Everett Bradford is as fearless as you might expect a 4-year-old boy to be. On a recent afternoon at a local coffee shop, he climbs energetically across chairs while his mom, Mandy Bradford, talks about her son and his complicated history.
When other shop patrons and staff are nearby, he smiles and says hi.
They can’t help but respond in kind. His big blue eyes and impish grin pull them in.
But if they were to look closer, they’d notice the multi-colored braces on his legs, starting just below his knees. They might notice he holds onto a table or chair to stand.
Everett can’t walk on his own. He was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition where an opening in his spine never fully closed and caused nerve damage. He has little feeling from his knees down. His feet, clad in Thomas the Train sneakers – he loves Thomas – can’t move on their own.
“He doesn’t let it slow him down,” said Mandy of his physical disabilities. “He loves his walker. I found people respond better to him now that he’s in the walker than when he was in the wheelchair.”
13 surgeries in four years
While Everett seems to be flourishing now, a difficult medical history in his four short years has left its mark.
He was also born with hydrocephalus and Arnold-Chiari brain malformation, and has some sensory-processing problems. His first surgery, to repair his back, happened when he was 12 hours old. Since then, he has had 12 more surgeries and spent months in and out of hospitals.
The partial paralysis because of his spina bifida means he isn’t able to control his bowels and will have to use a catheter the rest of his life. He can get overheated easily because of medication, tires quickly and has especially sensitive skin.
Loud noises upset him, so his mom keeps a pair of headphones on hand just in case.
“Even though he’s mentally typical for a 4-year-old, he does process things differently,” said Mandy. “He’s very empathetic. He can’t tell when you’re pretending to be sad, so if you pretend to cry, he’ll cry, too.”
A special kind of dog
The little boy who loves trains and construction trucks, books and music, stays busy.
He participates in the Dance Your Dreams! dance program Merrimack Hall and plays t-ball with the Miracle League. He attends preschool at Mill Creek Elementary, has physical and occupational therapy, and even takes summer art classes at the Huntsville Museum of Art. The family attends Asbury Church in Madison.
“Disabilities aren’t the end of the world,” said Mandy. “That’s what I always tell people.”
Because she wants her son to lead as active a life as he can, Mandy began looking into the possibility of getting him a mobility service dog.
“We’re working on getting Everett to use canes instead of the walker, and the special harness on a service dog is something he can hold onto while he’s working with canes,” she said. “Bending down is very hard. If he ever dropped a cane, the dog can pick it up. If he falls, the dog can go to him and lay down to help him up, or alert someone that he needs help.”
A service dog could also pick up fallen objects, and even wear a bag that could hold catheters and other medical supplies so Everett wouldn’t have to carry them.
But getting a service dog isn’t a quick or easy process. For one thing, insurance does not cover trained service dogs, which typically cost around $10,000.
A fast wait time for a service dog, said Mandy, is 26-32 months. Those dogs must be purchased from a training organization.
To receive a “free” service dog from a non-profit organization, the waiting list is typically 3-5 years and often the recipient is required to be at least 7 or 10 years old before he can even get on the list. Many times, the family must agree to raise money for the organization in return for receiving the dog.
Mandy and her husband researched their options and applied to an organization where they’ll need to pay for the dog in installments, in the hopes they can get one for him within the next few years.
To help with the cost, they launched a GoFundMe site called 2 Braces 4 Paws to raise money for a dog for Everett.
When Everett hears mention of the dog, his face lights up.
“I want to name him Woofster!” he exclaims. Mandy said she also wants Everett, an only child, to experience the love and devotion of his own dog.
Mandy said some people are uncomfortable when they see Everett’s braces, or the halting way that he walks. A service dog could help smooth interactions and friend-making between Everett and other people, and make them feel more at ease in approaching him.
“I’d rather people interact with us,” she said. “I’d rather them ask what may seem like rude questions than pretend like we don’t exist.
“He is just a typical, active, fearless 4-year-old boy who loves to have fun and learn,” she said.
“Having a disability is all about perspective, and finding a great support system is key. Whether it be friends, family, a church family or an organization – for us the Spina Bifida Association of Alabama – lots of love and prayers can get you through anything.”
By: Anna Claire Vollers