M e r c u r y N e w s c o m   |   San Jose Mercury News
Holiday Wish Book
Ride of her life 
Five-year-old's spins on special tricycle help her gain confidence and ease problems during physical therapy.

CCS Physical Therapist II Kathryn Dougherty, left, with 5-year-old Stephanie Mayorga, center, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, and CCS Occupational Therapist I Linda Bui, right, adjust and check a wheelchair during physical therapy.

Stephanie is unable to sit, stand, walk or talk, but she can communicate. Her wish is for an adaptive tricycle that she can operate herself.

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(Josie Lepe / Mercury News)

By Patricia Hannon / Mercury News

Stephanie Mayorga isn't a girl who gives up.

So when she first spied the bike that might allow her to play outside with her cousins and friends despite her disabilities, she had to try it.

Kathryn Dougherty, Stephanie's physical therapist, wasn't so sure. What if the sociable, curious 5-year-old with quadriplegic cerebral palsy couldn't coordinate her legs to propel the bike?

"I was a little reluctant because I didn't want it to be a disappointment," Dougherty said. Stephanie's mom, Graciela Arias, knew better and urged Dougherty to try it. Her little girl was so excited, she couldn't stop kicking her legs and flailing her arms as Dougherty worked to strap her into the special tricycle.

She "had the biggest grin I've ever seen on a kid," Dougherty said.

Then, with one tiny push, Stephanie was off.

"Mom started to cry, and I was speechless," Dougherty said.

In the months since Stephanie began using the Freedom Concepts Discovery Tricycle during her weekly therapy sessions at the California Children's Services office in San Jose, her parents and therapists say she's better able to support her own weight on her legs and has more flexibility and less pain in her hips. With their donations, Wish Book readers can help Stephanie's family buy the $4,500 specialty tricycle to use at home.

Steph CCS Physical Therapist II Kathryn Dougherty, left, holds 5-year-old Stephanie Mayorga, center, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, while she practices reaching and pushing down on a toy with CCS Physical Therapist Catherine Beatrous, right, during physical therapy.

(Josie Lepe / Mercury News)
Almost as important, Dougherty said, is how Stephanie's joy riding the bike motivates her during therapy. Cerebral palsy causes loss of muscle and motor control and, in Stephanie's case, means she can't talk, walk, sit or stand on her own.

So every movement, such as holding up her head or moving her clenched fist toward a target, is labored. Most people, said Stephanie's dad, Adrian Mayorga, don't have to think about such things. Stephanie can never forget.

The challenge, Dougherty said, is keeping therapy fun for kids like Stephanie.

"Therapy is work," Dougherty said. "It's just hidden through play."

Dougherty credits Stephanie's parents, especially her mom, with every gain Stephanie makes.

"Her mom puts all of her needs aside for Stephanie because she knows that it makes a difference," Dougherty said.

For Arias, that means a daily routine of feeding, bathing and grooming her daughter and getting her to school and medical appointments. Arias attends all of Stephanie's weekly therapy sessions, touching and holding her daughter's hands as she grips a paint tube or a bubble wand to improve her ability to hold objects.

On rare days off from his job at a pizza restaurant in Los Gatos, Mayorga also attends the sessions to learn new ways to help his daughter.

At home, both parents love talking, praying and reading with her, and playing in Stephanie's toy kitchen. But her disability means that she has never been able to explore the world on her own, counting instead on others to bring the world to her.

"Riding the bike is the only experience that she has where she can move her body and get that effect" of intentionally moving herself forward, said Lois Lieu, a special-education teacher for the Santa Clara County Office of Education's occupational impairments program at Blackford Elementary School in San Jose, where Stephanie is a kindergartner.

Though cerebral palsy can limit cognitive ability, Lieu said that isn't the case with Stephanie.

"It's only her physical condition that keeps her from doing what she wants to do," Lieu said. "She's a bright girl in that she does have the ability to pick up and learn whatever we put out there for her."

Stephanie's therapy is designed to help her reach the highest level of independence possible, Dougherty and Lieu said. They'll keep trying new tools, such as computers and wands, that might help.

For now, the focus is on getting her a bike she can ride around the pathways and playground at the apartment complex where the family lives.

Mayorga calls himself a man of faith, which brought him comfort after his daughter was born. "I know God is watching over her," he said.

Still, he said it hurts to see Stephanie struggle with such things as watching her cousins ride bikes and play when she can't. He sometimes puts her on a regular bicycle, but it makes Stephanie sad that he can't support her on the seat for very long while also steering the bike and making it move.

But Stephanie's determination wins out. Her parents said they are awed by the strength of her spirit, how hard she works, how much she remembers and how she inspires others.

At California Children's Services, Dougherty said, Stephanie is sociable and joyful, drawing people to her. Even though she can't talk, she makes herself understood through her mood, the wave of a hand, the look in her eyes, her facial expressions.

Lieu said parents and students call out to greet a usually grinning, laughing Stephanie when she arrives at school. Teachers compliment her freshly braided hair or brightly colored outfits, sometimes with matching sunglasses and nail polish that her mom applies while she's sleeping and her hands are relaxed.

"People just fall in love with her," Lieu said. "She's just a really neat kid."

Donations of $50 or more can help Stephanie Mayorga's family buy a $4,500 specialty tricycle for her to use at home.


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