Four-year-old Jaelyn Van’t Land darted across her family’s living room, chased by her 5-year-old sister, Mikaela.
Giggles filled the room.
“How about you hide and I count?” Jaelyn said, jumping behind the couch in her Wonder Woman T-shirt.
You’d never guess this live wire of a preschooler wasn’t expected to crawl, let alone walk and run.
Jaelyn was born in May 2015 with myelomeningocele, a type of spina bifida in which the bones of the spine do not completely form.
She had her first spinal surgery at 4 months.
Even after surgery, the odds she would someday walk weren’t good, said her mom, Abbey Van’t Land.
Spina bifida can cause irreparable weakness in the legs. In addition, Jaelyn was born with a clubfoot disorder in her left foot.
Abbey gets emotional talking about Jaelyn’s first steps.
“I’m sorry—it was so cool when she did it,” she said, tearing up.
“I remember her crawling even more vividly than walking. … Because we were told she most likely wouldn’t crawl. So when she started to crawl, we were like—maybe she could walk. So that was almost more exciting.”
Jaelyn started walking at 18 months, only slightly later than the typical age. But as she grew, the weakness in her feet and legs made walking a challenge.
The Van’t Lands visited Lisa Maskill, MD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Dr. Maskill, who had first seen Jaelyn as a baby, prescribed orthotic foot-and-ankle braces to keep the toddler’s feet straight.
By age 2, she needed more than braces.
“She grew, her muscles got tighter and she started having curving of her foot that prevented her from being able to wear a brace, and started hindering her ability to walk,” Dr. Maskill said.
Wanting to avoid surgery as long as possible, Dr. Maskill put Jaelyn through a couple rounds of serial casting. This involved placing a cast on her foot and lower leg, leaving it on for 10 days and then replacing it with a new cast.
By repeating this process a few times, the feet gradually realigned enough to support her body, as long as she wore ankle braces.
As Jaelyn grew, however, the muscles in her left leg continued to pull her foot out of alignment.
“When she wasn’t in her brace, she almost, like, walked on her ankle bone, it was so turned in,” Abbey said. “Over time it got to the point we couldn’t even get her in a brace.”
By age 2 1/2, Jaelyn needed corrective surgery. Dr. Maskill moved one of the muscles in her foot from one side to the other, causing it to pull in the other direction. After two minor follow-up procedures, Jaelyn is doing well.
These days, her orthotic braces, worn inside her shoes, carry the theme of Wonder Woman—her favorite character.
Neurologically and orthopedically, Jaelyn is holding steady. If she’s lucky, her doctors can hold off on future spine and foot surgeries until her early teens.
Socially and intellectually, she’s ahead of the game.
Last summer, the Van’t Lands’ longtime daycare provider published a picture book telling Jaelyn’s story. The book, “Warrior Princess,” compares Jaelyn’s strength and bravery to that of her father, Calvin Van’t Land, an Army staff sergeant who has been deployed during much of Jaelyn’s young life.
At an October book signing, Jaelyn autographed copies of the book right alongside the author.
“She is an amazing, strong kid. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up—that’s what she tells everybody,” said Darcy Reister, LPN, a pediatric orthopedic nurse who has known Jaelyn since her first visit to Dr. Maskill’s office.
“She’s very smart.”
Smart and determined, according to her mom.
“My husband and I, we’ve just been really big on ‘Whatever she wants to try, we let her try.’ Because, I don’t know, what if she can do it? Who am I to say that she shouldn’t try?” Abbey said.
A case in point: Last summer, Jaelyn and Mikaela’s aunt asked if she could take the girls to a children’s rock-climbing gym. Abbey and Calvin agreed, not knowing how much Jaelyn could do.
And she did it—she climbed.
“She doesn’t want to let anything stop her,” Abbey said. “She will figure out a way to do what she’s determined to do.”
Kids like Jaelyn—smart, stubborn, buoyant—are great role models for other kids with limb differences, Dr. Maskill said.
“I can’t say enough good about her and her family,” she said. “She’s an awesome kid.”