It was a small step, but a major milestone for young Riley Gilbert.
At a recent physical therapy session, a constant presence in her life since she suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of her baby sitter in 2007, Riley took a step.
It wasn’t a normal step by any means. She was being held up by a device that allowed her try to master the motion of walking without having to bear weight.
Cast your vote
To vote for Riley Gilbert in the online contest sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, go to www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com.
But Riley took it.
“She’s made leaps and bounds,” Riley’s mother Lisa Gilbert said last week. “It may not appear like that to a lot of people, but we have to remember — I have to remember this too — I go back to us being at the hospital six years ago and them telling us she wasn’t going to make it. And here she is.”
On March 27, 2007, little Riley came frighteningly close to not being here at all.
Then just 2 years old, Riley, who was recorded on family videos dancing and singing and doing what toddlers do, suffered the brain injury at the hands of the family’s baby sitter, one-time family friend Rebecca Polomaine.
The baby sitter, a Schenectady County Court jury found in 2008, shook Riley and smashed the little girl’s head. Polomaine is now serving 18 years in state prison.
Riley has since been in her own prison, but it’s a prison her family has been working hard in the years to get her out of.
Riley, her mother said, was in and out of a coma for the first three months after the injury. She couldn’t come home for five months. And she was left unable to walk, talk or feed herself. She is legally blind. She can see well enough, though, to play with an iPad.
While she still can’t feed herself, she is finally swallow, and is off the feeding tube.
She can communicate some choices, like color or mood, through an assistive device at school. Verbalizations, though, are limited.
Early on, Riley didn’t even like to be moved. Her mother recalled taking her for walks around the parking lot at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital her daughter was an inpatient, and Riley screaming to the point where people stared.
Now 8, she smiles on bus rides to school and therapy sessions. It is often through her smile and laughter that she communicates what she can.
The family wants to get Riley out more. To do that, they need a mini-van that can accommodate her wheelchair. As Riley gets bigger, it’s becoming more and more difficult for her parents to transfer Riley and her wheelchair into a car.
The family recently entered Riley into an online contest through MobilityAwarenessMonth.com, sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. The contest, which includes more than 900 entrants from around the country, allows people to vote for “local heroes.”
The top 5 percent of vote-getters then go to a panel of judges, who select three winners of vans. The vehicles are donated by Toyota, Chrysler and an independent Honda dealership. Voting continues to May 10.
The Gilberts hope to be able to take Riley along on more family outings, like trips to the store or the mall. But for trips with multiple stops, transferring Riley from the chair to car and back again can take its toll on Riley.
A van would make such trips much easier.
There are at least three other local entrants in the contest: Amy Moore, a woman with cerebral palsy from Loudonville, Maya Vasquez, a 4-year-old girl from Albany with a developmental disorder and cerebral palsy, and Lacey Lautenschlager, a 4-year-old Albany girl with Down syndrome and other ailments.
The voting happens to coincide with National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is under way now. It’s a month with special significance to the Gilberts, the family having done much for awareness of the issue. Lisa has blogged about her experiences through the Shaken Baby Syndrome Support Network.
In Riley’s case, it was her baby sitter, once a family friend, who inflicted the injuries on the girl.
The Gilberts have since had a second child, now 4-year-old Zachary, leaving them in the position of having to trust both their children to caregivers. The parents both work.
“You do have to trust people,” Lisa Gilbert said. “Some people may find it very difficult; it was not easy at all for us.”
The Gilberts decided to go with a regular licensed day care, one where there’s always more than one provider in the room at any one time.
Lisa Gilbert recalled bringing Riley with them when they were looking for day care providers, sharing their story, making sure the provider knew exactly where they were coming from.
Lisa Gilbert recalled Riley’s first day of pre-school. “They couldn’t get rid of me for the first three days,” the mother said. “I accompanied her to school, because I needed her to know. I shared her story.”
“And yeah, it is scary, I’m not going to say it’s not,” Lisa Gilbert ultimately said.
Still, the Gilberts say they try to keep looking forward.
“You can’t go back,” Brad Gilbert said, “so we just try to be as positive as we can.”
That optimism has kept them and Riley going. It has also kept Riley making strides never thought possible that night in late-March 2007, when the family was told their daughter might not even survive.
Riley now attends Langan School in Albany, receiving services including occupational and physical therapy, as well as vision therapy.
Health insurance, Medicaid and the Office of Victim Services pay for various therapies. The family has had fund raisers in the past to cover what insurance doesn’t cover. Along with the hope of getting a wheelchair van, the family also needs to make modifications to their house, which is not fully accessible.
Riley can eat with assistance. Many children in her situation never are able to swallow again, the mother said.
She wears leg braces in the day and hand braces at night. More important, she can also tolerate therapy. There was a time when they couldn’t even bring her in a car.
The assisted step she took earlier this month, Lisa Gilbert said, brought tears to her eyes.
“We always have hope,”she said, “because I’ve watched how far she’s come. But it’s taken her six years to get there. So I’m also realistic about it.”
The hope is that she can eventually become more independent, help her parents help her, maybe even someday walk with the help of a walker.
“We just honestly want her to get to her full potential,” Lisa Gilbert said, “whatever her full potential is.”
For now, the family has Riley’s laughter.
Riley’s father recalled having to yell at the family’s dogs, and hearing that laugh. When her younger brother gets in trouble, she seems to understand like any big sister, and the laughter comes.
“Basically, with everything she does, patience is probably the biggest word,” Lisa Gilbert said. “You can’t just expect it to come.”
When she made the literal strides at the recent therapy session, there was her smile, too, Lisa Gilbert recalled. The laughter from the little girl in pig tails came again last week as the family’s picture was getting taken.
“Are you smiling?” the mother asked Riley. Riley responded with a noise in the affirmative. “You’re smiling,” the mother confirmed.