“She will dance at her wedding”: Healing the girl born without part of her brain”
The following is annotated excerpt from the full article published on Salon.com on Sunday, March 1, 2015
See how a parent’s nightmare turned into hope by Dr Moshe Feldenkrais’ intervention, continued support and the innovative approach he pioneered, the Feldenkrais Method®, when medical science had no hope or answers.
“A Girl Missing Part of Her Brain”
“Feldenkrais’s approach can radically change the life even of people who were born missing huge parts of the brain, by facilitating differentiation in the remaining brain areas. Elizabeth, whom I (refers to N Doidge, MD, author) interviewed, was born missing a third of her cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps to coordinate and control the timing of movement, thought, balance, and attention. Without the cerebellum, a person has difficulty controlling all these mental functions. The cerebellum, which means “little brain” in Latin, is about the size of a peach and is tucked under the cerebral hemispheres, toward the back of the brain. Although it occupies only about 10 percent of the brain’s volume, it contains almost 80 percent of the brain’s neurons. The technical name for Elizabeth’s condition is cerebellar hypoplasia, and there was no treatment known to change the course of the illness.”
The case of Elizabeth clearly points out that even a severely damaged brain is plastic, in other words, with proper stimulus, it can grow, learn and regain function, through a method of somatic education, as it was pioneered by dr Moshe Feldenkrais and is known and practiced by Feldenkrais (R) practitioners and eloquently accounted for in Norman Doige’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing.
“When she was in the womb, her mother felt there might be a problem, because Elizabeth hardly moved. When Elizabeth was born, she didn’t move her eyes. They flickered and were not properly aligned, gazing in different directions. At one month, they rarely tracked objects. Her parents were terrified she might not see normally. As she developed, it was clear she had a problem with her muscle tonus. At times she was very floppy, meaning she had too little or no muscle tension, but at other times she had too much tension and was “spastic,” making no exploratory, voluntary movements. She received conventional physiotherapy and occupational therapy, but the treatments were painful for her.
When Elizabeth was four months old, the chief pediatric neurologist at a major urban medical center tested the electrical activity of her brain. He told her parents that “her brain had not developed since birth, and there was no reason to believe that her brain would develop.” Most such children show persistent deficits, and it was believed the cerebellum shows limited plasticity. The doctor also told her parents that her condition was much like cerebral palsy, and he predicted that she would never be able to sit up, would be incontinent, and would have to be institutionalized. Her mother later recalled, “I remember he said, ‘The best we could hope for would be profound retardation.’” Elizabeth’s physicians were accurately describing their experience with such children who had conventional treatment—the only kind they knew about.
Still, her parents sought help. One day, a friend, an orthopedic surgeon, who knew of Feldenkrais’s work, said, “This guy can do things that no one else can.” When they heard that Feldenkrais was coming from Israel to a town near them to train practitioners—one of his major activities in the 1970s—they got an appointment.”
So as you can see, Elizabeth’s case was terribly grim, her outlook for a normal life practically nonexistent … Yet, what would you do when you’re a parent? You keep looking for that glimmer of hope, right?
“When Feldenkrais met Elizabeth for the first time, she was thirteen months old and unable to creep or crawl. (Creeping, which usually precedes crawling, means scooting along on the stomach.) She could make only a single, voluntary movement: rolling over on one side. At her first hands on session with Feldenkrais, where he assessed her, she couldn’t stop crying. She had had many sessions with therapists, who had tried to get her to do things she was not ready to do developmentally. For instance, many therapists had tried to sit her up, over and over, and had failed. If the children’s bodies are spastic, these movements hurt them—hence the crying.
According to Feldenkrais, these attempts to leapfrog through development are a huge error because no one ever learned to walk by walking. Other skills have to be in place for a child to walk—skills adults don’t think about or remember learning, such as the ability to arch the back and lift the head. Only when all these pieces are in place will a child learn to walk, spontaneously.”
Feldenkrais kept working with Elizabeth, eventually with the assistance of Anat Baniel and making impressive progress, but quite a few dilemmas remained:
“Yet there was still much to worry about: Elizabeth was profoundly disabled and carried a horrendous diagnosis. Feldenkrais could see that Elizabeth’s parents were clearly concerned about her future. He usually didn’t say a great deal on these occasions. But he judged a brain not by where a child was in her development but by whether, given stimulation appropriate to that stage of development, the child could learn. “She’s a clever girl,” he said. “She will dance at her wedding.”
Feldenkrais returned to Israel. Over the next few years, her parents heroically and tirelessly did, and put up with, whatever it took to get Elizabeth to see him. They brought her to see him in hotel rooms whenever he came to the United States or Canada, and went to Israel three times, for two to four weeks of daily visits to Feldenkrais’s office. In between these intensive visits, Elizabeth consolidated her gains with everyday activities.”
Feldenkrais fell ill while in Switzerland, recuperating in France and then eventually traveled back to Israel
“Back in Israel, he had a stroke, which affected his speech. His students gave their master daily Functional Integration lessons. Now in his late seventies and ill, he directed more and more of the children who came to him to Baniel. Baniel gradually took over Elizabeth’s care, flying in for three-week periods, giving her daily lessons. Elizabeth saw her on and off for years, and her progress quickened.
Today Elizabeth is in her thirties and has two graduate degrees. She’s petite, at five feet tall, and has a sweet voice. She walks, moving so easily that an observer would never know she had once been destined to end up immobile, in an institution, severely mentally retarded—at best. “Moshe,” she tells me, “said to my dad, ‘When she is eighteen, nobody is going to know that anything happened.’ And he was dead on.” She remembers “tidbits” of those visits to Israel, “and I sort of remember Moshe, the white hair, the blue shirt, and how smoky it was in there”— Feldenkrais smoked during lessons—“him whispering things into my ear, calming me down.”
Her two graduate degrees are from major universities: she earned a master’s in Near Eastern Judaic studies; then wanting something practical, she did a master’s in social work and got her license. She still has some residual symptoms of the cerebellar hypoplasia. She has a mild learning disorder with numbers, and so math and science are difficult. But other than that, she enjoys learning and being intellectual, and she became a voracious reader—all of Shakespeare, most of Tolstoy, and many other classics. Today she runs a small business and is happily married.
And yes, she danced at her wedding.”
To read the detailed account on how Feldenkrais helped Elizabeth – and can help countless others using the same principles and the Feldenkrais Method(R), more on Feldenkrais himself, as well as on his work, please click here for the full article, just published on Salon.com.
Excerpted from “The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity” by Norman Doidge, M.D. Reprinted on Salon by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Norman Doidge.
Moshe Feldenkrais (Credit: © International Feldenkrais Federation Archive/Photo montage by Salon)