'She's a real fighter': Amber Athwal learning to walk again

A six-year-old Edmonton girl who suffered brain damage after a dental procedure in 2016 is once again defying expectations and learning to walk again.

20 months after a brain injury from a dental procedure, Amber's progress has 'amazed everyone,' says dad

Amber Athwal at the Glenrose Hospital where she is literally taking the next steps on her road to recovery. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

A six-year-old Edmonton girl left with brain damage after a dental procedure in 2016 is once again defying expectations and learning to walk again.

Amber Athwal was all smiles Monday as her father wheeled her into the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, where she's trained over the past six weeks on a device known as a Lokomat.

It's basically a large treadmill that supports her body weight while robotic legs guide the movements of her own legs.

Amber giggled often as she and her physiotherapists pretended to cut a plastic pink cake on a tray in front of her as a way to improve her arm mobility.

She stuck out her tongue with a prolonged "Ewww" after one physiotherapist offered her a piece, before erupting into laughter. 

Amber Athwal recovering from brain injury, learning to walk

5 years ago
Duration 1:23
Amber Athwal, 6, is recovering after suffering permanent brain damage following a dental extraction in 2016.

"Amber's progression amazed everyone," said her father, Ramandeep Athwal. "All the doctors — nobody expected these things from Amber. But she's a real fighter. She's shown really good progress from Day 1. And we are very positive about it."

Nobody expected these things from Amber. But she's a real fighter. She's shown really good progress from Day 1.- Ramandeep Athwal

In February, the Alberta Dental Association and College found Dr. William Mather guilty of failing to provide appropriate care during Amber's tooth extraction on Sept. 7, 2016.

Amber, who was four at the time, went into cardiac arrest while she was recovering from the general anesthesia. She suffered permanent brain damage because of oxygen deprivation.

But the family chose to focus on Amber's future, pouring in as much time, effort and money as possible into her recovery so their daughter wouldn't suffer her whole life, her dad told CBC News Monday.

"We don't think much about what happened," said Athwal. "We only think about the future. We want to make Amber's future as normal as we can. So we have given everything, the money, time, everything to Amber to get her back."
Amber Athwal giggles and jokes with staff at the Glenrose Hospital during her physiotherapy. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

Athwal said initially they were told their little girl wouldn't be able to see, listen or talk again and would need to be tube-fed.

She was still using a feeding tube when she was released from the Glenrose in January 2017 and couldn't hold up her head on her own. But progress was swift.

Less than a year and a half later,  Amber is sitting on her own, can use words in both English and Punjabi to explain what she needs and to call to people, including her "Papa."

She's drinking and eating again and butter chicken is her favourite.

But there are still painful reminders. Athwal said his four-year-old daughter often asks why Amber is now "like this."

"I know [Amber] feels the pain — what she suffered, the pain her parents have suffered. I know that she has questions in her mind, but she can't ask us properly,"  confided Athwal, before quickly focusing on the positive again. 
Ramandeep Athwal said his daughter's joyfulness encourages them to keep going. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

On Monday, Amber shook hands with the CBC crew at the Glenrose and showed off her pink nail polish, her wide smile revealing the gap where her four front teeth are still missing from the 2016 procedure.

Athwal said they have since devoted every moment they could to Amber. He credits much of her progress to his wife who is constantly working on her rehabilitation but also to Amber —  who wants to walk, run, learn and "play with the other kids" — for all the effort she makes.

In July, Amber started private physiotherapy, as well as speech and occupational therapies, but it's not cheap or affordable for the family. Their lawyers are footing the bill which runs as high as $8,000 a month, said Athwal.

Athwal had to leave his daughter's side full-time and return to his job as a dispatcher, where he still has time to drive Amber to her various therapies while fielding work emails and phone calls.

The family has filed a $26.5-million lawsuit against Mather, who denies any wrongdoing. The allegations have not been proven in court.

"By [getting] funding for the therapies, Amber's therapies, I think it will help to get the wound healed and make Amber's future better," said Athwal. 
Ramandeep Athwal praised his daughter's hard work and eagerness to engage in her therapies. (CBC/Scott Neufeld)

​As Amber wraps up her sixth week of training at the Glenrose, Athwal is hopeful an assessment at the end of the month will lead to more physiotherapy this summer. He says it's his daughter's joy that keeps him motivated.

"She's always happy, she's always smiling," said Athwal. "And that's what motivates, keeps us happy as well. That even going through with this thing — she's happy. Why can't we be happy?"




Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca