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Britany LaGasse: Church serves as family now

By Sarah Nagem
snagem@ salisburypost.com
Grant Hinson, a member of Nazareth Community Church, lifts Britany LaGasse out of her wheelchair and carries her to the edge of the pool.
Britany’s white robe billows as pastor Mike Shoaf holds her just above the water’s surface, cradling her like a child in his arms. Her small legs, made smaller by muscle atrophy, dangle under the water.
Shoaf says a few encouraging words, and Britany covers her mouth and nose with a white handkerchief. Shoaf gently lowers her into the pool at the East Rowan YMCA.
This is her baptism.
Since February, the church has played a big role in Britany’s life. She was baptized June 1 as church members Lois and Larry Fowler ó who Britany calls her adoptive family ó proudly stood by.
The Fowlers, both 67, met Britany shortly after she broke her neck in a four-wheeler accident on May 29, 2005.
Lois heard about the accident through Britany’s neighbor at a church in Salisbury. Larry read about it in the newspaper. They offered any help they could to Britany and her mother, Rhonda LaGasse.
Lois gets emotional talking about Britany’s family. “Her mother was precious,” Lois says.
Rhonda LaGasse died of a heart attack in September 2006. The Fowlers remained a big part of Britany’s life.
Recently, they started the Britany LaGasse Fund through Nazareth Community Church in Rockwell. The money, they say, will help meet Britany’s needs, both immediately and long term.
Those needs are many, because if Britany is ever going to walk again ó and she’s determined to ó she needs intense physical therapy.
A good chance
Britany has a better than 50-50 chance of “some limited walking,” says Dr. Andrew Koman, an orthopedic surgeon at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
Even so, that’s a better outlook than doctors originally gave Britany. Just after the accident, doctors told her she might never walk again.
Koman, who performed Britany’s latest surgery June 3, is helping her prepare for the kind of therapy she needs to strengthen her legs.
He released tendons in her right knee and hip so Britany can straighten her leg. He also put pins in the toes on her right foot because they had curled under.
The accident didn’t cause these medical problems. Britany was born with deformities in her legs and feet, and the paralysis after the accident allowed those deformities to return, Koman said.
If it hadn’t been for previous medical problems, the surgery earlier this month might not have been necessary, Koman said.
But Koman hopes that surgery will pave the way for more mobility.
“With what we did with the right leg, we should be able to get her up and moving,” he said.
If the surgery proves successful, Koman said he might perform the same operation on Britany’s left leg. He will definitely straighten the toes on her left foot.
After healing from the surgeries, Britany will be ready for more physical therapy.
What she needs
To walk again, Koman says Britany will need to do strengthening and range-of-motion exercises. She will need to re-learn to bend her knees, not only for walking, but also for getting in and out of her wheelchair. She will need tools to help her walk.
At the Brian Center, Britany has undergone some physical therapy, mostly to increase the use of her arms.
Therapists encouraged her to stretch her hands and exercise the muscles in her arms. They helped her put small pegs in holes to fine tune motor skills. They administered electrical stimulation to her arms to jump start the nerves.
“She did progress well while she was on the therapy,” says Jill Talbert, rehabilitation program manager at the center.
Now, Britany can lift her arms over her head. She demonstrates her ability one evening when the Fowlers are visiting.
“You need to do that all day long,” Larry Fowler tells her.
He wants Britany to reach her full potential. And he wants to help her do it.
But Britany is convinced the physical therapy offered at the Brian Center won’t be enough to help her walk again.
Last summer, she spent about a month at the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation.
“At the end of it, I was able to stand and take three steps on my own,” Britany says. “When I came back here, I wasn’t able to have the intense therapy anymore. I lost what I had gained.”
Back at the Brian Center, physical therapists continued to work with her, Talbert says. A couple of months ago, she says, Britany could stand for about 40 minutes with the assistance of a sling seat.
But Britany has at times refused physical therapy at the center. Talbert says Britany might not have been seeing gains as quickly as she had hoped.
“At one point I think she got frustrated with us,” Talbert says.
Since Britany has little mobility, the staff uses a wooden board to transfer her from the bed to her wheelchair.
Nurses slide the board under her hips as she sits on the edge of the bed and guide her froward into the seat of the wheelchair. The friction irritates her skin, Britany says.
If Britany strengthened her legs, she could help with the transfer to and from the wheelchair. That requires a lot of arm strength too, Talbert says.
Britany will need these skills ó whether she’s in a nursing home or anywhere else.
The Fowlers want Britany to return to Charlotte for more physical therapy. Lois says the center is willing to accept her on a short-term basis, as it did before, but staff there want Britany to have a discharge plan.
That means they don’t want Britany to return to the sedentary life of a nursing home where she might not continue to progress.
The fund established at Nazareth Community Church would help her avoid that, the Fowlers say. Medicaid helps pay for Britany’s treatment, but she wants to move into an apartment.
“I want to be as normal as possible,” she says.
But she would need 24-hour care, which is expensive.
She would need other things too, especially if Britany’s dream of attending Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in the fall becomes a reality.
Britany has a manual wheelchair that she can’t push. She wants a customized chair that she says would cost about $3,000.
“I really think that she could benefit from a different chair, modified for her,” Talbert says.
Finding hope
Britany realizes that many people in her situation are cared for by family. But that’s not an option for her.
“It really is depressing being in a nursing home,” she says.
The hardships keep piling up. Britany recently learned that her grandmother’s cancer has spread to her brain.
And Britany’s nearly two-year relationship with a boy she met after the accident recently came to an end.
But those realities aren’t stopping Britany.
The church has become a big part of her life. She plans to begin teaching a Sunday school class.
After the accident, she had considered going to college to become a teacher. Now she’s thinking about a career in pediatric medicine.
The accident has made her stronger, Britany says. She believes things happen for a reason. And she’s determined to move forward with her life.
“I wanted to still do something,” Britany says, “instead of wasting away laying here.”
 

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