Seven-year-old Phoenix Weaver is breathing easier these days. A car accident two years ago in her home town of Nixa, Missouri left her paralyzed from the neck down. She uses a wheelchair. Until a few weeks ago, she needed a ventilator 24-hours a day to help her breathe.
Recently, Phoenix became the first patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital to receive a ‘breathing pacemaker.’ Much like traditional pacemakers help jump start the heart, Phoenix’s breathing pacemaker stimulates her diaphragm, which is the muscle that controls breathing.
“The hope would be for Phoenix to be able to come off the ventilator long enough to go to school or participate in some normal activities without always needing to carry around - and be hooked up to - the equipment associated with a ventilator,” says Dr. Charles Huddleston, the cardiothoracic surgeon who implanted Phoenix's pacemaker.
Phoenix needs to learn the use the pacemaker gradually. Every day, nurses conduct trials, where they disconnect the ventilator for increasing time intervals, allowing Phoenix to get used to the sensation of once again breathing on her own.
At first, Phoenix struggled to withstand more than one minute off the ventilator. But one month after her first trials, she was already breathing freely for up to 5 hours and 45 minutes.
“We're all about anything that can make things better for her and she's always been a little bit of a trailblazer,” says Cassie Whatley, Phoenix’s mom.