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Bracing through pain: 12-year-old Ponder boy finds relief for his clubfeet

PONDER — Lisa Morrow will never forget the question her son asked her two years ago.

“Mommy, can we cut my feet off and put fake ones on?”

Twelve-year-old Jake Morrow was born with two clubfeet, a congenital condition in which the feet turn inward and downward, creating pain and complications with walking.

The shooting pain he feels with every step never has gone away, even though Jake has undergone several surgeries and treatments in Texas and elsewhere in the country. One surgery Jake had when he was 7 did nothing to improve his condition, even though the surgeon removed muscle tissue and relocated a ligament — all he was left with were scars.

Lisa was stunned when Jake pleaded for amputation and prosthetics, and she was unsure whether her son — and she — could undergo such a dramatic procedure.

Two and a half years later, when Jake’s condition exacerbated to the point of emotional trauma and tears, Lisa conceded and began research on amputation and prosthetic limbs.

She has coped with her pain in her never-ending search for the right doctor.

“As a mom, when you go to a doctor, you think you have faith and the surgery is a failure, even though you didn’t do the surgery yourself, you feel like you failed your child. And that’s a hard thing,” Lisa said. “You think it’s going to turn out great — he goes through all that pain, is in a wheelchair and ends up not being able to do anything.”

Heart of a champion

Jake has fought the pain with all his might.

The seventh-grader at Ponder Junior High School has loved sports since his grandmother Carolyn Gillespie introduced him to the Dallas Cowboys. He grew to love basketball when he started hooping with his buddies in second grade in an extracurricular basketball program.

Jake crawled across the hardwood and drain baskets on his knees when the pain caused him to collapse.

Heather Peterson, Jake’s former sixth-grade social studies teacher and his next-door neighbor, has seen Jake struggle yet persist on and off the court.

“I have a vivid memory of him playing in a youth league game a few years ago and watching him struggle just to run up and down the court,” Peterson said. “It hurt to watch him play because it looked so painful. I am in awe of his amazing attitude and determination.”

Jake missed nearly a month of school last year when he underwent another surgery and had to maneuver in a wheelchair. Peterson recalls being impressed by Jake’s poise despite the mounting pressure from school and his condition.

He joined his junior high’s football team in seventh grade. He practiced for a week until he couldn’t bear his feet’s pain anymore. He then served as the team’s manager.

One of his coaches convinced him to try to play again once basketball season came. Jake played in five games until the pain rose again from one morning drill. He had to call his grandmother to pick him up from school and missed a week.

“He couldn’t run. It was just too painful for him,” Gillespie said.

Bracing for breakthrough

When Lisa combed through online support groups for people affected by clubfeet, one user urged her to look into a potential solution to all of Jake’s problems before they committed to amputation.

The ExoSym is a leg brace developed by a prosthetist who wanted to reduce pain and restore mobility for active-duty and retired military members without requiring amputation. People born with clubfeet have found use for it since its creation in 2009.

Lisa pitched this to Jake as an alternative to amputation. He agreed to try it out, and they flew out to Hanger Clinic in Seattle, the only location where patients can visit Dr. Ryan Blanck, the creator of the ExoSym leg brace.

In only a week, the facility developed a demo rig for Jake after casting and molding his legs.

Jake walked, paced and even — to his doctor’s disapproval — ran.

“It was kind of weird at first because it felt like I was walking on air. I couldn’t feel anything for some reason,” Jake said about his first time trying the ExoSym braces. “Normally, every time I take a step, I feel pain.”

Lisa cried tears of joy as Jake pounded his foot on the ground. He felt no pain in his feet for the first time in his life and had instantly enhanced mobility.

That long-term mobility comes at a cost of about $30,000 for both leg braces.

Although Lisa’s insurance policy covers leg braces that aren’t electronically powered, her insurance company amended its policy in January not to cover the ExoSym leg brace.

As a result, Jake’s surrounding family and friends within the Ponder community started an online fundraising campaign to pay for the braces that would save Jake from resorting to amputation. The campaign has raised more than $15,000 toward its goal of $30,000.

A bake sale from 8 a.m. until goods run out is scheduled for Saturday at Bev’s car wash, 1003 FM156 in Ponder, to raise more money.

The ExoSym braces mean no more pain in Jake’s feet. They also mean more time on the court with his pals who want him in the heat of competition.

Immediately after the bake sale, Jake and his mom will return to Seattle to get braces for Jake to keep.

He will stay for a week and undergo physical therapy for walking in his braces. He likely will return in years to come for larger braces as he grows.

The results are well worth it for the 12-year-old athlete.

“I just felt amazing,” Jake said. “I could definitely get used to that.”

MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845.

FEATURED PHOTO: Jake Morrow poses for a portrait Saturday at his home in Ponder. The seventh-grader was born with clubfeet. His condition has apparently worsened over the years, and he recently begged his mother to amputate his feet due to the sheer pain he has been in, according to a GoFundMe set up by family and friends. The GoFundMe campaign's goal is to raise money for expensive leg braces that would help rectify his condition without amputation.
Jeff Woo/DRC