When a stray bullet from a drive-by shooter wounded six-year-old Willie Young III, his family was shattered. The playful little boy known as “Three” suffered a spinal cord injury on Jan. 7 that would leave him paralyzed from the chest down.
His father, newly ordained as a pastor, was due to give his first sermon the morning after the shooting. In one second, the family’s moment of triumph descended into tragedy.
“There was no movement or sensation below the gunshot wound,” said the child’s father, Willie Young II. “It was a tough pill to swallow, but you can imagine, you’re just happy he’s alive.”
Three’s medical condition was stabilized at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, but his parents and family were frightened for their son’s future. He was referred to Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center to begin the journey of rehabilitation that meant the whole family learning to adapt to a new way of life.
Three’s dad remembers: “The first thing I really remember is how many people I saw in wheelchairs and walking apparatuses. This place was full of people who were not giving up. Everybody wheeling by had big smiles on their faces. You saw people doing things. You saw guys on the campus who were sweaty and had a basketball on their lap. We realized this is where people come to regain the rest of their lives.”
Rancho, now in the midst of its Rancho Rising 2020 expansion and upgrade, is the jewel of the vast Los Angeles County public healthcare system. One of the jewel’s brightest facets is the veteran pediatric care team that rolled into action when Three arrived. Rancho pediatrician, Dr. Melanie Sarino, spoke to the parents first, helping them understand the extent of his injury and the purposes of rehabilitation.
“As the child grows older, his independence will become more important,” Dr. Sarino said. “We train the family on how to help their child become independent. It is understandable for a family to feel helpless at first. But now they know what they have to work with.”
One of the first tasks was encouraging Three and his eight-year-old sister that it was safe to play together.
Occupational Therapist Heidi Dombish said, “Being a kid is his job. His job is to play and to go to school. We showed him and his family that Three could do everything he could do before, just a little differently.”
Added Recreational Therapist Judy Helgren, “When you’re having fun, you do more. We don’t have to encourage them to lift their leg one more time. When you’re playing, you’re not realizing that you’re building strength. Once our patients realize they’re here to get better by playing, they like therapy better.”
In addition to Dr. Sarino, Helgren and Dombish, the Rancho pediatric care team for Three included Physical Therapist Deborah Levin, Physical Therapy Assistant Oliver De La Paz, Clinical Social Worker Teresa Ejandra–Sano and a team of nurses that watched over him 24/7.
Dr. Sarino jokes that she is “the baby” of this team, having been a member for “only 12 years.” Most of the team members have worked at Rancho in pediatric rehabilitation for two or three decades, helping a patient population that is largely low-income.
In addition to physical rehabilitation like Three’s, the team specializes in juvenile patients
who are on ventilators. The pediatric unit treats patients up to the age of 21.
During his stay at Rancho, Three was taken on several community outings with his family and team members, including trips to Chuck E. Cheese, a mall, a movie theater to see Sing, and to Disneyland.
“Some children I’ve worked with are scared to go on a community outing,” said Helgren. “But when we get back from that first one, the first thing they ask is, ‘When is the next one?’ It’s a day of fun, but also an opportunity to see how he can fit back into the community, transferring from the wheelchair to a chair, accessing ramps, dealing with crowds, getting food, and taking care of his meds.”
His mother, Eureka Young recalls, “That first trip outside to Chuck E. Cheese, we wondered if he was going to be able to enjoy it. But soon as he got there, Three took off with his peer mentors, and they were immediately having too much fun to worry about us. It was an eye-opener. He is not letting this stop him at all.”
Three’s last outing as an inpatient was a visit to his home and his school. In addition to helping him prepare to return to his life before the shooting and greet his classmates, the visits gave the care team a chance to recommend changes in both places to ensure the child would be able to do things for himself independently. As Three grows older, there will be further adjustments to his environment to ensure his freedom.
“This amazing team at Rancho taught us and our son that just because you have a spinal cord injury doesn’t mean life ends here,” said Eureka Young. “He’s on the go, he’s active and busy. We don’t have a lot of adjusting to do because of the way Rancho put things in place for us. We’re just picking up the pieces and moving forward.”
By mid-February, Three was discharged and was back home and at school. He and his family return to Rancho on weekends for wheelchair basketball, and he continues to play on his hand-powered cycle.
Whenever his parents have any questions, Dr. Sarino makes herself available to help them, and Three remains friends with the peer mentors he met at Rancho and sees when he visits the center.
“To help Three get through this, we need to fulfill the calling to be the parents that he needs,” said his father Willie. “It is an awesome responsibility. So far, so good. I couldn’t have asked for a better medical team to help us start this journey.”
“There is nothing else in Los Angeles County like Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center,” said Jorge Orozco, Rancho Los Amigos’ CEO. “We hope Three’s story will make residents of Los Angeles County proud that it continues to offer such advanced and effective rehabilitative care to families, regardless of income, designed to help people who have suffered traumatic injuries and ailments a way back to their communities, schools and workplaces.”