Baby steps make for big strides

Bella Lovell wants to be a lot of things. According to her mother, Mandy Lovell, Bella has mentioned being a nurse, a teacher and a physical therapist at one point or another. Since Bella is just in the third grade, she has a little time to figure it out. Bella is a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a church member and a student — but she’s also a fighter.

When Bella was around 6 months old, Mandy noticed that Bella would “stand crooked” when she pushed up on her lap. Bella’s pediatrician, Dr. Susan Hawkins, requested x-rays and a follow-up with orthopedics and neurology. At 12 months, Bella was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Like any mother, Mandy was scared of what Bella’s future might look like. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “The only thing I could think of when the doctor told me ‘cerebral palsy’ was a wheelchair. She has a wheelchair, but it’s in our garage now.”

First steps

Bella and her family

Shelby Cotton, Bella’s physical therapist, is pictured with Bella and her mom and dad, Mandy and Brent Lovell.

Once the diagnosis was made, Dr. Hawkins referred Bella for physical and occupational therapy. At age 3, Bella had her first Botox injections for stiff muscles and learned to operate her pediatric walker. This is where Shelby Cotton comes in.

Shelby is a physical therapist and is the director of the therapy department at Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital. She and Bella have a very close relationship, but Mandy turns to Shelby for reassurance and guidance as well.

“Shelby has been a huge part of our lives since the day we met her,” Mandy said.

“Every fear I have had about Botox injections, surgeries or any kind of transition Bella has had to face, Shelby has helped so much. She doesn’t look at me as just one of her patients’ mother. She understands my concern. She takes time to answer questions, calm fears and explain things to me to make everything seem so much less scary. She will never know how much I appreciate her concern for our Bella.”

For Shelby, it has been a privilege to watch Bella’s progress. Every year she helps staff the free health assessments provided to all kindergarten through eighth grade students in Muhlenberg County schools by Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital. When they visit Bella’s school, Central City Elementary, Shelby is always eager to map her progress from the previous year.

“I try to set achievable, short-term goals that will help Bella achieve her long-term goals,” said Shelby. “She has achieved great things over the past several years.”

Growing and thriving

Both Mandy and Shelby are full of praise for Bella. “Bella is such a sweet, loving and giving little girl,” said Mandy. “Every year for the last three or four years, on March 25th, she encourages her classmates, friends and family to wear green in support of Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. We consider this a holiday at our house. She seriously counts down the days starting on March 1. This year, her whole school was encouraged to wear green on March 25. Her principal, Mrs. Higgs, announced it on a ‘One Call’ phone call to parents the day before. We were so proud of Bella for that — how she turned something so small into something so big!”

Shelby concurred. “When we started the health assessments, Bella did not really want to and could not participate without assistance,” she said. “This year she not only wanted to do them, but she wanted to do them by herself with the use of her crutches. She did great!”

Bella has gone from a wheelchair to a walker, from a walker to crutches — and now she is down to a single crutch. The goal is to, eventually, be able to walk without assistance. However, Bella will keep being her sunny self regardless of what life throws at her.

“We love how she turns stares into ‘hellos’,” said Mandy. “We couldn’t be more proud of her.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of Lift magazinecheck out our latest publication.