Gardnerville teen beats the odds

After being paralyzed from Guillain-Barre syndrome, odds were against 14-year-old Jessica Vega recovering full use of her legs.

"Jessica said to me, 'Mom, you're not sure I'm going to get better, but I know I'm going to get better,'" said Jessica's mother, Rhonda Vega.

On Wednesday, Jessica was at BodyWise Physical Therapy and Fitness in Minden proving just how right she was.

Under the direction of BodyWise tech and Douglas High varsity soccer captain Ray Kaffer, the Gardnerville teenager spent more than an hour performing weight curls with her toes, step volleys, ladder runs and stretches. She worked on the upper body bike. She used a bosu ball to improve balance. She was exercising not merely for rehabilitative purposes, but for training. Jessica just made the Carson Valley Backdraft U-16 girls' soccer team.

"When she first got here, she couldn't even run a ladder," said Kaffer. "Now look at here. She's got so much coordination."

Like a young Olympian, Jessica disregarded distractions around her as she focused her strength and danced between the rungs of the horizontal ladder.

"She never misses a day," said BodyWise owner Monique Haviland.

Haviland volunteers free consulting for Douglas athletes, but she and Kaffer have been working with Jessica since October.

"It's been an interesting case," said Haviland. "Observing her progress, we have learned new things."

Last May, the outgoing and athletic Jessica was in class at Carson Valley Middle School when she was overcome by a feeling of weakness in her limbs. By nightfall, she was in an emergency room at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. She was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an acute autoimmune condition that causes paralysis. She would spend the next month rehabilitating in Carson-Tahoe Regional Medical Center in Carson City.

Douglas teachers Rob and Laura Parks would tutor Jessica in the hospital room and continue tutoring her at home after she was released.

But, as Rhonda Vega can testify, Jessica was not built for the bedridden life.

"She's not one for self-pity," said Vega.

It took 10 weeks after hospitalization to move one toe, but with intense physical therapy and dedicated training, Jessica was out of her wheelchair by the end of June. By the time school started in the fall, she was free of her leg braces, too.

"The first day of school was the first day she took her braces off her legs," said Vega, who's a teacher's aide at Carson Valley Middle School. "She probably needed them on longer, but she was determined to take the high-top tennis shoes off and the braces off and put her Vans on without the braces. She didn't let anybody know. If she needed rest, she just casually leaned on the lockers, or found a friend to put an arm around. She made it look like everything was perfect."

Vega said the community helped Jessica cope with the change: they hosted fundraisers for her medical bills, BodyWise provided free physical therapy, and the Douglas High junior varsity girl's soccer team made her their manager.

"Without the community's support, Jessica wouldn't be where she is," said Vega.

But Jessica is no longer content managing a soccer team. The aggressive offensive player said that the prospect of playing soccer again was a huge motivation in her recovery efforts.

"It gave me a different perspective," said Jessica. "When something bad happens, you appreciate things more. I tried not to think about it. I thought of playing soccer and being with my friends."

Vega said she thought her daughter was near 100 percent recovery.

"She's way beyond most patients," said Kaffer. "She keeps getting past the exercises we set for her, so we have to keep adding harder things. I'm going to miss her when she leaves."


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