Gianfranco Bruno of Ottawa is eight years old and, like about 1 Canadian child in 500, he has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that causes him spasms, involuntary movement, and muscle stiffness. To get around, Gianfranco was long dependent on canes or a walker, but his father Demetrio was determined to help him achieve greater independence.

In August of 2015, Gianfranco underwent a surgical procedure known as Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy. The surgery, performed in Montreal, aims to reduce spasms and improve muscle function by selectively eliminating the nerve fibres that are causing the problems, while leaving healthy nerves in place. Some children are able to walk with assistance prior to surgery, while some only stand with assistance. They must meet established criteria and are carefully evaluated. After five days of recovery at partner hospital, Montreal Children’s Hospital, Gianfranco was transferred to Shriners Hospitals for Children — Canada for a six-week inpatient recovery and rehabilitation program incorporating physiotherapy, occupational therapy, orthotics, and strength-building activities. The program also includes extensive learning and play time, normalizing the experience for children like Gianfranco.

“Instantly we were made to feel right at home,” says Demetrio. “The whole staff, from the therapists and nurses to the maintenance crew, cooks, and custodians, all took a genuine interest in Gianfranco. It was very heartwarming and I am forever grateful.”

The staff at Shriners understand that surgery and rehabilitation can be frightening for both children and parents, but they also know that the results can melt that fear away in an instant. “Being a part of the transformation and watching parents watching their children progress is an amazing privilege,” says Betty Darsaklis, an occupational therapist at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Canada. “When they see their child all of a sudden realize they can walk, that they can do something they couldn’t before, or that they can go faster on the tricycle than mommy or daddy, it’s like you can see a light go on.”

At the core of successful recovery is an environment where everyone feels safe, cared for, and empowered to make the effort to grow stronger. “The goal of the surgery and the therapy afterwards is to help the kids become as functional and independent as possible,” says Corinne Mercier, a physiotherapist at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Canada. “When Gianfranco first came in, he was walking with a walker and canes, and now he’s walking all on his own. It’s amazing.”

Gianfranco’s not just walking, he’s climbing stairs unassisted and even ice skating. And he has every reason to believe that his mobility will continue to improve in the years to come.