With hope and help, boy may walk again

A smiling 4-year-old Noah De La Cerda sits in his wheelchair and blows a kiss over his left palm at Danita Cohen.

"Already flirting," Cohen says with a laugh as she leans over in her chair and uses her hand to brush back Noah's thick brown hair.

Noah blows another kiss at Cohen, the public relations director at University Medical Center, and winks.

Michelle Hernandez, Noah's mom, joins in the laughter. So does his sister, Alexis Hernandez.

Until a couple of weeks ago, smiles and laughter weren't something you associated with the tiny apartment where the family lives in east Las Vegas.

Their world imploded on June 2, 2011, when a drunken driver blew through a stop sign and T-boned their Honda at nearly 60 mph ---- a grinding crash that crippled Michelle, terrorized Alexis, and nearly decapitated Noah.

Life looks a lot different when the world's best rehabilitation doctors for pediatric spinal cord injuries decide they will do all they can to see that Noah walks again.

"We have hope," Michelle Hernandez says. "It makes you feel different."

Three months ago, the Las Vegas Review-Journal detailed how the family has struggled since the crash that sent Joseph Pella to prison for 16 years on two felony counts of drunken driving. Noah nearly died and spent several months in the hospital. His mother, disabled after severe injuries to her torso, was hospitalized for more than a month. Sister Alexis fights emotional problems.

One individual who read the story on the Internet was Bernadette Mauro, an executive with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center in New Jersey. The late Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, was paralyzed in a horse riding accident. He and his wife, Dana, who died from cancer, hoped to find a cure for paralysis.

Mauro called me and said an important function of the foundation is referring individuals to institutions that their researchers feel best match their situations. Kennedy Krieger Institute, internationally recognized and dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with disorders of the brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system, would serve Noah best, she said.

I put Mauro in touch with UMC's Cohen, who worked to make the referral a reality. Michelle Hernandez, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the accident and needing a hip replacement, hasn't been able to serve as her son's advocate.

After two months of negotiations, spurred on daily by calls and emails from Cohen, Kennedy Krieger and Nevada Medicaid, which agreed to pay for out-of-state services for Noah that his doctors ---- Dr. Thomas Vater and Dr. Meena Vohra ---- said couldn't be found in-state, came to a financial agreement. The negotiations had begun with Medicaid offering to pay less than $500 a day and the Institute saying its cost was about $2,500 a day.

"I know this," Mauro said. "I'd want Danita Cohen advocating on my behalf."

Cohen said she's done nothing special.

"A lot of people helped me in my life," she said, "and now I'm just paying it forward."

On Wednesday, Noah and his mother will head to Baltimore for almost two months. Miracle Flights for Kids, the nation's leading nonprofit health and welfare flight service, is picking up the travel tab. Cohen, on her own dime, will go there for about three days to help get them settled.

Dr. Cristina Sadowsky, director of Kennedy Krieger's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, said she and her team believe Noah has a good chance of restoring much of his function because records show his spinal cord injury "was incomplete."

"Our success is 30 percent higher than the national benchmark," she said.

Physical and occupational and speech therapists will work with him as he goes through a variety of therapies both in and out of the water. There will be hours of exercise and electrical stimulation of muscles daily. His feeding tube will be removed.

"It will be very intense," said Pat Rummerfield, a former Kennedy Krieger patient and the first spinal cord-injury quadriplegic in history to recover full physical mobility. He now works at the Institute. "It's like a boot camp. ... I think Noah's outcome is going to be great. ... I think a lot of people are going to be surprised."

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.