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Kindergartener from Cumming learns to roll his own way with help from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
AJ Richardson
Kindergartener AJ Richardson fights pretend fires while donning one of his favorite costumes — his firefighter uniform. Photo courtesy of LaDonna Richardson.

Although 5-year-old Aaron “AJ” Richardson was born with ulna deficiency, meaning his forearm and hand did not fully develop, his mother and doctors at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have made sure that he knows he can do anything and be anyone he dreams of.

The fun-loving kindergartener from Cumming has visited with doctors and therapists at Children’s since he was an infant, learning to use his left arm and hand in his own way. LaDonna, his mom, said he has learned to do most things by himself and is incredibly independent thanks to his time there.

He loves to play outside, spend time with his sisters and most of all, dress up in costumes and make up characters. LaDonna said, lately, he has loved dressing in his police officer and firefighter uniforms.

“Sometimes he gets up in the morning and comes into my room with a costume on, and I’m like, ‘OK, so what are you today?’” she said, laughing.

But as AJ’s two sisters started to ride their bikes outside again, AJ struggled a little to keep up. His left arm is shorter than his right, and without a thumb on one of his hands, maneuvering the handlebars became difficult.

After a few months, LaDonna ended up reaching out to the Orthotics and Prosthetics team at Children’s where they were immediately able to help by creating a custom device for him, giving AJ that little bit of independence he needed.

LaDonna said she first asked for help after visiting AJ’s regular doctor. She asked him if there was anything Children’s might be able to do to help her little boy ride his bike, and he recommended reaching out to Dr. Colleen Coulter, an orthotist and prosthetist at Children’s.

When she called, Coulter knew immediately that she and her team at Children’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Center would be able to help. She stopped by the family’s home in Cumming on the way home from work one day to pick up AJ’s bike so they could immediately get started designing a custom prosthetic to fit his handlebars.

Children’s spokeswoman Jennifer Burkhardt said U.S. News and World Report ranked the center at Children’s as No. 10 on its list of best children’s hospitals last year, and the orthotists and prosthetists working there are used to coming up with creative solutions to help give patients a leg up when they need it.

“Those are the kinds of challenges that they solve every day -- and that they love,” Burkhardt said. “I’ve worked with them on other kids who don’t have a fully formed hand in the sense of what we think a hand looks like. There might be bones missing from the hand or maybe none of the fingers formed, and I’ve seen that team help children in that situation play violins. So they just come up with the most creative device solutions for these kinds of obstacles.”

When making a prosthetic, Coulter said they always keep two important things in mind — safety and independence. When making a device that AJ could use to ride his bike, she said the team modified a prosthetic they already had, molding it to fit the 5-year-old’s arm and bike handle.

She and two others on her team, Brian Emling and Richard Welling, added straps that allowed him to put on and take the device off by himself and also disengage from the handlebar just in case he happened to fall over.

“That was really important for us was to make sure that he would not be stuck on the handlebar with the device,” Coulter said.

After it was all completed, they invited AJ back to the hospital to “test drive” the device. They spent the next two hours working with him to work out any kinks, and by the end of the day, he was using the device to ride around the room on his bike while he used his other hand to shoot a basketball into a play hoop.

“He had so much fun,” LaDonna said. “The excitement he had on his face … ‘I can ride my bike with one hand and look what I can do!’”

AJ was able to bring his bike back home that same day and show off his new moves to his sisters. Now, LaDonna said he is excited to run outside and hop on his bike on sunny days.

Coulter said that she and her team were excited to see such a great outcome with the new device, and she said they’ll be there if AJ ever needs help with anything else as he grows and his needs change.

“Please call us if there is something else that AJ is trying to do that he could use a little bit of help with,” she told LaDonna. “You don’t want him to avoid doing something just because he has two arms that aren’t the same length. Bring him in and let us brainstorm again.”

Coulter recommends that patients come to visit with their team once a year just to go over what needs they may have and see if they can help, but for now at least, AJ is happy simply riding his bike.

“He’s been enjoying it every moment he can,” LaDonna said.