admitted, and Pease has stepped in to organize meal trains and provide care to her other nieces and nephew. She also set up a GoFundMe page for the Winters, as they prepare their home for wheelchair access and cover medical expenses, but Samantha’s main needs are regular access to physical, occupational and speech therapy, as that will be her only route to recovery.
“I just wish there was a way we could test children before they’re just sent home,” Tisha said. “I’m in a support group with other parents with affected children, and we’ve recently had six new families join. Every year, it’s getting worse and worse.”
But during this time, the entire family has relied upon their faith to get them through, and seeing Samantha’s own strength made them strong in turn.
“I know that (Samantha’s) a strong person and she has the right mindset,” said her oldest sister, Michaela. “So even though it’s sad and she’s upset about it sometimes, she has a really positive outlook on all the progress that she’s made. She’s doing everything mentally, physically that she can to get better.”
Tisha shared her pain of witnessing the disease’s impact.
“It was really hard because of the unknown of what was happening to my kid. But we are believers,” said Tisha, whose husband, Sam, is the pastor of City of Hope, “and the Lord has given me peace that my daughter is going to be okay – and there are days that that’s the only thing that holds me together … Samantha has held onto her faith, and whether it’s to spread the word or to help someone in the future, she said, ‘I’m going through this for a reason.’”
To contribute to the Winters’ GoFundMe page, visit https://bit.ly/36ql7Sr. To learn more about AFM, visit https://www.cdc.gov/acute-flaccid-myelitis/index.html.