Nine-year-old Mekayla Sheely’s eyes dance and burn by turns.
They flash mischief one minute. They glimmer with pride the next, as she quietly completes her physical therapy, even as wispy limbs flail and fail her.
Mekayla – who at 18 months old was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is still unable to speak – has lived a quiet life behind those eyes, a life that’s required her to fight through surgeries to fix the muscles and tendons in her body that don’t grow or work like those of a healthy child.
Along the way she’s mastered a special computer, which, through a sensor attached to her forehead, allows her to select symbols from a series of detailed menus on her screen. The computer then processes what she inputs, allowing her to communicate.
Through buttons with cheery graphics like rockets, cats and airplanes, Mekayla can tell those around her what she’s thinking.
It’s a machine usually only adult patients can handle because of its complexity, said her mother, Abby Sheely. But Mekayla had mastered her computer within three months of receiving it.
That’s typical for a girl who, at birth, was given only a 50-50 chance of survival.
And it’s the type of thing that amazes those who’ve watched her grow.
One of those is Pam Krise, a physical therapist at Cherry Tree Rehabilitation Center who’s been helping Mekayla get her strength back after an operation on her hamstrings last fall, which left both of her legs in full casts from hip to heel.
Krise said when she was notified of a new Hanover Hospital program – “Hero of the Month” – she knew she wanted to nominate Mekayla for the first award.
Hanover Hospital was selected in December of last year to be a part of that larger national program, which is run by the Kids Wish Network, an organization most well-known for granting wishes to sick and dying children across the country.
But the Hero of the Month program is specifically designed for kids from age 3 to 13, who’ve “faced and overcome difficult circumstances, often enduring a great deal of pain and suffering,” according to the Kids Wish Network Web site.
That seemed to perfectly sum up Mekayla, said Bethanie Freeman, coordinator of pediatric therapy at the rehabilitation center.
Freeman said her staff will choose one winner each month for two years, with a total of 24 local kids receiving a gift certificate and other small tokens to make them smile. It’s exciting because these are kids who often aren’t recognized for the work they put in, she said.
“When we first heard about the program and that we could be a part of it, we thought it was too good to be true,” Freeman said.
And Mekayla seemed to like it too, all toothy smile and dancing eyes after hearing talk of her prize at this week’s physical-therapy session.
“Through everything, Mekayla just keeps going and keeps smiling,” Krise said.
In all likelihood, the coming years will be as difficult for the Sheelys as the last nine they’ve fought through together.
Mekayla’s most-recent surgery has left her with more movement for now, but because those with cerebral palsy are in a constant battle to keep muscles stretched and in good shape, there’s no guarantee Mekayla won’t need the same operation all over again in years to come.
There are the shots – five preventative, burning needles in each leg every three months – that Mekayla must continue to endure.
And doctors have already told her mother that Mekayla will need a double hip-replacement surgery in years to come, in order to correct improperly growing bones.
They’re just waiting until she’s a little older before they operate again, her mother said.
But that’s exactly what the Sheelys are not doing – waiting.
The past nine years have taught Abby Sheely to enjoy every day, so Mekayla goes to Washington Elementary School to learn and play with friends. She shops, Skypes and shares secrets with other girls her age.
“I consider her lucky,” Abby said, reaching out for her suddenly slouching daughter, half-catch, half-hug.
In that vein, this weekend there will be a birthday party for Mekayla at the Sheely apartment. Little friends will pile in, laugh, sleep over.
Through all of that, Mekayla will look on from a custom-made wheelchair as cupcakes are made, her twisted legs dangling, hands clenched involuntary into fists that belie that icing-sweet smile.
While a crowd of third-grade girls run and jump like third-grade girls do, Mekayla will sit quietly and watch them play.
But her eyes, they’ll be dancing.