Born four months premature on Christmas day, twins Ernest and Brooklynn changed their mother’s life forever. Rhiannon, the twins’ mother, had just turned 18. Their earliest days together did not resemble what she had envisioned for when she finally met her babies. She was instead thrust into a storm of chaos while her babies’ lives hung in the balance. It was more than a week before Rhiannon was allowed to hold Ernest and three weeks before nestling her Brooklynn in her arms. But they were fighters and they knew they were loved fiercely.
At one week old, Brooklynn was transferred to the Level III intensive care unit at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans to undergo life-saving surgery. Both Ernest and Brooklynn spent months in separate intensive care units. During this time, Rhiannon was constantly traveling the nearly 100 miles between the hospitals caring for Ernest and Brooklynn. With limited support from the babies’ father, Rhiannon became their caregiver, cheerleader, and biggest advocate. She dedicated her life to her children’s well-being by getting them the care they needed to thrive.
As the twins grew, it became apparent that not all their challenges lay behind them.
During Ernest’s early preschool years, he did not react well to change, even small disruptions in his routine sent him into a meltdown. Ernest was intolerant of many sounds, textures and tastes. He often threw tantrums to convey his frustrations. Rhiannon received complaints from his preschool about Ernest’s behavior and his “refusal” to participate in class activities.
Rhiannon sought help from the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for the Advancement of Youth. Ernest was diagnosed with non-autistic Sensory Processing Disorder and was referred to Canopy Children’s Solutions for outpatient therapy.
“When Ernest first came to therapy, he was very hesitant to come inside,” said Eddie McQuilling, outpatient therapist. “He warmed up to me quickly, but he couldn’t tolerate many of the sounds and sights in the office, creating an obstacle we had to work to overcome. ‘New’ and ‘different’ were really not his thing.”
Eddie began exposure therapy with Ernest, building his trust and helping him to understand the things his body was sensing. The clinic also arranged for Ernest to begin speech and occupational therapy through a local resource. During family sessions, Eddie worked with Rhiannon on ways to increase Ernest’s tolerance.
“Anything I asked Rhiannon to do, she did it and more,” said Eddie. “She created a sensory book to expose Ernest to new textures and logged the types of food he tried and his reactions in a daily journal. Her dedication to the process made all the difference and he began to make great progress.”
“Ernest wanted everything a particular way,” said Rhiannon. “When we would go see Eddie, if we went a different route, he would have a meltdown thinking we weren’t going to the clinic. Eddie suggested I show Ernest on a map all the different ways to get to the same place. That decreased his anxiety and outbursts in the car.”
During the first few months of therapy with Ernest, Rhiannon began noticing increased tantrums and physical aggression from her daughter, Brooklynn, particularly towards herself and Ernest.
“We were constantly going to an appointment for Ernest,” said Rhiannon. “Brooklynn wanted more attention. She realized she could get it, even if it was negative attention, by acting out, throwing fits or crying. It was really hard.”
Seven months after Ernest came to Canopy, Brooklynn began therapy as well. She refused to take instructions and had problems regulating her mood. Brooklynn also found it difficult to express herself verbally without yelling or becoming violent, especially when she didn’t get her way.
“When I first met Brooklynn, I remember she would throw tantrums that were louder than any I had heard before,” said Daniele Neese, outpatient therapist. “Brooklynn let you know when she wasn’t happy.”
Eddie and Daniele worked closely with mom to strengthen her confidence as a parent and offered guidance utilizing the 1-2-3 Magic parenting model.
“One thing we really had to focus on with Rhiannon was ‘not talking,’” said Daniele. “When the child goes to time out, you don’t talk to them or try to correct them until the timeout is over.”
Other parenting skills they worked on included “catching” the children being good and rewarding them with positive attention. Also, setting expectations about acceptable behavior and helping the children identify better decisions they could have made instead.
With the twins, Eddie and Daniele used play therapy to help them recognize emotions in others, identify feelings within themselves and learn problem solving. Role playing during family therapy allowed the therapists to reinforce the skills Rhiannon was using at home. Each session gained new ground and finally a glimmer of light was showing at the end of the tunnel.
“We knew the twins had progressed to a point where they didn’t need us any longer,” said Eddie. “About three months ahead of discharge, we started preparing the family for the day they would ‘fire’ us, making sure they were confident in succeeding without our care.”
Initially, Rhiannon and the twins we apprehensive about no longer seeing Eddie and Daniele. The last few sessions focused on coping skills and techniques they would use on their own whenever they began to feel overwhelmed, upset or anxious. Nearing the end of the school year, the family collectively accepted they were ready.
“These two sweet little faces came into my office and let me know they were ready to ‘fire’ Eddie and Daniele,” said Susan Arceneaux, Director of the Behavioral Health Clinic. “You could see the confidence they had as they said it. I was so proud, for all three of them, because this was as much a success for mom as it was for the kids.”
On June 5, Ernest, Brooklynn and Rhiannon gathered with Canopy staff to celebrate their transformation. Their list of accomplishments were impressive including Ernest sampling more than 200 new foods, Brooklynn learning to control her frustrations before reacting, and even of mom’s commitment to ensuring the twins almost never missed an appointment over the course of two years. Ernest and Brooklyn were presented with Canopy graduation certificates to commemorate the day. In front of the entire office, they loudly exclaimed that Eddie and Daniele were “fired!” Rhiannon and the twins gave each person in the office a farewell hug. Rhiannon thanked everyone for what they did for her children, and also how they instilled confidence in her—so much so, she announced she had enrolled in school to pursue a degree in early childhood education.
“It is amazing to think about everything Ernest and Brooklynn have overcome,” said Rhiannon. “My kids are like night and day from where they were when we first came to Canopy. Ernest was even able to start riding the school bus without a problem. Their teachers are calling me to tell me how great they are doing at school. They’ve just come so far and I know we have Canopy to thank for that.”
Rhiannon keeps in touch with the Canopy staff, reporting the kids had a great summer and have had a great start to first grade. The twins ask often about the Eddie and Daniele and look forward to visits to show just how well they are doing. Rhiannon is eager to begin school; she looks forward to the day she can work with young children to help them get on a path toward success, just like Canopy has done for her and her family.