Bixby teen recovers from a devastating autoimmune disease
Ella Morrow was a normal kid until she developed ADEM, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, at age 4. At age 15, her recovery continues.
Tia Morrow and her daughter, Ella
Eleven and a half years ago, Ella Morrow was a 4-year-old girl who had just gotten a new bike with training wheels.
“I have a picture of her on her bike two weeks before, and there’s a mosquito bite on her arm,” says her mother, Tia Morrow. “She was riding really well.”
The “before” Morrow talks about is before Ella was admitted into the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis.
“We took her in afraid it was appendicitis, then they thought it was pneumonia,” Morrow says. “Overnight we knew it was meningitis. We went into the hospital on Thursday, and by Tuesday she was comatose.”
A neurologist was called in, and the Morrows were given a diagnosis of ADEM, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which is a rare autoimmune disease that causes sudden and widespread inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. It also attacks the central nervous system. She was in a coma, forgot who her family was and lost her motor functions.
“They don’t know for sure, but they think it might have come from a virus carried through a mosquito bite,” Morrow says. It could have been the same mosquito bite seen in the photo of Ella on her bike. The mosquito transmitted the virus, and Ella had an autoimmune response to it, causing ADEM.
She stayed at Saint Francis for about a month and a half until she was stable enough to relocate to a rehabilitation facility. Ella was then taken to the Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital, a private nonprofit facility near Oklahoma City that is celebrating its 120th anniversary.
“When she went to the Children’s Hospital she couldn’t do anything,” Morrow says. “She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t sit up.”
Teresa Adkison, a physical therapist at the Children’s Center, was on the team who treated Ella.
“When she got here she required a lot of assistance from us. Max to total assistance,” Adkison says. “Within two months she was much more independent. She was able to get out of bed by herself, go from sitting to standing. She could get up off the floor with minimum assistance. She could sit unassisted. She was walking when she left here with someone just holding her hand.”
And Ella still loved peddling.
“She would ride a tricycle,” Adkison says. “I remember she would tear down the halls, and I would have to chase after her. She definitely made a recovery. She was a special little girl. And her family was awesome. They were here 24/7.”
Morrow says she and her husband, Shane, initially looked at rehabilitation centers in Texas, but found the Children’s Center was exactly what they were looking for.
“It was roomy and spacious. Everyone seemed happy — staff and patients. They were amazing, I became very close with them,” she says, and especially with Adkison. “While she was treating Ella physically, she was emotionally treating me. As they were teaching Ella how to sit up and stand, they were teaching me how to care for her. They worked with us every step of the way.”
Adkison says at the Children’s Center parents and family are considered part of the rehab team.
“All of our goals include the parents,” she says. “We do weekly meetings with families and go over progress made. They go to therapy, so they have a base knowledge of what they’ll need to do. We want to make sure they’re trained so they’re comfortable when they go home.”
Ella stayed at the Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital for about two months before going home to Bixby in 2007.
“We were apprehensive,” Morrow says. “Going home meant being all alone. They sent us with a binder, and they had therapies lined up. We came home with a plan.”
ADEM didn’t just affect Ella physically, but cognitively, as well.
“Cognitively she’s about 2 years old, in a 15-year-old’s body,” Morrow says. “When she went into the Children’s Center, she was mentally about six weeks old. Her illness was so rare, they just don’t know what will happen. There’s no reason to think she won’t develop, just at a much slower rate.”
Ella attends Bixby High School and continues to go to physical therapy twice a week, as well as occupational therapy and speech therapy. Morrow, her husband and their 20-year-old daughter, Lexi, have started thinking about Ella’s future after high school.
“Progress is very slow,” Morrow says. “We don’t always notice it day to day. But we’re going to continue to work with her. We’re not going to give up on her.
“It’s hard every day. It’s hard because it’s all day, every day. But she’s also taught me so much more than I ever expected. She’s so pure. She has changed my heart through all this.”