Jillian Squires heard way too much about waiting in the early months after her daughter Emma’s birth three years ago.
Wait, advised the doctor when Emma was four months old and not rolling over or lifting her head like other babies her age. Wait, Jillian heard again when Emma was 11 months old and still not crawling.
When the Dawson Creek family sought a second opinion and were recommended to the South Peace Child Development Centre, they found themselves waiting again, for four long months due to the high demand for services at the centre.
But those four difficult months were worth it in the end, says Jillian. “It’s tough that people do have to wait. It’s stressful, and the staff are really stretched,” she acknowledges. “But you get great value. I was amazed that such a small community has such a great service.”
While no one knew it at the time, Emma was born with a brain injury, possibly the result of a stroke while she was still in the womb. She wouldn’t be diagnosed until well after her birth, however, and was already receiving child development support when she had the MRI scan that confirmed the brain injury.
Emma now does hydrotherapy at the centre, where the play-based exercises in the shallow pool got her taking her first steps. “At 30 months she wasn’t walking yet, but she started walking in the water,” recalls Jillian. “She took her first steps in December. And now she’s running.”
Knowing what a benefit the hydrotherapy pool has been for Emma, the family jumped at the opportunity recently to do a local media story in support of the child development centre after the centre received a grant to help continue its hydrotherapy program.
“These are expensive therapies,” says Jillian. “And they’re provided to the community at no cost. So getting grants, getting funding, is so important to ensure these programs can continue.”
It’s particularly important in rural communities like Dawson Creek, where families would otherwise have to travel long distances for services for children with developmental delays or complex health needs. When Emma has an appointment with the neurologist, for instance, her family has to drive six hours to Edmonton.
The family moved to Dawson Creek for work before Emma was born, and Jillian is deeply grateful to have found a welcoming and supportive community through the child development centre.
“We had no family here, so the centre has been a really big support for us,” she says. “I’m there two times a week. And while Emma still isn’t speaking much, as soon as we pull into the parking lot at the centre, she starts squealing with excitement.”
Emma generally sees the speech therapist once a week, though Jillian would love to have sessions more often for her daughter.
“The therapist we have is really into brain development and is doing so many interesting things with Emma,” she says. “She has her lying on a board to spin her around, sitting on a blanket that the therapist pulls down the hall to better develop Emma's vestibular system, which has contributed to her motor deficits. We’re also doing music therapy, with different kinds of music to stimulate different parts of the brain.”
The family has since had a second child, Henry, who is now two. He and Emma are 19 months apart in age. Watching how easily everything seems to come to Henry is a sobering reminder of how hard Emma has had to work to achieve the same results, notes Jillian.
“She’s so determined, working so hard for everything. But she and Henry are best buds. He knows what she’s saying before we do.”
Emma also attends preschool at the centre – a program so popular that families have to get their children on the waitlist by the time they’re three months old. Jillian appreciates the customized supports that Emma receives while attending preschool: “They work with you. It’s really lovely.”
The therapies Emma has received so far have made such a difference in her life, says Jillian. The period from birth to age five is a critical time for therapeutic intervention, what with the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections to compensate for injury or disease. Known as neuroplasticity, that process requires activity to spark those new connections.
“We didn’t know what to expect for Emma, and no one told us,” says Jillian. “So we’re just going to work as hard as we can to help her reach her greatest potential.”