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Patterns of Hope : A Controversial Therapy for Brain-Damaged Children

December 08, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Her screams seemed endless. Through nights when she gasped for breath and came close to death, through days when her infant body convulsed, then lay rigid, she screamed. They were the screams of a child whose injured, swollen brain had left her barely able to breathe, totally unable to eat, see, hear or speak. In her inarticulate anguish, Katherine Blackburn, 7 months old, bitten by an encephalitis-carrying mosquito in Silver Lake in November, 1984, could do nothing but scream.

Music from Paul Simon's "Graceland" album plays:

Sing Ta na na

Ta na na na

She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes . . .

Its rhythm regulates the motions of three people manipulating Katherine Blackburn's head, arms and legs. The child lies on her stomach, her head turned from side to side by her mother's hands. Two of the dozens of volunteers who come to help her each day are rotating her legs and arms, creating the motions of a crawling child, motions Katherine cannot perform on her own because of her injured brain. Were she able to power her own limbs, she might be strutting to the high-stepping rhythms of Simon's song.

She was physically forgotten . . .

And she said honey take me dancing ...

Wearing diamonds on the soles of her shoes . . .

"Good girl, Katherine. Good girl. What good work," her mother, Jean Blackburn, exclaims. Katherine has just been patterned--a controversial form of therapy developed in the 1950s by physical therapist Glenn Doman at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia.

One Element of Program

Katherine, who is 3 now, cannot regenerate the brain tissue damaged by encephalitis, but the theory behind patterning is that healthy brain tissue can be reprogrammed, patterned, to take over the functions of the damaged portions of the brain.

She will do five of these patterns for 15 minutes each everyday. The patterning is one element of a round-the-clock rehabilitation program that requires an army of volunteers and an enormous expenditure of emotional energy. It has been going on for two years, years during which many doctors predicted Katherine would die, her mother says.

Katherine's "day" begins at midnight when she is put on a respirator, which regulates her once erratic breathing, until 6 in the morning. It is during this time that Jean Blackburn sleeps, if volunteers are available. At 6 a.m. Katherine is fed soft food with large amounts of vitamin supplements Then, for 75 seconds, a plastic mask is placed over her nose and mouth, a procedure that occurs 25 times a day. By breathing in her own carbon dioxide, her mother explains, she increases circulation to her brain, which then directs oxygen throughout her body. The brain must have oxygen to function and a brain-injured child whose breathing tends to be erratic and shallow needs it even more, and needs more help getting it.

While the mask is on, "she gets her intelligence program, " Blackburn says.

"Katherine, this is a rhinoceros," her mother states loudly, holding up a flashcard. "It has horns on its face." The cards all have pictures with single-word or short sentence explanations. She picks up another. "This rhinoceros is a Sumatran rhinoceros. This is a prehistoric rhinoceros . . . This is a horned animal. This is an eland."

"Katherine, which would you rather do? Wash face? Brush teeth?" Blackburn asks. The child's reaction is assertively negative. She looks away from both. Her mother says, "Neither one, huh." A standard 3-year-old reaction.

Unintelligible Syllables

Katherine, a brown-eyed child with soft, curling hair and a mouth that seems to desire more than it's capable of right now--namely speech--is beginning to imitate language, Blackburn says. They are unintelligible syllables now, her mother says, "but when I hold her and say 'I love you,' she responds in the same rhythm. And it happens consistently."

They are seated on the floor of a large, rented one-bedroom house at the top of a steep, pretty street in Echo Park. The flashcards with their information bits, written in large red letters, surround them.

The point of all this is to "expose her" to information, not teach in the traditional sense, Blackburn says. It's the same principal used at Doman's Better Baby Institute, where healthy children are taught to read at ages as young as 2.

"The Program"--of which patterning is the most controversial part--has attracted parents with brain-injured children to Doman's institutes from all over the globe--11,000 children in 40 years, he says.

"We fail all too often," Doman says. "But in a world that believes that no profoundly brain-injured child can be made well, it is surprising that we often succeed."

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