Home / News / 13yo active, healthy girl suffers rare spinal cord stroke, loses feeling in her legs

13yo active, healthy girl suffers rare spinal cord stroke, loses feeling in her legs

Apr 20, 2023Apr 20, 2023

Teenager Harriet Caldwell was stretching before basketball training four weeks ago when she lost sensation in her legs.

"She was just doing her stretches and so forth, stretching her lower back and she felt a pop," her father Tim Caldwell recalled.

"She was screaming, just in shock, and she couldn't get up off the ground."

The 13-year-old's parents Tim and Rhiann rushed Harriet to the Bendigo hospital.

She was then rushed to the Royal Children's Hospital, where she endured a traumatic week of invasive testing.

"I had it in my head that we'd be back home the next morning … hoping that everything would be OK," Mr Caldwell said.

"There were MRIs, lumbar punctures … it was a full-on week and pretty uncomfortable for a 13-year-old kid."

Fewer than 1 per cent of strokes occur in the spinal cord.

The chances of a teenager having one is extremely rare.

When Harriet was diagnosed with a spinal cord stroke, some of her doctors admitted they had never seen it before.

"Seasoned doctors and specialists said they knew of only about three cases over the past 20 years," Mr Caldwell said.

"Other specialists in the field who have been here more than a decade had not witnessed it in a child or teenager before."

Mr Caldwell said some specialists were looking at cases overseas to learn more about it.

"They're trying to gather information from America and Europe, trying to see what people have been through. We are so limited with similar cases here in Australia," he said.

Tim Caldwell said his heart broke when a doctor told Harriet she might never walk again.

"It was pretty much the worst day of our lives. It was like being in a dream … surely this isn't happening," he said.

"To have your daughter look up to you and say, Dad, do something … while she's crying and trying to come to terms with it. It's extremely traumatic."

"That moment for me is something I'm never going to forget."

But her team of physiotherapists and occupational therapists are refusing to believe that will be the case.

After just a few weeks of rehabilitation and physical therapy, Harriet has some movement in the legs that were paralysed.

She can bend her right leg at the knee and she has recently been able to move her toes and her ankle on her left leg.

What sounded like a small glimmer of hope, Mr Caldwell said was really a huge win.

"She's been able to move her toe and there have been a few times where she's moved her ankle. To see that, it was so emotional … it was like winning TattsLotto, we were so excited."

"We're hoping in the not-too-distant future she'll be able to bear weight on her right leg.

"These small wins she's having, it puts you on a high … and you get to see your daughter smiling again."

An online fundraiser has raised more than $47,000 for the Caldwell family.

The couple run a mobile coffee business in Bendigo, but they have not worked since Harriet lost feeling in her legs.

Ms Caldwell is living at the hospital with Harriet, while Mr Caldwell is staying nearby.

Mr Caldwell said the family was grateful for the overwhelming community response.

"It's heartwarming … and a shock. We are amazed and just so thankful for the good people around Central Victoria."

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