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Strong-willed, compassionate, loving, an animal whisperer: these are the words Gwen Anderson (a mom and WakeMed employee) uses to describe her highly athletic daughter, Savannah Anderson, who began showing horses at the young age of five.

“She loves animals,” shares Gwen, “especially her three horses. She is also persistent, so when she sets a goal, she will tackle it.”

These characteristics have helped Savannah endure several grueling years of health crises that began in 2017 in Williamston, North Carolina when she was just nine years old.

Savannah was participating in a horse show; suddenly, she was thrown from her horse, catapulting head and chest first into a metal corral gate. Once on the ground, the horse stepped on the right shoulder region of her back. Savannah was taken to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a concussion, bruised bones and a bruised liver.

Halloween, a Freak Accident and a Concussion Syndrome Diagnosis

Nearly five years later, while serving as a volunteer actor for a local haunted house, Savannah, then age 14, ran into another actor; their heads collided. Initially, she had no symptoms, but within 24 hours after the incident, she complained of a severe headache, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. She also experienced one frightening episode in which she stared listlessly, fell, lost consciousness and suffered involuntary jerking movements of her arms and legs. Fearing it was a seizure, the family rushed her to WakeMed Children’s Emergency Department.

Savannah was thoroughly evaluated and ultimately diagnosed with recurrent concussions. Her treatment involved physical therapy at Outpatient Rehabilitation – Raleigh Campus.

Gwen explains, “The providers thought she may have hit her head in the same location as she did during the prior horse accident. They determined that the previous concussion likely had never fully healed.

A Secondary Condition Brought on by Concussion

By early 2022, Savannah was experiencing heart and blood pressure issues as well, so her physical therapist Kim Bader, DPT, PT, recommended a referral to WakeMed Pediatric Cardiology. There, Jason Ho, MD, diagnosed Savannah with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition involving circulation and the autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems that typically occurs following a physical trauma, such as concussion.

Dr. Ho then referred Savannah to Pulmonary Rehab and Cardiopulmonary Therapy – Raleigh for POTS treatment, provided by Christie Palagonia, PT, DPT, CCS, through May 2022.

Dr. Jason Ho

According to Dr. Ho, “Savannah was suspected of having POTS due to an increase in heart rate of over 40 beats per minute with change in position and an unreadable low blood pressure. We subsequently evaluated her in clinic, and Savannah had many of the textbook symptoms of POTS — including palpitations, dizziness, fatigue and brain fog. She has done well with treatment, and it has been great to see her overcome the difficulties that many patients with POTS face.”

Savanna is still followed by Dr. Ho for POTS, and — with medication — this condition is now well controlled.

More Pain

During concussion physical therapy, Bader also noticed there was some pain and tightness in Savannah’s shoulder, scapula region, upper back and neck. She then referred Savannah to Outpatient Rehabilitation – Raleigh Medical Park where Jay Goodman, PT, SCS, provided orthopaedic physical therapy.

Gwen says, “Thankfully, Savannah stopped complaining much about her shoulder. She continued to complain of headaches, which I assumed, at that time, were POTS related. She also spoke of some upper back and neck pain and tightness. The pediatrician said it was muscular.”

A highly tenacious and competitive teen, Savannah was not to be deterred. She went full throttle back into sports. This time, she was playing and coaching soccer.

Another Injury Takes Savannah Down

All was well until October 2022 when Savannah suffered a shoulder injury during a soccer workout, so they headed to Orthopaedic Urgent Care.

According to Gwen, “Savannah was at fall soccer workouts. They were doing circuits, and her shoulder popped during push-ups. This caused severe pain, loss of range of motion and muscle tightness.”

They were once again dealing with a reinjury. Savannah was referred to Outpatient Rehab for physical therapy.

“On the first evaluation with Heather Taylor, PT, my daughter was instantly comforted by her care and personality.”

Debilitating Symptoms Return

The family would find this essential as, once again, Savannah’s health began to unravel.

“Heather became a huge advocate for Savannah’s care,” states Gwen. “Savannah was having increased headaches, so she referred her for testing which ruled out any additional neurological issues. During the next couple of months, she had severe joint pain upon arrival to physical therapy. Heather was concerned and sent us to Orthopaedic Urgent Care for numbness, pain, headache and weakness. We then scheduled our first appointment with Wake Orthopaedics Sports Medicine specialist Mark Wood, MD. A nerve conduction test and shoulder magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were ordered, and Dr. Wood diagnosed Savannah with multidirectional instability of the right shoulder joint. The initial treatment plan for the shoulder was to continue physical therapy for an additional six months.”

Savannah grew depressed as a result of not being able to participate in many activities and missing many days of school due to severe pain. Meanwhile, Heather encouraged Savannah and helped keep her spirits up.

“Heather continued physical therapy with my daughter — exercising, KT taping and listening to my daughter’s concerns and pain. It was Heather’s treatment, knowledge and support that led us back to Dr. Wood and ultimately arthroscopic shoulder surgery.”

Heather also recalls this challenging time for Savannah.

“Savannah was seen in outpatient physical therapy from October 2022 to February 2023 for strengthening. The goal was stabilizing her shoulder and reducing pain. She could only work on strengthening while lying down as her shoulder began to pop more frequently, and her pain increased. I referred her back to Dr. Wood who scheduled her for surgery after speaking with Savannah and her mom.”

Surgery and Hope for Healthy, Happy Teen Years

On March 9, 2023, Dr. Wood performed the surgical procedure at Capital City Surgery Center. Savannah received anchors and permanent sutures to correct her instability and a clean-up of the joint inflammation.

Dr. Mark Wood

Dr. Wood notes, “From the moment I met Savannah, I was very impressed with her maturity and stoic personality. She is clearly a tough young lady and is stronger because of how she has handled adversity. The common denominator for Savannah and other young athletes’ successful journey is a supportive team, including their parents, physical therapist, coaches, medical specialists and a dedicated Orthopaedic Sports Medicine team. Credit goes to Savannah for her commitment, which is required for rehabilitation.”

In the two weeks following the surgery, Savannah finally experienced relief.

“Savannah now has a pain-free shoulder,” observes Gwen. “Her severe headaches (besides some mild ones from POTS) are now gone. My daughter now smiles and laughs again. Despite wearing a sling as she heals, she is excited for what the future holds, the possibility of returning to sports and the chance to be a ‘normal’ teenager again.”

Heather has also seen great strides in Savannah’s rehab.

“Savannah has shown determination, courage and a toughness not seen in many 15-year-olds. I am very impressed with her positivity and compliance with what has been asked of her despite how much it might hurt.”

With gratitude, Gwen says, “Without Heather’s compassion, care and belief in my daughter’s pain and what she was seeing during physical therapy, my daughter would not be where she is today. Heather is an exceptional physical therapist and deserves so many praises. Her show of the WakeWay and patient care make me proud to be a member of the WakeMed family and even more to have my daughter a patient of Outpatient Rehab – Clayton. My daughter looks forward to seeing Heather every week, even though she gives her a workout, because she trusts Heather and the care she’s receiving. We are happy that she will be providing ongoing care for the next four months.

“We deeply thank each provider at WakeMed who demonstrated and provided exceptional care!”

About WakeMed Children’s Emergency Department

Specifically designed to meet the emergency care needs of children, the Children’s Emergency Department was the first freestanding facility of its kind in North Carolina and the only dedicated Children’s Emergency Department in Wake County, caring for thousands of pediatric patients every year.

A non-threatening, comfortable environment with a cheerful atmosphere, bright murals, children’s wall-art and child-sized furnishings. All this and a staff of doctors, nurses and support staff who know how to treat kids like kids, not little adults.

About Concussion Support at WakeMed

At WakeMed, we believe that concussion is a treatable injury. Through our caring and comprehensive approach, we help children and adults return to the activities they love as quickly and safely as possible.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to concussion management. Our team of experts evaluate, manage, and provide individualized treatment. We use the most recent scientific assessment and evaluation tools to provide dynamic and personalized care targeted to your goals and needs.

About Wake Orthopaedics

For 20 years, Wake Orthopaedics has been serving the Triangle community with comprehensive orthopaedic care to help their patients regain their mobility and restore their quality of life. With specialties and expertise in conditions of the bones, muscles and joints, our team of board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists utilize progressive treatments and state-of-the-art technology to care for everything from hip fractures to ACL injuries to arthritis. In addition to traditional orthopaedic services, Wake Orthopaedics provides trauma services, rehabilitation services and care for pediatric injuries.

About WakeMed Pediatric Cardiology

WakeMed Physician Practices – Pediatric Cardiology is a new specialty practice focused on providing comprehensive care and management of cardiac conditions in children, from pre-natal diagnosis through early adulthood. Whether it’s a congenital or acquired heart condition, our highly skilled providers are committed to offering individualized care that is patient and family-centered with the goal of helping children maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.

About WakeMed Physical Therapy

It’s our goal at WakeMed Physician Practices – Physical Therapy to get you back to your active lifestyle. Our techniques are based on national best practices to ensure you receive the latest, best treatment for your condition. We provide physical therapy and occupational therapy in Raleigh, Cary, the Brier Creek area and Apex, North Carolina.

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