12-year-old stroke victim's battle

MARIKA HILL
Last updated 09:53 10/02/2013
PETER MEECHAM\ Fairfax NZ

McKenzie's hard-fought battle: The teen is looking forward to better times.

McKenzie
Peter Meecham/Fairfax NZ
GROWING UP: Thirteen-year-old McKenzie Kerr-Bell, from Pukekohe, is still smiling despite suffering a stroke.

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A teenage girl looks forward to first times. 

The first time wearing heels, driving a car, and dancing at the school ball.

McKenzie Kerr-Bell, 13, will miss many first times, but she has second chances.

The second chance to walk, clean her teeth, tie her shoelaces and hold a ball. 

She was just 12 when, in April last year, a stroke paralysed the right side of her body.

McKenzie went from being a sporty, outgoing girl to facing the prospect of never walking again.

Her parents credit her stubbornness and determination to prove the doctors wrong as she learns to reuse her right leg and arm.

She's already running again, but there is no certainty about her future.

Helen Kerr-Bell said people often ask what happened to her daughter, but don't believe the answer.

''Kids don't have strokes,'' strangers reply. 

Forty children each year suffer from a stroke.

It's possible a virus may have triggered McKenzie's stroke, but there were no warning signs or family history. One day a blood clot broke off and travelled to her brain and blocked the blood flow.

McKenzie had been helping her mum carry shopping from the car to their Pukekohe home; the next minute she was lying in the driveway with her eyes rolling back in her head.

Doctors put McKenzie into an induced coma for four days. She spent weeks at Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital and months at the Wilson Centre for children's rehabilitation.

For her parents, the confusion, pain and anguish of that time will remain forever. Mick Kerr-Bell said they never dreamed their daughter might be at risk of a stroke. ''You associate strokes with older people, who don't make good recoveries. Then you find out there's a group of young kids that have them.''

McKenzie is making progress, but she may never regain fine motor skills in her hand.

''I used to sit there every night and cry my eyes out. I think of her wearing a pair of high heels. She'll probably never wear a pair of high heels,'' Helen said.

''Is she going to be able to go to high school? Is she going to go to school balls? Is she going to work and is she going to get married?''

McKenzie had been picked for a top swimming team just before the stroke. It was her favourite sport. Now, swimming is her least favourite sport as she goes through monotonous rehabilitation in the pool.

McKenzie said the worst part of the stoke was people treated her differently.

Helen said there was one point McKenzie cried: ''Why did this happen to me? I just want to be back to normal.''

However, Helen said her daughter's teenage stubbornness and optimism had boosted her progress.

McKenzie laughs as much as she talks.

''I don't think about my future. I think about what's for dinner,'' she giggles.

Helen said a turning point came for McKenzie at a school camp late last year. She refused to be left behind when the class when for a hilly walk. For more than an hour she kept up with her friends. Four times she fell over, each time her classmates picked her up and she carried on.

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McKenzie plans to go skiing with a support group for young stroke survivors this year.

And she had another second chance last week. Last year she was unable to sit on the class mat due to her leg. This time she sat down with her classmates for the first time.

BRAVE FIGHT BY MCKENZIE'S FAMILY

From the hospital bed to rehab, the Kerr-Bell family have been battling for their little fighter.

Helen Kerr-Bell said a delayed diagnosis and lack of funding has slowed her daughter McKenzie's stroke recovery.

Doctors took four days to use a MRI to diagnose a stroke, she said.

Prompt treatment - such as medication and, in some cases, surgery - can improve the likelihood of recovery.

"The first four hours makes the most significant difference. If they had done an MRI, things would have been a lot different for McKenzie."

She was admitted to Middlemore Hospital then transferred to Starship Children's Hospital.

Still smiling: Thirteen-year-old McKenzie Kerr-Bell, from Pukekohe, is working to overcome her disabilities with the help of her dad, Mick

Starship's clinical director Dr Richard Aickin said MRIs are normally used to diagnose a stroke, but this was not always possible immediately.

"The doctors may have wanted to do other tests initially."

With younger children, doctors must ensure the child can safely have anaesthetic before scheduling the test, he said.

A Middlemore Hospital spokeswoman said given the rarity of strokes in children, it may not be the first diagnosis considered.

"An MRI is not used to diagnose unsuspected conditions . . . it is used when something specific is suspected."

Once out of the hospital, the Kerr-Bell family also faced the struggle for financial support.

The level of rehabilitation funding available is minimal compared with if McKenzie had suffered a brain injury as a result of an accident.

Her parents have footed many of the bills, including extra rehabilitation, hand and foot splints and therapy squeeze balls.

It's not cheap. An electronic splint, that encourages movement in her leg, costs $10,000.

However, support is growing for McKenzie.

Maria Fredatovich set up the group Young Stroke Survivors NZ, to give children like McKenzie opportunities for adventure.

Fredatovich suffered a serious stroke in 1996, at the age of 13.

"I was really keen to be called normal at that age."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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