When her son's arm went limp, she knew he didn't have the flu

CHEO has confirmed two cases of a rare disease that causes polio-like paralysis in children, including Rachelle Downton's four-year-old son.

2 cases of rare polio-like disease diagnosed at CHEO since the summer

Rachelle Downton though her son had a flu when he first caught a fever. Little did she know he had contracted a rare polio-like disease that caused paralysis in his limbs. (Darren Major/CBC)

When her four-year-old son Xavier contracted a fever over the Labour Day weekend, Rachelle Downton thought he just had the flu, but that changed when his right arm went limp.

"All of a sudden he kept waking me up for help. When he was turning around in his bed his right arm wasn't following him," Downton told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Rare, polio-like paralysis in Ottawa

CBC News Ottawa

3 years ago
CHEO's Dr. Sunita Venkateswaran explains what it is and what to watch out for. 0:52

Xavier had contracted a rare polio-like disease called acute flaccid paralysis. It affects a part of the spinal cord called the anterior horn, which helps control movement.

Despite being non-contagious, the disease is experiencing a surge in the U.S., where there have been more than 60 cases confirmed in the last month.

The disease primarily affects children, though doctors are not sure why, nor do they know what causes the ailment and why so many cases are being reported now.

There are now cases occurring in Canada, including two at CHEO, of which Xavier is one.

Downton said she was utterly confused that weekend as to what was happening to her son. Before his arm went limp he had few other symptoms and had been eating well, she said.

"It's that strange in-between where you're not sure what to do," she said.

The day after his arm went numb, Downton brought Xavier to a clinic, where they recommended he go to CHEO. By the time they had left the clinic he refused to walk because of the pain.

"By the time we got to CHEO I was carrying him like a baby."

Unusual diagnosis

Doctors went through series of tests on Xavier to rule out more common ailments before realizing he had the acute paralysis.

"It's not something that would immediately come into our minds but it's something that can quickly be diagnosed," said CHEO's Dr. Sunita Venkateswaran on CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Xavier was seen by several teams of doctors trying to diagnose and then treat him, Downton said.

"The first three weeks it was non-stop — like a rodeo."

Xavier is now in physiotherapy and is expected to make a near full recovery, but it will take at least a year, Downton said.

Some movement is returning to his legs, but doctors are not sure about his right arm, which remains limp.

Despite what he is going through, Downton said Xavier is in good spirits.

"He still finds ways of making people laugh," she said.

"It's amazing what a four-year-old can do."