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A Symbol of Freedom

Opal’s journey towards independence allows her to fulfill her lifelong love of horseback riding

Ever since birth, Opal has faced an uphill battle for independence. Due to complications during her delivery, Opal suffered a stroke shortly after birth. These complications eventually led to physical delays during her growth, and when she was 1, Opal was diagnosed with spastic hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a condition causing complete paralysis on one side of the body.

The first few years of Opal’s life were difficult, and her parents were consistently informed by her care providers that she would never be able to walk unimpaired or be fully independent. When she was 18 months old, a failed surgery on Opal’s Achilles tendon to treat the rigidness of her leg brought on by cerebral palsy increased her parent’s concerns for her health and overall quality of life.

Fortunately, Opal’s grandfather was a Freemason and knew all about Shriners Hospitals for Children — Portland. The family scheduled a consultation with pediatric orthopaedic physician Michael Sussman, M.D. After so many negative experiences with hospitals, Opal and her parents weren’t exactly looking forward to the trip, but when they arrived at the Portland Shriners Hospital, all of their fears quickly subsided.

“Everyone was warm and friendly, the waiting room was amazing, and Dr. Sussman is truly awesome,” explained Opal, now 28. “How can you not love a doctor in a bowtie? He had a plan of action right away, and gave us hope.”

During their appointment, Dr. Sussman notified the family that Opal’s condition was initially misdiagnosed – instead, he identified her condition as hemiparetic cerebral palsy. A distinct characteristic of hemiparetic cerebral palsy versus hemiplegic cerebral palsy is that hemiparetic cerebral palsy results in only partial paralysis on one side of the body. This new diagnosis began to paint a much more optimistic future for Opal, and with Dr. Sussman’s clear understanding of the condition and direct course of action, he set higher expectations for Opal’s future. He assured the family that proper treatment could drastically improve Opal’s quality of life.

“It's daunting, facing a life-long disability. I won't say that you can achieve absolutely anything – I still have my limitations – but I will tell you that the Portland Shriners Hospital is your best chance at working through the small goals that lead towards the best life you can live,” Opal said. “These physicians have spent their lives learning, researching, and working towards giving you the tools that you need in order to give yourself the life you want.”

From a very young age, Opal was drawn to horseback riding and, when she was 16, her family moved to a ranch, solidifying her passion for horses. Her love for horses ultimately became her inspiration and source of motivation during her years of physical therapy. Years of hard work and an unbridled spirit allowed Opal to ride horses with ease, even getting to the point where she no longer required stirrups or a pummel.

“My horse became my solace. The independence and freedom that came with that was life-changing,” said Opal. “Horses were a symbol of freedom for a young girl who had to rely on others for almost everything.”

When reminiscing about her time at the Portland Shriners Hospital, Opal describes her last appointment with Dr. Sussman. “Dr. Sussman hugged me at my last appointment. He was a major part of my life, and I felt that he was the reason I could lead a normal, happy life. When he hugged me, I felt like I'd made him proud. It was an incredibly special moment.”


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