SYCAMORE – After a grueling seven-month journey learning to walk and breathe on his own again, Noah Ruiz returned Tuesday to South Prairie Elementary School.
On the school playground, Noah, 6, asked his mom, Jennifer Ruiz, to push him higher. It was a moment Ruiz said she thought might never come again after Noah was diagnosed with a rare polio-like condition called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, in October.
“When he got AFM, I came and cleaned his locker out,” Jennifer Ruiz recalled. “I was just crying in the hall and was like, ‘He’ll never be able to come to school again.’ And then today I got to put his backpack back in his locker.”
The virus, which attacks the nervous system, left Noah paralyzed and critically ill for four months. Noah was unable to walk or move his left arm, and needed the help of a ventilator to breathe.
Ruiz, 30, says now Noah is doing “amazing” and is thrilled to be back at South Prairie, where his brothers Ian, 9, and David Jr., 8, also are students.
“We learned about shapes and how to make them,” Noah said about class that day. Asked what his favorite thing about being home was, he said, “Playing with my dog, Mila.”
To celebrate the occasion, mother and son sat on a bench at the school playground and shared some blue moon and birthday cake-flavored ice cream. Besides a sling Noah wears to hold his left arm socket in place (since he can move his hand but not yet hold up the arm), it’s almost impossible to tell he was lying immobile in a hospital bed months prior.
At the end of August, Noah complained that his arms “felt funny” and had what his parents thought were just cold symptoms. Within days, he lost feeling in his arms and legs, and Ruiz and her husband, David, brought him to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Noah has had a team of doctors there since he was a newborn. He was diagnosed in utero with dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes the left ventricle of the heart to enlarge and weaken, decreasing its ability to pump blood. Only 10 weeks after he was born, he received a lifesaving heart transplant.
“If it had been any of my other children, I would have just thought they had a cold,” Jennifer Ruiz said. “But because of the heart transplant, we took him in right away, and they were able to do those interventions early. I think that made a huge difference.”
After undergoing plasmapheresis, a type of dialysis that cleans the blood’s plasma, he was discharged from Lurie in the first week of November and moved to the nearby Shirley Ryan Ability Lab for inpatient, daily physical and occupational therapy to get him moving again.
Jennifer Ruiz said, in those moments, it was hard to imagine him ever being able to do something like run to the swing set or hold a piece of chalk.
“He was in bed and not moving,” Jennifer Ruiz said. “[Doctors] were going to intubate him, put [a tube] in his throat permanently and put him in a wheelchair, so we were prepping the house for him to come back medically fragile.”
Jennifer and David Ruiz decided their son should finish therapy at home, and Noah came back to Sycamore in mid-December.
“We wanted to get therapy at home because it was just becoming a strain on the family, especially with the holidays,” Jennifer Ruiz said. “We didn’t get to do Thanksgiving, and [David Jr.] had a birthday, and we had to do it [in Chicago].”
Noah’s parents had him fitted for an electric wheelchair and even prepared to have ramps installed at their home in Sycamore and at school.
But Noah had other plans.
“He was just like, ‘I’m gonna do this. I got this,’ ” Jennifer Ruiz recalled. “And he did. He’s just so determined.”
Now back at school, with shorter days to start slow, Noah has weekly therapy at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, and is even looking forward to playing youth baseball again.
“We’ve been watching YouTube videos,” Jennifer Ruiz said. “To show him that there are athletes out there who only have one arm and are successful.”