For 11-year-old Autumn Lackey, Feb. 26 started just like any other day.
The Oneida Elementary School fourth grader went to school that Wednesday morning — “just like any other normal kid,” her mother, Peggy Smart, said.
“She got out of the car with the other kids and ran down the sidewalk,” Smart said.
But less than three hours later, the school nurse was on the phone with Smart.
“Mrs. (Regina) Leeds (Autumn’s teacher) recognized that she could not pick her glasses up and she was crying,” Smart said. “She asked what was wrong and Autumn told her that she had a sharp pain shoot through the top of her back and neck.”
After the school nurse evaluated Autumn — who by that time had weakness and numbness in her arms — Smart was called. She rushed Autumn to Dr. Evelyn Silver’s pediatric office in Oneida; Dr. Silver immediately sent her to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville, concerned that she might have had a mini-stroke.
Nearly three weeks later, Autumn is still in Children’s Hospital. Doctors there are not 100 percent sure of their diagnosis, but they are treating her for transverse myelitis — a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. It is a relatively rare illness, with only 1,400 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
The onset of Autumn’s symptoms were stunningly quick. Her condition continued to deteriorate during her first night at Children’s Hospital; by the next morning, she began having breathing difficulties and was placed on a life support system to help with breathing. It was at that time that an MRI revealed inflammation in her neck, which would eventually lead to the transverse myelitis diagnosis.
During the three weeks that have followed, Autumn has remained in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital. Visits from friends and family have been limited; she has been heavily sedated for much of that time.
In recent days, improvements have been noted. Doctors are trying to wean her from the sedation medications, Smart said, and she was taken off the ventilator on Friday.
“She is starting to whisper just a little and is more alert,” Smart said late Sunday. “She has realized that she can’t move a lot, but she is regaining a little strength in her limbs.”
With the improvements, though, have come other setbacks. The family was informed Friday that Autumn — who will likely remain at Children’s Hospital for at least another month — cannot be transferred to the Patricia Neal Center for rehab as had been hoped; Patricia Neal no longer accepts pediatric patients.
The closest pediatric care center for which Autumn is a suitable candidate is in Atlanta. For Smart — who will soon have to a leave of absence from her work as a teacher’s assistant at Oneida Middle School to stay by Autumn’s side at Children’s Hospital while her husband, Steve, cares for the couple’s other five children back at home — that will mean even more time away from work, as well as a temporary move to Atlanta, where constant guardian care will be required for Autumn during the two-to-three months she is expected to be there for in-patient rehab.
Financially and physically, the ordeal has already taken a toll on the family. And, it appears, the journey has just begun.
An account has been set up through the fundraising website GoFundMe.com for members of the community who want to contribute to Autumn’s medical bills and expenses — both those that have already been incurred and those that will be in the weeks ahead. As of Monday afternoon, the site showed that $970 had been contributed. To contribute, visit GoFundMe.com and type in “Peggy Smart.”
In the meantime, cards can be sent to Autumn by mailing them to: Autumn Lackey, Room 502, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, 2018 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37916.