Stuffed animal helps girl with therapy following pediatric stroke

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Shelly Birkelo
Friday, March 1, 2013

— Jillianne Van Laanen stood on her tiptoes, trying to gain enough leverage to hit a tetherball dangling from the ceiling of the physical/occupational therapy room at Monroe Elementary.

"Push it!" said Michelle Hecimovich, a physical therapist with the Janesville School District.

From her knees, Hecimovich teased, "You can't hit me." Still, the 4-year-old stood strong in her effort.

A little over two years ago, she wouldn't have. Jillianne suffered a pediatric stroke when she was only 22 months old.

For six weeks Jillianne was kept at UW Children's Hospital in Madison. According to her mother, things were touch-and-go.

"We were living hour-by-hour, not knowing if our little girl would make it through," said Judy Van Laanen. "She couldn't walk, talk, sit or even smile."

Through their ordeal, the Van Laanen family found comfort through a Facebook group devoted to Pediatric Stroke Awareness. It was there they learned about another mother's desire to bring comfort and hope to other children with strokes.

"Her little boy wanted to share his bear with other stroke survivors," Judy Van Laanen said.

Van Laanen put her daughter's name on a waiting list, hoping to bring her some encouragement and happiness.

"Pat Bearowitz" has done just that.

"She can relate to the bear," Hecimovich said.

"The bear gives her a reason to talk and a sense of belonging," added Suzanne Hamilton, speech therapist.

Hecimovich has seen a big difference in Jillianne since Pat Bearowitz arrived.

"Her speech has really blossomed this year," she said.

Now an early childhood student, Jillianne waited a year and a half to get the bear.

"This bear has been all over the world raising awareness to pediatric stroke and helping kids relate to others with the same daily struggles and obstacles," Judy Van Laanen said. "Now there are dozens of bears representing many other rare diseases and conditions that affect children."

Jillianne still has some speech, memory, balance and coordination difficulties, but she is thriving and developing well, her parents said.

Thursday, after working with the tetherball, she tackled an exercise that required her to cross a balance beam to recover puzzle pieces, and then cross the beam again to put them together. Jillianne slipped off the beam a few times, but with encouragement from Hecimovich, she kept on trying.

It seems Pat Bearowitz, decked out with his Pediatric Stroke Awareness logo and slogan along with his ankle-foot orthotic foot brace, has made an impression on her.

The foot brace helps Jillianne relate to the bear, her parents and therapists said.

"It's got an owie (like me)," Jillianne said.

Unfortunately their time together will be short. Jillianne received Pat Bearowitz on Feb. 19, but she'll only have him until Monday. Then it will be time for her mother to mail him on to another Wisconsin child, complete with his passport and journal.

"It will help another pediatric stroke survivor, like my daughter," she said.

To learn more

For more about Jillianne's story and the Traveling Awareness Bears, visit these websites:

-- travelingawarenessbears.org/about-us/the-backstory

-- travelingawarenessbears.org/the-bears/psa/pat-bearowitz

-- youtube.com/watch?v=scXiCfcoLZA

The Traveling Awareness Bears is a nonprofit organization that has created bears to help families whose children suffer from autism, congenital heart defect and rare chromosome disorders, diseases, syndromes and disabilities, with the goal to eventually create bears for all sorts of things that affect children.

Last updated: 8:00 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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