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Baranek: Katie Vree wheelchair-bound, but still determined

Katie Vree Chicago Christian High Schoool is saddle as part her horseback-riding therapy sessiSojourn Therapeutic Riding Center Peotone. | Supplied

Katie Vree, of Chicago Christian High Schoool, is in the saddle as part of her horseback-riding therapy session at the Sojourn Therapeutic Riding Center in Peotone. | Supplied photo

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high school

CUBE

Updated: November 6, 2012 6:23AM



Katie Vree looked like a kid on a carnival ride.

Arms up, a big smile on her face, blonde hair flying, she was having a blast being the first in a line of running Chicago Christian teammates as they circled the court before warm-ups for Monday’s match against Rosary.

I don’t know. I would think, being in a wheelchair, she’d be a little scared having another person zooming her around like that on a polished gym floor.

But there really isn’t any fear in Katie Vree. She’ll careen around a volleyball court in a wheelchair. She’ll ride a horse. She’ll happily do the hours and hours of therapy that certainly aren’t as much fun as going to the mall, but every day drive her to her goal of walking again.

When will that be? There is no timetable, no guarantees given by the doctors and therapists who are helping her undo the damage a virus did to her spinal cord in June 2011 and caused her to be paralyzed from the neck down.

All everybody knows is that slowly but surely, she’s getting better.

Even I could see that Monday.

It was about 13 months ago when I met Katie for the first time. She was a couple of months removed from that terrifying June 4 day when while on a plane taking her and some classmates to a mission trip in Guatemala she started feeling symptoms that within three hours would turn her life upside down.

The day I met her, Katie still was a patient at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It was a particularly exhilarating day, because she was fulfilling a goal of making it back to Chicago Christian to watch her teammates play in the first match of the 2011 season. She already had made some progress, especially with her arm movement, but it was pretty obvious the trip from the rehab institute had taken a little bit out of her.

Monday, she looked much stronger, much more vibrant, as she took part in all of the Senior Night ceremonies. Schedule-wise, it had been difficult for her to get to too many matches, but she was on the roster. And when she was there, she was right alongside her teammates on the bench.

Certainly, there was no missing Senior Night.

“It’s been really great still being a part of the team,” she said. “Those girls and the sport of volleyball mean a lot to me.”

As for the past several months since we first told Katie’s story, a lot has happened.

She was released from the rehab center in November, and is living at home with her parents (Dan and Barb Vree). She’s progressed from home schooling to attending classes two days a week at Chicago Christian.

Early on, big progress was made through pool therapy, where she could drive her feet forward due to the weightless condition. More recent, she has added horseback-riding therapy at Sojourn Therapeutic Riding Center in Peotone to help develop her core strength and balance.

“It’s amazing to watch that process,” Barb Vree said. “Our jaws dropped the first time she was on the horse. We couldn’t believe how well she could sit up on the horse and be able to go around the ring. It’s a neat thing because it doesn’t even seem like therapy.”

And it’s another step toward feeling “normal” for Katie, who used to ride horses with one of her best friends, Kari Bruinius.

There is a lot of mystery behind this condition called transverse myelitis, starting with what exactly causes it. There are myriad symptoms. At first, in fact, Katie was misdiagnosed as having had a spinal stroke, which would have certainly left her a quadriplegic for life.

With this, there is hope. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one-third of the people who develop transverse myelitis make a good or full recovery. That Katie made some progress early on is a good sign.

Katie’s determination to one day walk back into Chicago Christian can’t hurt. From the few times I’ve talked with her, she just isn’t one of those “feel sorry for yourself” kind of persons.

“It’s really frustrating, but I know I’m getting stronger,” she said. “I’m not quite where I want to be, but it’s pretty good. I haven’t stopped making progress in any of my therapies.

“I really like being back at school. I have to balance my time more to do homework, because (of therapy) I have less time to do it, and it’s a little harder to keep up because I’m not there every day. But it’s going a lot better than I thought it would.”

If all continues to go well, Katie will be part of the graduation line with her senior class June 7.

According to that fact sheet, many of the one-third who make a full recovery do so within two years.

Wouldn’t it be nice?



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