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UT Southwestern experts help paralyzed college student walk again

Two years ago, a former high school athlete was at the peak of her college career when a rare autoimmune disease robbed her of her vision and the ability to walk. Today, 21-year-old Kiara Connley is making amazing progress in her recovery, after UT Southwestern neurologists identified what others missed.

{Video opens with a tight shot of Kiara Connley on-camera talking.}

Kiara Connley: I’m a fighter. I’m not going to stop fighting.

{Video fads to black and then photos of Kiara during her college career appear as she continues talking. Music plays during the entirety of the video.} 

My name is Kiara Connley. I’m 21, and I’m from Dallas, Texas.  In June 2016, I lost my vision in my left eye and from there, my muscles just started getting weaker and weaker.

{Footage of Connley in physical therapy is shown before she appears back on-camera.}

I couldn’t feel anything from like my chest and down here. I couldn’t control like my bladder or my bowel function. It was just really scary.

{Connley grabs a tissue and blots away tears as her voice quivers with emotion. Cell-phone video of her in a wheelchair then plays.}

The doctors I was seeing before I came to UT Southwestern wanted me to get an MRI and when the MRI results came back, they saw lesions in my spine. They ended up diagnosing me with MS.

{Video of Connley’s mom holding her goddaughter is followed by an outdoor beauty shot of UT Southwestern’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital.}

Somebody told my mom that there was a good MS clinic out at UT Southwestern which made me take all my care out here and that’s when they told me I had NMO. 

{Dr. Jennifer Yang begins to speak. She’s an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation.}

Jennifer Yang, M.D.: NMO which is neuromyelitis optica so it’s a disease that affects your spinal cord. That’s where the neuromyelitis comes from and the optica which is a disease that also effects your eyes.

{Dr. Benjamin Greenberg is heard under additional cell-phone video of Connley during her remarkable recovery. Dr. Greenberg is an associate professor of neurology & neurotherapeutics. He’s also the director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center.}

Benjamin Greenberg, M.D.: It’s not uncommon for our neuromyelitis optica patients to be misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Not only do the therapies that work for MS not work for NMO. Some of them can actually make NMO worse. 

Connley: The misdiagnosis from the doctors before I came to UT Southwestern is basically what saved my life because if I was still getting the treatment that they were giving me, I don’t know where I would be right now.

{More cell-phone video of Connley regaining her strength during physical therapy is shown as she continues to speak.}

Connley: I’m high school, I was on the volleyball and track team. And all I knew how to do was to work hard and I had that drive so when I became paralyzed that’s all I wanted to do is keep doing what I had to do to get back on my feet.

{Video fads to black and then resumes with cell-phone video documenting some of Connley’s first steps taken during her rehabilitation. A voice is heard enthusiastically saying “Girl! Those are good steps too!”}

Yang: First of all, UT Southwestern is an academic institution so we tend to see the Zebras. The uncommon cases. She had a double whammy because she had the neurological disease plus a rheumatologic disease. I think one of the factors in Kiara’s wonderful recovery is the fact that she was able to see so many specialists in one spot. 

{Cell-phone video documenting Connley’s recovery continues. She is shown using various devices, some of which are incredibly high-tech, to help her get back on her feet.}

Greenberg: There is no one group that is going to solve these issues for patients. We require a collaborative from the scientists through the clinicians and we require them to talk to each other at a level that doesn’t happen in a lot of institutions. 

Yang: Even if we had all this expertise, it really was up to Kiara to be motivated enough.

{Jeanne Vinson begins speaking on-camera. She’s a neurologic physical therapist who worked closely with Connley and helped her regain the strength NMO stole from her.}

Jeanne Vinson: We would just do over ground weight shifting with a rolling walker.  We progressed to one crutch so she was doing well there, but we still needed to increase her cadence or velocity of gate so then we started to use the Exo-skeleton.

Connley: It was scary because it was like I was a baby again. I couldn’t walk, but I was doing it.

Vinson: She just slowly progressed to not using her braces and present day, she doesn’t use her braces or any assisted device to walk.

Connley: I want to work as a physical therapist at UT Southwestern because I want to help others the way they helped me. They helped me get my life back.

{Video ends a photo of the physical medicine and rehabilitation team at UT Southwestern. Vinson is then seen saying ‘high-five my friend’ as the pair do just that in the physical therapy gym where their friendship began.}