Young swimmer battles rare stroke

CHARLESTOWN, MA. (WPRI) – Emma McPherson was churning up the water at swim practice when a one in about 9,000 chance hit the third grader and her family like a lightning bolt.

Her coaches thought she had stopped swimming on her own, but when she didn’t respond to them, they knew something was wrong. Moments later, Emma was on the way to the hospital.

“I was speechless,” her mom Denise says, thinking back to that September evening at the hospital. “I did not know what to say or do. I said, this can’t be happening.”

It was a pediatric stroke that left her daughter unresponsive. The next 27 hours seemed like an eternity for the McPherson family. Denise wondered if Emma would ever recognize her again.

“She actually woke up on that 27th hour. I lifted up her hand and she actually gave me a high five,” she says while giving Emma another high five in her hospital bed.  “And I knew my Emma was back, that Emma knew who I was.”

At Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the McPhersons found out Emma’s brain was fine for the most part, but she would have to re-learn how to walk and talk. She can understand questions, but her answers are often short.

“Miss you,” Emma says with a grin, when asked to say something to her friends.

Then came a holiday surprise for her family. On Emma’s older brother Ryan’s birthday, her mom asked her if she wanted to sing Happy Birthday to him. Doctors told Denise that while patients who have the type of stroke that Emma suffered, have to work to regain the ability to speak,  they can usually sing.

“And she just started singing,” Denise says.

With a smile, Emma re-created the moment for us.

“Happy birthday dear Ryan, happy birthday to you,” Emma sings, holding the final note a little longer.

“I just started crying. I started crying,” Denise says. “That gave us more hope.”

There was another surprise waiting in Spaulding’s therapy pool. The little minnow, with medals at home in Pawtucket for winning races in the butterfly, was gently introduced to the water with a flotation device.  But as the therapists were instructing her, she just took off; One arm, one leg, one little bundle of determination.

“They told us muscle memory is still there and this often happens with athletes who suffer strokes,” Denise says. “From that point on, she didn’t want to use the flotation device.”

Emma will finally go home on Saturday and that’s when her swim team, classmates and others will be teaming up for a swim-a-thon to raise money for Emma’s medical expenses. As her Facebook page says, the goal is to help Emma “fly to the finish” of her recovery.

Send story ideas to Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau

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