Physician with cerebral palsy is an inspiration to those with special needs

Dr. Jan Brunstrom-Hernandez gently but sternly reprimands a teenage cerebral palsy patient who clearly hasn’t been doing his exercises, stressing the importance of keeping muscles loose and limber.

“We know it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is,” Brunstrom-Hernandez tells 15-year-old patient Sam Ward. “Do you hear me? I know what I’m talking about.”

Brunstrom-Hernandez, who founded the Cerebral Palsy Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital 15 years ago, has mild to moderate cerebral palsy, so she has a lot of empathy for the patients she treats.

Cerebral palsy is a broad diagnostic term referring to disorders that affect movement and posture. It is caused by injury or abnormal development of the brain around the time of birth.  Many patients suffer from other afflictions as well, such as developmental delays and speech or hearing difficulties. Symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient.

Brunstrom-Hernandez was surrounded by physicians from a young age as she coped with the condition. She thinks that’s the main reason she knew as a small girl that she wanted to be a doctor.  Still, she initially balked at specializing in treating others with cerebral palsy.

“I didn’t want to be surrounded by more of me,” she said. “I didn’t feel good about myself because of my disability.”

A discussion in 1997 with Dr. Mike Noetzel at St. Louis Children’s Hospital changed all that.  At the time, Brunstrom-Hernandez was doing research on cerebral palsy and was surprised to learn treatment hadn’t progressed much beyond the treatment she received in the 1960s.  Noetzel suggested launching a cerebral palsy clinic.

“All I said was, `You’ve got some good ideas. I think people would listen to you. Let’s at least try to start something,'” Noetzel recalled.

The clinic opened in May 1998.  There are many clinics in the U.S. that treat cerebral palsy, but the St. Louis center is unique in its singular focus, said Kaelan Richards of United Cerebral Palsy.

Brunstrom-Hernandez and her team of physicians and therapists see patients of all ages – babies to adults – from around the world.  The center has treated thousands of people since opening 15 years ago.

Sam is in many ways a typical teen, and he slyly grins as Brunstrom-Hernandez examines him – even through her motherly admonitions.

“She helps me walk better,” he said. “Just be better.”

Anna Marie Champion of Atlanta has been bringing her daughter, Morgan, on the 11-hour trip to the St. Louis clinic for 10 years.   Morgan uses a walker and is scholarly and motivated, a seventh-grader who already has earned a college scholarship.

“We went to St. Louis and it was a whole different approach,” Champion said. “It has turned her life around completely.”


Brunstrom-Hernandez stresses the need for exercise and communication.  From childhood, movement was extremely difficult for her.  She could barely stand up.  “If the wind was blowing hard enough, I’d fall down,” Brunstrom-Hernandez recalled.

Brunstrom-Hernandez’s mother made her keep moving, even requiring her to stand in the kitchen to do dishes when it was the last thing the little girl wanted to do.  All these tasks were painful and difficult – as were her hours of grueling physical therapy – but the pain and work have helped her attain the type of mobility she needs for her job as a physician.

“She insisted that I not be dependent,” Brunstrom-Hernandez said of her mother. “She insisted that I pull my weight.  It’s a good thing.  It made me tough and it made me strong.”

Brunstrom-Hernandez is strong indeed, but she acknowledges that she sometimes felt embarrassed by cerebral palsy. She recalled how she would recoil if she caught a glimpse of mirrored glass showing her struggling to walk, aided by crutches and walkers.

It wasn’t until she started the clinic that she embraced who she was and what she could do to help others.

“I have gotten as much or more out of taking care of these patients as they have ever gotten from me,” she said. “It changed my life. They saved my life. They taught me how to believe in myself. They taught me how to look at myself differently.”

Moving around the clinic, only Brunstrom-Hernandez’s gait shows any effects of her cerebral palsy, though rheumatoid arthritis causes her pain.  She acknowledges it can be physically exhausting.  People with cerebral palsy often develop arthritis, and even with the best therapy, moving around can be tiring and sometimes painful.

“I have to work all the time to stay on my feet,” she said.

It’s a dedication that doesn’t go unnoticed by her colleagues.

“I think the empathy does come through,” Noetzel said. “Her line is kind of a tough one: If you really want to do best, this is what you need to do. I think there’s a much greater acceptance coming from her.”


Cerebral palsy is a medical term used to describe a number of neurological disorders that hinder body movement and muscle coordination.  Most children who have cerebral palsy are born with it or develop it soon after birth as a result of damage to the brain, although a proper diagnosis may not be made for a few years. Cerebral palsy is usually a non-progressive health condition. Thus, as debilitating and serious as it may be at its outset, it will not usually worsen over time. It does, however, have a lifelong – and costly – impact on affected babies and their families. Cerebral palsy occurs in approximately two – four out of every 1,000 births in the United States and Europe, according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

Cerebral palsy is often caused by the following:

  • Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (a lack of oxygen to the brain around the time of birth)
  • Kernicterus, which is brain damage caused by excessive bilirubin ( which causes jaundice) that enters the baby’s brain
  • Infection in the brain, such as meningitis and encephalitis
  • Trauma and brain bleeds, which can be caused by forceps and vacuum extractors

Cerebral palsy is one of the most serious health problems caused by birth injuries and medical malpractice during labor and delivery.

There are many different types of surgeries, treatments and therapies that can help the symptoms of cerebral palsy.  With enough intense treatment and therapy – as well as surgery in some cases – many children can do very well long-term.  Sadly, however, there are a lot of kids that will always need to use a wheelchair.  Playing sports, dancing, camping, animal therapy and riding horses and bicycles, along with many other complementary therapies, have been shown to be extremely beneficial for children and adults with special needs, including those that use a wheelchair.

Physical therapy is an important component of any treatment plan for cerebral palsy.  When physical therapy and treatments allow a child or adult to play sports and compete with others, it is amazing.  Indeed, social interaction and a sense of community are very important for those with disabilities, and when they can share laughter, fun moments and goals, the benefits are immeasurable.


There are many complications that can cause cerebral palsy.  It is crucial for the physician to monitor the mother and baby very closely around the time of delivery and treat conditions that can lead to cerebral palsy.  Failure to properly monitor and treat the mother and baby is negligence.  Failure to follow standards of care and guidelines also constitutes negligence.  If this negligence leads to cerebral palsy, it is medical malpractice.

The award winning attorneys at Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers have been helping families in Michigan, Ohio, Washington D.C., and nationwide affected by cerebral palsy for over two decades.  Our attorneys are recognized as national experts in the field of birth injury law and have a track record of multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. If your child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, call or email Reiter & Walsh today for a free consultation.  We will fight hard to obtain the compensation your child needs for treatment, therapy and a secure future. 888-419-2229

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