PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — This Thanksgiving, we will strive to focus our hearts and minds on gratitude.
It’s a word that bears new meaning for KDKA reporter Pam Surano. Her daughter, Mary Maloney, is fighting to regain the use of her legs after a rare spinal stroke paralyzed her from the waist down earlier this year.
KDKA’s Meghan Schiller shows us how Maloney’s doing after several weeks of intensive therapy in Philadelphia, just the latest chapter in her journey.
Wrapped in her favorite yellow Labrador Retriever blanket, Maloney began the journey to Philadelphia’s Magee Rehabilitation Hospital just before Halloween. In true Mary fashion, she instantly bonded with the facility’s therapy dog, Nigel/
“She’s the designated babysitter,” said senior physical therapist Rachel McClelland.
McClelland puts Maloney to work five days a week. In one exercise, Nigel pushes Maloney off-balance to challenge her core strength.
“If she is going to lose her balance, can she put her arm out, and can she prevent herself from just falling over? Which she’s gotten really good at and Nigel does have a very strong push,” said McClelland.
Maloney’s mastering the ball toss, stimulating her leg muscles on the bike and mimicking the act of walking.
“There’s four therapists or aides who are working with her,” said McClelland. “Someone is at her hips. There’s a person at each leg. So we’re working on re-training the body at stepping at a normal stepping pattern that one would be walking at.”
Every second she spends in this gym, every rosary prayed by her mom, is focused on healing Maloney’s spinal cord.
“There were no breaks, no fractures, no contusions, no hemorrhages, nothing. Like a mystery. And 48 hours later, when they scanned her again, that’s when what’s called the spinal cord stroke showed up,” said Surano.
It was Sunday morning on Aug. 3 when Surano’s phone rang as she kneeled in prayer at church. Maloney had been jumping on the trampoline and felt a sharp pain in both of her shoulder blades. Then she fell but got right back up.
“She walked off the trampoline and she got into the bath,” said Surano.
Maloney later told her mother she had thought she’d just pulled a muscle and tried to relax in the warm water.
“Then she put on her pj’s and laid down on her bed and never got up again,” said Surano.
That is what makes spinal strokes so rare. Surano can’t pinpoint the moment that caused her daughter’s paralysis.
“Whether it was from bouncing, whether it from twisting, falling, but there was some sort of interruption in the blood flow to the spinal cord,” Surano said.
Only one percent of all strokes are spinal strokes, according to the Brain and Spine Foundation. Now Surano wants all parents to look out for sudden back pain in their children.
“Because if the back pain had initially come to mind as a parent, maybe as a medical professional, that immediately they would have begun perfusing her spine,” said Surano. “Immediately, instead of waiting. Would it have made a difference? I don’t know.”
But she does know her role as a devoted mother is crucial in her daughter’s recovery.
“You love your children so much and you pray nothing ever happens to them. But as a wise person once said — if nothing bad happens to them, nothing good can ever happen either and there has been so much good,” Surano said.
A few weeks ago, Maloney couldn’t sit up on her own.
“She’d get a little frustrated,” said McClelland. “[She would] ask for help to move her leg because it would take her a little bit longer. Now she’s like, ‘No, I got this.'”
Maloney is committed to putting in the work to walk again and she’s still a teenage girl – snapping selfies with Nigel and filming TikToks.
“It’s hard to see her do TikToks now sitting down. But by the grace of God, she’s doing them,” said Surano. “And if that gives her the motivation to move and to fight and to feel that spirit of life through her, then bring it on TikTok.”
Pam, Mary, Mary’s two brothers and her father want to thank the Pittsburgh community for its continued prayers this Thanksgiving. Mary will continue her rehab in Philadelphia until the end of December, marking four months in the hospital.
Surano told KDKA’s Meghan Schiller that she’s already reached out to former Steeler Ryan Shazier’s new nonprofit for spinal cord injury patients. She hopes that will be the next key phase in her daughter’s recovery back here at home.