Elijah Gauthier, 3, and Rick Hoyt, 53, have a lot in common. Both are first-born sons. Both have smiles that light up a room. Both love running with their fathers.
And both have faced incredible challenges. Elijah and Rick were diagnosed with cerebral palsy early in life. They can’t walk. They can’t speak.
When Rick was born, his parents were told, “He’s a vegetable. Put him in an institution.” They refused. Since then, Rick and his father Dick Hoyt have inspired parents and families around the world. The father-son team has logged more than 1,100 races, with Dick pushing Rick in a specially designed running chair. Thousands of families have followed in their footsteps, connecting with their children and each other and spreading Team Hoyt’s message—“Yes You Can!”
Like Rick, Elijah had a rough start in life. He suffered brain injury during childbirth. He didn’t take his first breath until two-and-a-half minutes after birth; then he developed seizures. His parents were told he had brain damage.
“Elijah’s birth was the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. There were all sorts of emotions—happiness that our son was born, fear about how life would change with a disabled child, depression,” says Brian Gauthier, Elijah’s father.
Last year, when Elijah was 2, his parents joined Team Hoyt.
“It changed our lives,” says his mother Leah.
Caring for kids with cerebral palsy
After Elijah was born, Brian and Leah made sure to find the best care for their son. When he was 2 months old, they started bringing him to Boston Children’s Hospital, where Rick has been a patient for 45 years.
Elijah, who is legally blind and gastronomy-tube fed (nutrition is delivered directly into Elijah’s stomach via a tube inserted in his abdomen), suffers from dystonia (painful muscle spasms) and seizures. He has a team of eight doctors and received early intervention services at home until age 3.
But something was missing for Brian.
“I still wanted to do all the things a father wants to do with his son. I wanted to enjoy him on a different level,” explains Brian.
In January 2014, Leah’s father encouraged the couple to hear Dick Hoyt speak at their local library.
The Hoyt’s family life resonated with Brian.
“It hit home. Hearing about Rick’s childhood and the Hoyt’s joys and challenges was exactly what we were facing. To see what we could do was very inspiring.”
When Rick was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, families of children with severe disabilities were discouraged from integrating their children into normal activities.
“No one wanted Rick in school. They didn’t want us at restaurants,” recalls Dick. But the Hoyt family charged ahead, taking Rick and his brothers camping, swimming and sledding.
Cerebral palsy and augmentative communications
That changed everything.
Access to technology brings a new world of independence, explains John Costello, director, Boston Children’s Augmentative Communication Program. “Until this technology was available, Rick needed to rely on other people guessing or intuiting his intention. With technology, he was able to independently and authentically express himself.”
Over the next few years, Rick was admitted to public school, cheered for his beloved Boston sports teams and built new friendships.
In 1977, Rick told his father he wanted to run in a 5-mile race for a paralyzed lacrosse player. “Rick wanted him to know life goes on,” says Dick. He agreed to push his son’s wheelchair in the race.
They finished second to last. It didn’t matter.
He told his father: “When we run, I feel like I’m not handicapped.”
Team Hoyt was born.
Team Hoyt and health
Nearly 40 years later, Brian and Leah joined Team Hoyt New England and started pushing Elijah in races.
Team Hoyt transcends running; it’s a community. “To see families connect is awesome. These kids are like Rick. They’re excited to run. Their hearts are pumping, they’re laughing and having a good time,” says Dick.
“Sports and physical activity can be experienced in many different ways. It’s exhilarating for kids to participate in movement in a different way. When the Gauthiers told me about running with Team Hoyt, the whole room changed. Elijah perked up. He knew just what we were talking about,” adds Dr. Benjamin Shore, one of Elijah’s doctors and an orthopedic surgeon in Boston Children’s Orthopedic Center.
For Brian, Team Hoyt brings a sense of completion. “It’s absolutely enriched my relationship with Elijah. He loves running and so do I. My friendship with Dick is what I love the most about Team Hoyt. To have a father who knows exactly what I’m going through is priceless,” says Brian.
Rick is doing his part to make sure Elijah keeps getting the best care. He likes to nudge Brian and ask questions about Elijah. “It gives me a lot of hope that someday Elijah will be able to communicate at that level,”says Brian.
Costello reflects on how Elijah’s path to communication may differ from Rick’s. “When Rick was born, the options for communication support through Augmentative Communication were minimal, and there was very little technology available to anyone, let alone someone with significant motor impairment. Today, there is not only huge awareness of the power of technology for communication, but there is active development happening daily, incorporating both specialized technology as well as off-the-shelf popular technology to support people—regardless of motor status—to have independent access.”
Learn more about Boston Children’s Cerebral Palsy Program.