Striking a balance: Charlie’s recovery from neonatal stroke

Charlie is making progress recovering from a stroke.

“Hey, Charlie,” says Dr. Michael Rivkin as he gently dangles a small rubber ducky in front of the little boy. “Would you like this?” A wide smile breaks out across the toddler’s face. Why yes, he certainly would like that duck. He reaches and grasps at it, closing his tiny fingers around the toy.

For Charlie Strzempek, it’s nothing more than a playful act. But for his parents, Kathleen and Tom, it’s a major accomplishment. Dr. Rivkin isn’t simply offering his patient a toy. He’s testing his ability to grab and hold an object in his right hand — the side of his body affected by a neonatal stroke.

Charlie has fun at a post-stroke checkup with his mom and  Dr. Michael Rivkin

A shining ray of light

Although stroke is typically associated with older people, it’s quite common in babies: As many as 1 in 1,600 newborns experience a stroke, which is often discovered shortly after birth. For Charlie, the first sign that something might be wrong occurred during his delivery, as his heart rate began dropping. When he started having seizures in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) the following day, clinicians recommended a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

The anxiety the Strzempeks felt for their newborn son was only compounded by the results: The MRI revealed that he’d had a stroke. “We were so sad and angry,” remembers Kathleen. “We didn’t understand why this had happened to him.” It was in the NICU that they first met Dr. Rivkin, co-director of the Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It was a really stressful time, but he was like a shining ray of light to us,” she says.

Regular occupational therapy appointments keep Charlie on the move after a stroke.

A proactive approach

The following months were a rollercoaster of emotions as Charlie’s parents and clinicians did whatever they could to ensure that he had the best chance at recovery, including early interventions like physical and occupational therapy several times a week. He also pays weekly visits to the Boston Children’s satellite office in Waltham, where appointments with occupational therapist Julie Croteau often feel more like fun than work. “We want to be proactive with his care,” explains Kathleen. “But we also just want to enjoy this time and to enjoy our baby. We’re trying to strike a balance.”

That balance has been more easily achieved thanks to Charlie’s care team, according to his parents, who say they feel relieved knowing that their son’s health is in good hands. “We feel confident in Dr. Rivkin and the other clinicians,” says Kathleen. “We don’t need to use Dr. Google to question Charlie’s treatment.”

Charlie isn't letting a stroke slow him down.

Moving forward

As the Strzempeks emerge from what they term the “survival mode” of the past year, they’re also confident that Charlie’s future is bright. The little boy, who recently celebrated his first birthday — at a party attended by Dr. Rivkin — has been army crawling, learning words like “mama” and “dada” and even flirting with ladies at the grocery store. A fan of heavy metal, he loves rocking out to bands like Metallica and Pantera, and is obsessed with his big brother, Peter.

Back in the exam room, Dr. Rivkin is satisfied with the progress that Charlie continues to make. As he moves to set down the rubber hammer he’s just used to test the boy’s reflex, Charlie reaches out toward it. Still holding the rubber ducky, he takes the hammer in his other hand. “Looks like we’ve got a future neurologist,” laughs Rivkin. And Charlie keeps smiling.

Learn about the Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center.