Cerebral Palsy Research Network Blog

Archive for CP Stories

CP Stories: Researcher and PT Kristie Bjornson

“Physical Therapists need to know the tools to use to help children with CP”Kristie Bjornson, PT, PhD

Family ties and adversity sent physical therapist and well-established researcher Kristie Bjornson on her path to improving strength training for children with cerebral palsy.

Kristie Bjornson was in middle school when her older brother Keith endured a severe spinal cord injury after a diving accident. Helping him ignited her initial passion for physical therapy.

But it was her brother’s wife, Sherry, who has Spastic Diplegia CP, who opened her eyes to the challenges of the CP community.  Bjornson was drawn to learn more, and during her PT training in St. Paul, Minnesota, she began an internship working with children with cerebral palsy. It was the start of a 20-year career working with children with CP.

In 2000, Bjornson decided to go back to graduate school to expand her knowledge further.

“I realized physical therapists didn’t have enough research to know what tools to use in the toolbox to help children with CP,” she told CPRN. “I am a much more evidence-based clinician today. Presently, I have National Institutes for Health funding for three trials exploring varying treatments to help children with CP walk and move about the world easier.”

Bjornson is based at Seattle Children’s Hospital & Research Institute, where she is Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Rehabilitation Medicine, appointed by the University of Washington. She spends one day a week working as a physical therapist, and the other four days are spent on her research projects at the Research Institute.

The goal of her research is to maximize how efficiently a person with CP can walk. Her first project, a two-year study on orthotics, focused on researching the best orthotics and shoe combinations. The second project is a five-year study, a home-based program for elementary school children aged four to six, which is now in its third year.

The study of 72 children involves a standard treadmill being set up in each child’s home with a therapist overseeing forty sessions of treadmill training over eight to ten weeks. The study compares two different types of treadmill exercise: traditional vs. short burst interval.

During the traditional treadmill sessions, children walk at a steady pace for thirty minutes, with speed increasing a little each time. During the short burst interval training, the child walks at a comfortable pace for thirty seconds and then begins alternating with walking faster for thirty-second bursts (fast, slow, fast, slow). Pilot project data shows the latter technique to be more beneficial in helping children with CP walk better.

Total Gym

Bjornson’s third project has just entered its fourth year and features middle grade and high school-aged children and teenagers. The five-year study uses a piece of equipment called a “Total Gym” system.

This study compares strength training with a traditional steady-paced method to power training using the short burst interval method. Pilot data shows the power training combined with short burst interval treadmill training to help this age group walk better.

As her work continues, Bjornson says she would like to see more clinicians use evidence-based practice and a national electronic health record established. She believes these two things would make it easier for researchers to contact people with CP, their parents, or caregivers to improve treatment and research rather than the current model, which the provider controls.

“Doing research with persons with CP is not black and white because no two people present exactly the same way,” she explains. “We’re beginning to chip away at the iceberg we can see above the water.”

As an active member of the CP Research Network, Bjornson says she appreciates how the network has brought persons with CP, parents, and caregivers to the table with providers and researchers for the first time.

“The honestly and resilience of the children and families I get to work with is why I feel so fortunate to do this work,” she adds. “They are just amazing and have taught me so much. They are the reason I chose to pursue my research training after practicing for many years.”

CP Stories: Brittany Lopez

“Ethan knows he’s different and he’s really happy and content.”


Toddler Ethan Lopez was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy (CP) and dystonia at the age of two. Today, his mother Brittany, 31, shares her joy at seeing her son take everything in his stride…

Just like many parents with a young child, Brittany Lopez, and her husband Esteban, juggle demanding full-time jobs with caring for their three-year-old son. 

Yet life for the Lopez family, who live in Austin, Texas, can be more challenging than for most. On top of the usual toddler chaos and antics, they must factor in a multitude of therapies for their son each day.

Little Ethan was first diagnosed with quadriplegia spastic cerebral palsy and dystonia after his parents noticed he was slow to reach his developmental milestones as a baby. The determined toddler can now take a few steps using a walker and his family is working hard to help him progress.  

“Ethan isn’t able to walk or stand independently and while he knows he’s different he’s really happy and content,” explains Brittany. “He’ll likely have his first surgery this year at three or four-years-old but can self-propel his wheelchair, crawl, and sit independently.  He has an adaptive bike and enjoys riding around with his friends. He loves to play, wrestle, and be goofy.”

Prior to his pre-school day, Ethan undergoes therapy and rotates between physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy four days a week. The family’s day often begins at 5:30 a.m. While Brittany carries out her duties as a corporate controller for veterinary clinics and Esteban goes to work at a mortgage company, Ethan attends an Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) preschool program in Austin.  In the afternoons, the couple balance work commitments with more care for Ethan and ensure the little boy has a good balance of treatment and free time to play.

“He is into cars and books and a TV show called Puppy Dog Pals,” says Brittany. “He even has a stuffed toy of a little character from the show called Lollie who has a wheelchair. We know life may be challenging for Ethan but being part of the CP Research Network has really offered our family a lifeline. I would encourage anyone in our position to be active in the network. We are doing everything in our power to give him the most fulfilling life – whatever it looks like for him.”

CP Stories: The “Can Do” John Borland

“You can’t expect a group of people to respect you more than you respect yourself.” — John Borland

Retired health inspector John Borland, 68, has fought stigma and the feeling of being underestimated throughout his life with cerebral palsy. Today he shares how a relentless ‘can-do’ approach to living has helped him meet his full potential. 

John Borland with his family
John Borland with his family

John Borland can clearly remember the first time he realized he was ‘different’ from others. 

“I was about two years old,” he says. “The short story is that I was lying on our living room floor playing with my father. I watched him get up from his stomach on to his knees and then on to his feet. I tried several times to do what my father did – to be like him – but each time I fell over. After several tries, I knew I was not the same as others.”  

Around the same time, John’s parents, Samuel and Patricia, sought a diagnosis, learning that their son likely had spastic cerebral palsy and could be ‘slow to develop’.  Under the care of orthopedic surgeons at Hamot Hospital in Erie, PA, he was able to learn to walk. During a time where there was often the assumption that children with cerebral palsy were ‘mentally retarded’ John was also required to take a cognitive test to attend a mainstream elementary school.  

“It was ingrained in me that I was not the same, not as good as able-bodied people,” he says. “I was largely ignored by the other kids in school, and sometimes I was bullied. I had to fight to break that mold to attend college.” 

 John graduated from Edinboro State College (currently Edinboro University of Pennsylvania) in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology.   

After initially attending graduate school, John was forced to change routes and began to hunt for permanent employment. He found some temporary work but faced many rejections – some he believes stemmed from fear of his disability.   

It hit him hard but he found solace traveling to Alaska with his friend Skip and his family. During the four-month trip, his friends, as they always did, encouraged him to do everything they did – canoeing, hiking, and cross-country skiing.   

“They never looked at me as disabled,” he says. “It made me realize I didn’t want to be marked as exceptional for being disabled. I want to be marked as exceptional. You can’t expect a group of people to respect you more than you respect yourself.”  

Back home in Clarendon, John met with case worker, determined to fight in his corner and who, after five years, found a position with Pennsylvania State government. Throughout his 33-year career, John remained passionate about his work, among other duties, initially conducting health inspections at restaurants and other public facilities. Later as a program specialist, John worked to implement and facilitate drinking water staff training as well as contributing to state and federal  efforts concerning drinking water regulation and facility improvement. John also played a major part in developing Pennsylvania’s storage tank and biosolids programs and with facilitating municipal management of home wastewater systems.  

In his spare time, John embraced his wanderlust, travelling to a total of 43 states throughout the U.S. where he enjoyed adventures hiking, camping, canoeing, skiing or simply taking in the peace of nature. Sadly, he still suffered moments of doubt, even contemplating suicide, and feared he would not find companionship.  

“As a young adult, I couldn’t find acceptance or someone to want to be with me romantically,” he shares. “This grew to be a major source of darkness and trouble for me.” 

With difficulty, John pushed through his depression and worked hard to gain a promotion, relocating to Harrisburg, PA. It was there he was matched with his future wife, Judy, by a dating agency. 

“I forced myself to call her and begin a conversation,” he recalls. “I had to tell her that I was disabled and I figured when I did the call would be over. To my great surprise (as this had never ever happened to me before), she said, “I don’t care. When do you want to get together?” 

The couple became engaged and married in 1990. They have two children, Judy’s son Troy from her previous marriage and Joshua, who was born in 1992. Since then, the family has been blessed with two grandchildren.  

As a passionate contributor to the CP Research Network community, John now wishes to help young people with cerebral palsy to have the confidence to achieve their hopes and dreams. 

He adds: “We need to open the eyes of a great many people so they can see who a disabled individual can truly be and what they can achieve.”