Physical therapy assistant Peggy Heise had other ideas.
“Ten more. Ten more. Ten more,” she repeated.
“Yes, sergeant!” Will shot back.
The exchange brought a smile to mom Sarah Grady’s face. She was watching from the sidelines, thrilled with improvements in her son’s stride. Will has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination.
“At the end, Peggy always says, ‘I know I’m hard on you, but you know why I’m doing it, and I’m really proud of you,’” said Sarah, 42, of Belleville.
Will has worked six years with Peggy and her sister, Maria Matthews, an occupational therapy assistant who focuses on life skills such as eating and writing. Will’s mother describes the results as “miraculous.” He has gotten stronger physically and developed a more positive attitude.
“Children with special needs are so often dismissed because of their walkers or wheelchairs,” Sarah said. “I think the key with these two sisters is they see them as people with their own feelings and thoughts and opinions.”
Peggy, 54, and Maria, 51, of Maryville, grew up in a family of 13. Both became therapists in the ’90s after rearing families and returning to college. Peggy has six children, and Maria has two.
Three years ago, Sarah recommended the sisters to her friend, Tiffany Whitten, whose 14-year-old son, Tony, also has cerebral palsy. He had undergone therapy elsewhere and hated it.
“Little boys don’t want to be different,” said Tiffany, 41, of Belleville. “They don’t want to use a walker or a wheelchair. They don’t want to go to therapy because it hurts. It’s tough. They want to be at home hanging out, playing video games or just being a kid.”
Tony hit it off with Peggy and Maria, who helped him see his potential and gain self-confidence.
Insurance limits later required him to drop occupational therapy, but he’s working toward his goal of walking independently, ditching his cane and metallic-blue walker.
“Peggy pushes me — sometimes over the edge,” he joked.
Perhaps just as important as the therapists is the relationship that has developed between the two boys. Tony has become a role model. Sometimes he shows up early for therapy just to encourage Will, who seems to try a little harder when his friend is watching.
“Everything that Tony has gone through, Will is going through, so he kind of looks up to him,” Tiffany said. “It pushes Tony to work harder. He wants to be a leader, and nowhere else in his life is he a leader.”
Will was born prematurely at 23 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces. His type of cerebral palsy is known as spastic diplegia, which causes extreme muscle tightness.
The fourth-grader at Abraham Lincoln School is trying to make the transition from wheelchair to walker. Like Tony, he hopes to eventually go it alone.
“It’s important to me because I want to do stuff with my brothers and my friends,” he said.
Like many people with cerebral palsy, Will has undergone multiple surgeries. Two years ago, doctors operated on his knees. Maria visited him in the hospital and even went to his school to show staff how to transport him as safely and painlessly as possible.
“She did it on her own time during her lunch hour,” Sarah said.
Will underwent another surgery in June, this one on his spinal cord. Peggy guides him through strengthening exercises such as climbing stairs, crawling and rolling over in bed. Maria works on balance with aquatics and coordination with basketball drills.
Through it all, Will is known for cracking jokes and laughing at himself.
“He does have a very big personality,” Peggy said.
“I’m funny, too,” Will said. “Don’t forget that.”
Tony also was born prematurely, weighing 1 pound, 11 ounces. He’s an eighth-grader at West Junior High School.
He is very articulate when it comes to describing the affect cerebral palsy has on his body.
“My right hand works perfectly,” he said. “I can do anything with it. I can write. I can pick up stuff. I can balance things. But when it comes to my left hand, it’s slow. I’ve noticed when I’m moving my left hand, I want to use my right hand to help it.”
Peggy’s first step in treating Tony was sitting down for a chat. He told her he didn’t want therapy. She asked him why. Then she listened. Before long, Tony was helping Peggy set goals and figure out how to reach them.
“She let me devise my own plan,” he said. “She let me choose which exercises I wanted to do.”
Today, Tony opens up to Peggy about school and anything else on his mind. His mother is convinced that she is single-handedly responsible for his turnaround. Sarah goes so far as to call Peggy a “child whisperer.”
“Tony didn’t know his own potential,” Tiffany said. “He just didn’t realize all the things he could do. But once he gave it a try and with some self-confidence, it was like a light bulb went off in his head, and he realized this isn’t such a bad place after all.”