Feb. 27, 2015. Ann Winkler is an 8-year-old, third-grade student at Hardin Park Elementary School, in Boone. She has an infectious smile, a playful spirit and a hunger for learning new things in the classroom. At home, her favorite activities include planting seeds in the garden with dad and assisting mom with the baking in the kitchen. Ann’s familiar and feel good story is only possible, however, thanks to her adoptive parents who selflessly agreed to adopt her after she suffered a prenatal stroke that left her with cerebral palsy.
Before signing the papers to adopt Ann through the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, her doctors cautioned William and Janta Winkler that their would-be daughter would never develop beyond the cognitive understanding and physical ability of a baby.
“We thanked the doctors for sharing their professional assessment with us, but told them that the future is not for us to know,” said Janta. “We felt that the Lord was bringing the three of us together for a reason and we acted on faith.”
For the Winkler’s, who were unable to have children of their own, adopting Ann was a dream come true. “We could not wait to bring her home and provide her with an over abundance of love, family and support,” said William.
Fortunately, despite her doctor’s fears, Ann’s cognitive ability did progress beyond infancy in a healthy proportion to her age. However, in order for her to combat her motor deficiencies and still function in a traditional classroom, she began weekly after school physical therapy sessions at The Rehabilitation Center, in Boone.
Ann, who normally operates out of a specialized wheelchair, struggles to do basic motor functions like sitting up or walking without assistance. As a result, her physical therapist, Melia Pinnix, PT, NCS, uses a variety of tools such as a harnessed treadmill to help develop Ann’s limited physical functionality.
“I admire her willingness to come in here after a long day at school and work hard,” said Pinnix. “She always has a positive attitude but on occasion she needs a little extra motivation.”
Ann’s extra motivation comes in the canine form. Leo, a 110-pound Bernese Mountain Dog, recently went through the certification process with the help of his owners Steve Colman and Ellie Austin to become a Pet Therapy volunteer at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.
The PAWS Pet Therapy Program reminds patients that it’s okay to “paw-se” and experience joy throughout the treatment process. The program, which currently includes eight active pet therapy dogs and their handlers, was established earlier this year. Each volunteer pet and handler must be licensed pet therapists and vetted by the healthcare system before visiting with patients. Once approved, the volunteers are provided with their own hospital badges to wear on their respective collars while on duty.
Leo began visiting Ann at The Rehabilitation Center a few months ago and they bonded quickly. During therapy, he stays by her side, ready at a moment’s notice to provide a hug or a sloppy wet kiss of encouragement. Pinnix has also found ways to incorporate Leo into her therapy. On occasion, she will ask Ann to walk across the room to Leo, who is patiently waiting and wagging his tail in approval. On other instances, Leo and Ann have sitting contests to see who can sit-up straight the longest. Ann always wins.
“Ann talks about Leo at home and she looks forward to going to physical therapy now because of him,” said Janta with a grin. “As a parent, to know that there are people like Steve and Ellie and dogs like Leo who are willing to volunteer their time to bring this much joy to my little girl’s heart is unbelievable.”
Since starting her physical therapy at The Rehabilitation Center in 2013, her doctors have marveled at her steady improvement. She can now sit on the floor, without assistance, for up to five minutes at a time. She can also walk with trunk assistance over short distances.
“A few years ago we started sending an annual Christmas card to Ann’s birth doctors with a description of her progress,” said William. “Each year, they are blown away by her strides of improvement. She is truly a miracle and we feel blessed to have so much local support from The Rehabilitation Center and The PAWS Pet Therapy Program at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.”
For Ann, the future is uncertain. Her ultimate potential is hard to predict as she continues to exceed the expectations set before her. Although, she has a host of challenges to still overcome her prayerful parents feel more resolved than ever. With their love, Pinnix’s help and the encouragement of her four-legged accountability partner, Ann feels well-equipped to continue to defy the odds.