Eleven millimeters. Pretty tiny, right? When Kathryn Vigness learned her son James’ head had grown 11 millimeters in just two weeks, she knew she and her husband, Aaron, had made the right decision.
“Seeing the results confirmed we did the right thing, and it eliminated any doubt I had,” she said. “His helmet was truly making a dramatic difference.”
A healthy seven pound, twelve ounce bundle of joy, James was born September 1, 2010. During his four month well-baby check, Kathryn discussed concerns with pediatric nurse practitioner Andrea Riendeau about the shape of James’ head.
“It was flat in spots,” said Kathryn. “I noticed it before, but thought his head would fill out on its own. He continued to grow, but so did the flat spots.”
Andrea noticed it as well, and referred Kathryn and James to Steve Sattler, a certified orthotist, in Altru’s Prosthetics and Orthotics department for further evaluation.
“Steve took a very thorough history of my pregnancy and birthing process,” said Kathryn. “Because I carried James transversely, he laid sideways, with his head nestled in my hip until the 37th week. He was born at 39 weeks, after 30 hours of labor, so there really wasn’t a lot of time for his head shape to correct itself.”
Correcting the flat spots was now up to Steve.
In 2007, thanks to generous donor gifts, Altru Health Foundation provided funds for the purchase of a STARscanner™. The scanner acquires accurate head shape data for cranial shaping helmets. Previously, plaster molds were used, which were messy and time-consuming. With the STARscanner™, all necessary data is gathered in just two seconds and transferred electronically to Orthomerica, the company that makes the helmets. About two weeks later, the helmet is back to Steve and the first fitting takes place.
“Not many things we do in prosthetics and orthotics can be considered a ‘cure,’ but this is about as close as we can get,” said Steve. As of March 1, 2013, more than 626 children have been fitted for helmets.
“Steve was wonderful to work with, as was the entire department,” said Kathryn. “They become your cheerleaders. They see the progress week after week and are excited for it to continue.”
“The fact that they come back so frequently makes it seem like they belong with us,” said Steve of the children and families with whom he works.
James saw Steve every four weeks for adjustments. Parts of James’ helmet were chiseled out to accommodate new growth. In May 2011, having worn the helmet 23 hours each day for four months, James’ head was appropriately shaped.
“James was great before, and he’s great now, just with a more symmetrical head,” said Kathryn.
Past the Stigma
Looking back, Kathryn said the initial helmet recommendation was harder on her than on James.
“I had reservations when we first learned this was our path,” she said. “I had to get past the stigma. I didn’t want people to see James and think there was a problem because he wore a helmet. My fears melted away when we heard, ‘Look at those cute cheeks,’ or ‘Look at those big blue eyes.’ We knew this was the best thing we could do for him.”
Improper head development, including that of the face, ears and jaw, is something that can have lifelong effects. For example, if James wanted to participate in a sport requiring him to wear a helmet, a standard helmet might not have protected his head properly if his head was misshapen.
“That’s when it really hit home,” said Kathryn. “What good is a football or motorcycle helmet if it doesn’t fit properly?”
“The helmets provide the opportunity to prevent some medical issues from developing,” said Steve. “They also improve a child’s appearance to hopefully eliminate teasing or bullying as they grow up.”
“As parents, we want to do everything we can for our children now to prevent issues later in life,” said Kathryn. “Looking back, it was a no brainer for us. James did awesome with the helmet; he took it like a champ. We were very fortunate, too, in that we didn’t have to travel to receive this service. It was so nice to have advocates on our side throughout the whole process.” The STARscanner™ at Altru is the only one in the state of North Dakota.
Now two years old, James doesn’t remember his helmet-wearing days. His little brother, Drew, now one, also wore a helmet from being transverse in the womb.
“It’s what we needed to do,” said Kathryn, “and I’m so glad we did.”