Joplin teen recovers from paralysis that struck dozens of kids last year

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Last fall, more than a hundred kids nationwide suffered a mysterious muscle weakness or paralysis. The cases occurred during or after a major outbreak of a respiratory virus. One of the kids, a teen from Joplin, has come a long way since then.

Thirteen-year-old Billy Sticklen had to use a cane last January. For three months before that, he was in a wheelchair.

"He had difficulty even moving in bed. Required full assist to stand up," recalled Dr. John Luce, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine at Children's Mercy Hospital.

Today, Billy no longer needs a cane. He returned to Children's Mercy to show his doctors his progress. Little evidence of paralysis remains.

"There was never a doubt in my mind that I wasn't gonna be totally independent being able to do everything on my own," said Billy.

Dr. Luce added, "Billy did surprise me with the amount of recovery he has made."

There were unknowns, and still are, about what struck Billy. The paralysis occurred a few weeks after he'd had a respiratory infection. It was at the same time that hundreds of kids in our area and thousands nationally were hospitalized with difficulty breathing because of enterovirus 68.

More than a hundred kids nationally had polio-like weakness, what doctors call acute flaccid myelitis. Doctors have linked some cases to enterovirus 68, but certainly not all. Children's Mercy is among those doing research to solve the mystery.

"There's probably more than one virus and more than one condition that can trigger this polio-like manifestation," said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, an infectious disease specialist.

In the mean time, Dr. Jackson is thrilled to see Billy's recovery. A third of the kids nationwide with paralysis haven't shown improvement. Billy says it's okay that the cause remains unknown.

"As a parent, you don't want that. But as a child, it's kinda interesting," he said.

Billy knows this December is much better than last.

"This year, it's much happier," he said.

This season, the 14-year-old is celebrating independence.

Billy still goes to physical therapy three hours a week. Dr. Luce says Billy's positive attitude and family support have made a huge difference.