From Wheelchair to Walking

thumb_367dd8a1f614cebSPRINGFIELD, Mo.  – It may have been one of the lowest times in 9-year-old Sarah Hawkins’ battle with spina bifida. She had been recently confined to a wheelchair and to make matters worse, it nearly overturned during Grandparents’ Day at school.

“It was so tiring trying to get around in that thing, and then I thought it was going to flip,” Sarah said. “Also, I couldn’t play with my friends that much anymore – I basically just sat.”

Sarah was dealing with the effects of something commonly known as “club foot.” Patients with spina bifida have some muscles that work, but others that don’t. The imbalance eventually made Sarah’s feet turn in, which made walking nearly impossible.  She’d spent about a year in a wheelchair before she met Mercy Kids pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jeremy Onnen.

“We were at a point where we really needed to see someone who specialized in kids,” said Sarah’s mom, Gina Hawkins. “We were prepared to drive four hours to Kansas City, but then we heard Dr. Onnen was coming to town. We waited for him, and we’re so glad we did.”

Instead of a four-hour trip, the Hawkins family drove an hour and a half to Springfield. Dr. Onnen knew right away he could help Sarah. “She’s an amazing girl who brightens the room whether she walks or rolls in,” he said. “I knew we could widen that already infectious smile.”

Sarah’s surgery was scheduled, and while straightening Sarah’s feet wasn’t the easiest procedure, Dr. Onnen says the real work came afterwards. “The surgery is one thing, but Sarah had to have the motivation to get her strength back. She also had therapists and her parents working hard to help her start walking again.”

Her first steps on her own came about two months after surgery. “I hadn’t let her walk by herself yet,” explained Gina. “But at an appointment, Dr. Onnen asked her to hop off the table and take off across the room barefoot. I about passed out, but she was perfect. She was tickled to death, and I was bawling!”

Sarah’s therapy continues, with exercises and stretches at home every single day. But all the hard work is really paying off. Sarah is back to playing with her friends and being a regular little girl. “It was so fun when I got to get up and walk and now I get to do almost everything!”

While Sarah could need further surgeries in the future, Dr. Onnen says there’s also a possibility her feet could stay right where they’re supposed to. “He just did a little miracle with her,” said Gina. “She’s more independent, for sure.”

Despite the obvious benefits of surgery, Dr. Onnen insists Sarah gave him the real gift and that she is the true miracle. “One of the hardest things for me as a doctor is feeling the pain of someone who has a problem I can’t fix. Then you get a girl like Sarah who walks into your office and you’re able to be a part of her improvement and you realize how wonderful life can be. You come out of the office the day she comes in with a love for life that she plants in your soul. If I am completely honest, those moments are more of a miracle for me than they are for any of the patients that I treat.”


Mercy Springfield Communities is comprised of Mercy Hospital Springfield, an 914-bed referral center; five regional hospitals in Lebanon, Aurora, Cassville, Mountain View, and Berryville, Ark.; Mercy Clinic, a 500-plus physician clinic with 70 locations throughout the region. It is part of Mercy, the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves millions annually. Mercy includes 33 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, three rehab hospitals and one orthopedic hospital, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit


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