June 28, 2016


Part 3: Breanna Sprenger, the extraordinary ‘ordinary girl’

WESTLAKE —The look on Breanna Sprenger’s face as she stood inside the therapy room says it all.

Usually the life of the party, Breanna is showing emotions that seem foreign for the pint-sized ball of energy. She is smiling, but her eyes read nervousness, apprehension and even a little shyness.

“Can you help me?” she says to the student therapist working with her at the Cleveland Clinic facility in Westlake.

More photos below.

“No, stop talking and walk,” physical therapist Anne Marie Pace responds from nearby — close enough to help if Breanna or the student therapist needs it. “We know you can do this.”

Breanna lets out a sigh and a giggle. She turns to a reporter and a photographer and smiles.

“Hi. This is Breanna and this is the Breanna show. These are my prosthetic legs and today you are going to see me walk,” she says, her face returning to its usual animated look. “First, you have to get on the mat.”

Right in front of her is a colorful floor mat barely an inch thick. Still, it is an obstacle for Breanna because before she can walk across it, she has to shift her weight from one side to the other and lift each metal leg onto it.

A tiny quad walking cane is in her hand to help steady her.

The first movement onto the mat is barely noticeable. Then, there is another little scoot of one of the metal pads Breanna likes to call her feet.

Her face almost looks sad. That, her mother, Carrie Sprenger, says, is Breanna’s “I’m focusing” face.

Little by little, she inches her way across the mat until she is on the other side. The smile is back on Breanna’s face. She thinks her job of showing off is over.

“Now, step off the mat and come back,” Pace says.

She is gentle, but stern and Breanna’s mom said the family nickname for Pace is the “drill sergeant.”

“But that is the way you have to be with Breanna because she has to do the work,” Carrie says. “We can’t do it for her. This is her life.”

Twice a week, Breanna heads to Westlake where she has both physical and occupational therapy. She is there to get stronger and learn how to manipulate the world both on and off her prosthetic legs, which look more like stilts than artificial limbs.

“She wears them a lot, but it’s funny because even though she has had them for almost two years, we still forget they are there,” Carrie says. “I have to be careful because sometimes when I’m carrying her and we are walking through doors, I bang them on the door jam and this little ham likes to say ‘Ouch.’ “

“Yeah, I say, ‘Oh, you stubbed my toe,” Breanna adds, laughing almost too hard to tell her favorite joke.

Eventually, Breanna will get legs with knee joints to mimic a more typical gait. But before that can happen, Breanna has to increase her confidence on the little legs adorned with colorful peace signs and smiley faces.

“As she grows, we can advance the technology, and she can have a more traditional walk, but that is all up to her and what she wants to do,” Pace says.

That is where the therapy comes in.

And, although Breanna tries very hard to hide it, especially to those in the room seeing her legs for the first time, it is obvious that therapy is hard work.

While swimming gives Breanna the ability to forget her disability, therapy is a constant reminder that Breanna has to attack the world differently.

“But she wants to do it,” says Debbie Campo, Breanna’s aide.

Campo, a family friend from before Breanna was born, said she nearly jumped at the chance to be Breanna’s aide. She meets Breanna at school every morning and basically shadows her through the day.

On this day, she takes notes and videos with a camera on her cell phone as Breanna goes through her therapy routine. She uses them to show Breanna’s therapist at school so the sessions can sync and build off each other.

“We say this is Breanna’s year of independence because she wants to be independent,” Campo says. “She wants to dress herself, do her own hair and all of those things and I know she can do it. No matter what is given to her, she just rises to the challenge.”

Breanna has to because the family certainly is not going to do it for her, Carrie says.

“We just find tools for her to use instead of us,” she says. “We see people who are just like her, but older than her, doing everything on their own — completely independent. So for us, it’s like a look into her future.”

It took Carrie a while to reach this point in her parenting of Breanna, but one day she said it just hit her. What is Breanna going to do without her if she does everything?

“It’s hard because when you have a kid that needs you, but that also wants to get to the point where she doesn’t need you anymore, you have to let her go,” she says.

An hour after Breanna and Pace begin, they are done for the day.

Pace leaves Breanna with a few things to work on until they meet again — getting on and off the couch and going from standing on her legs to laying down on the floor and getting back up again.

Occupational Therapist Meghan Price walks in next. She is tall, but bends down nearly to the floor so she can look Breanna in the eye as she talks.

She works with Breanna on everyday functions like brushing her hair, cutting food and brushing her teeth. The bones in Breanna’s only arm are fused at the elbow joint and she only has three fingers, which means each task can be done but takes a little bit of maneuvering, and Breanna knows her limitations.

“Like I wish I had a My Way toothbrush,” she says. “I saw it on TV, and it’s electric and it comes with stickers! Stickers!”

Price smiles as she listens to Breanna talk about the toothbrush she wants — the very one Price has already purchased for her and is waiting for her in the next room. Breanna had told Price that she believed she could brush her teeth better if she had an electric toothbrush that could do most of the work.

It was a good idea and worth trying, so Price said she headed to the store.

“We get an idea and we try it,” Price says. “If it works, then that’s great. If not, then we try something else.”

Campo carries Breanna to a smaller room with a desk. While not a kitchen table, it’s the next best thing.

Price hands Breanna a sharp instrument. It has a T-shaped handle and a crescent moon-shaped blade. Breanna carefully grabs the knife and begins cutting into an orange piece that she has pushed down onto metal pegs secured to a cutting board. The knife cuts in a rocking motion, similar to the glide of a rocking chair.

At first, it’s difficult work, but eventually Breanna slices a chunk of orange off small enough to fit into her mouth and she uses a long-handled fork to eat her snack.

Carrie looks on, but never moves an inch to help her. Breanna has to learn how to use the tools available to her to help her self, she says.

Orange juice runs down Breanna’s chin as she eats the orange, cuts another piece and puts the slice into her mouth.

She and Price are almost done for the day when the conversation turns to other things Breanna would like to do that Price can possibly help her learn. Breanna has a wish list.

“Makeup — I want to put on make-up,” she says. “And, shirts. Shirts are huge.”


Help out

Follow Breanna Sprenger on Facebook.com/teambreanna.

Team Breanna is looking for company sponsorship and/or company and individual donations.

Donations would need to be made out to “Team Breanna” and can be sent to Team Breanna, P.O. Box 422, Avon, OH 44011.

Donations are also accepted at any Huntington Bank. Checks need to be written out to “Team Breanna.”

Team Breanna is holding a fundraiser noon to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 at Coleone’s Pizza, 2424 Ridgeland Drive, Avon. Mention “Team Breanna” and she gets 25 percent of the sales that day.

Read more:

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.

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About Lisa Roberson

Lisa Roberson has been with the Chronicle since 2006, and covers Elyria city government and public education. She can be reached at 329-7121 or LRoberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter.