Grace Fisher, a 17-year-old senior at Santa Barbara High School, was looking forward to her belated birthday celebration. It was December 21, 2014, and friends of the lively teen and aspiring musician had begun to gather when Grace felt numbness in her hands and pain in her neck. The numbness quickly spread to her feet and in the short time it took for her mother, Debbie, to take Grace to the emergency room at Cottage Hospital, it had progressed to her waist.
“Seven hours after the first symptoms appeared, Grace was intubated, as she was having a hard time breathing, and most of her body was paralyzed,” says Debbie. Over the following weeks, Grace was treated at Cottage Hospital and diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, a neurologic children’s illness in which patients experience a sudden onset of polio-like symptoms such as limb weakness, paralysis and breathing difficulty.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has verified reports of 118 children in 34 states who developed acute flaccid myelitis between August 2014 and mid-April 2015. The cause is still unknown.
On January 28, Grace was transferred to Craig Hospital outside Denver, which specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries. Her parents, Debbie and Bill Fisher, both physical therapists who own Via Real Physical Therapy in Carpinteria, and 15-year-old sister Emily moved to Denver with her.
With a positive spirit and, more often than not, a smile on her face, the sparkling Grace made a big hit at Craig. When her therapists learned that she was named a prom princess at Santa Barbara High, they created a rollicking rap music video to be played at the school’s prom assembly. The rapper is Grace’s nurse technician, Justin, a.k.a. “J Dirty,” who also wrote the lyrics, and the video features a smiling Grace, as well as some of her move-bustin’ nurses. As the rap goes, “When she’s around you have to have a smile on your face/You couldn’t find a person that doesn’t like Grace.”
Visits from friends have also buoyed Grace’s spirits, along with countless cards, notes and paper hearts plastered around her room to show the love being sent her way. “She likes to listen to a collection of CDs her friends made [for] her, and sometimes people play guitar for her,” notes Debbie.
Grace has a passion for singing, dancing and music and is an accomplished guitar, piano and cello player. She has shared her talents by giving music lessons to children in Santa Barbara and has been involved with more than a half-dozen singing and music groups, both on campus and off. Grace has been accepted to her dream school, Berklee College of Music in Boston, which she attended last year for a five-week summer program. “Gracie will take a year off, and we’ll see where she’s at,” says Debbie.
As of this writing, Grace was due to be discharged from Craig Hospital, and when she arrives at her Santa Barbara home, she’ll roll up a new wheelchair ramp built by two local Eagle Scouts, Will Oakley, 16, and Kai Mills, 15, with assistance from Mike Kelley and Jaime Melgoza.
The wheelchair ramp is one more example of the outpouring of support and encouragement from the community. Family friend Paul Corr helps to maintain the website posthope.org/gracefisher with journal entries from Grace and her family. Fundraisers to help with Grace’s medical costs and the family’s expenses have ranged from concerts and garden tours to movie screenings, run/walks and softball tournaments.
“The response has been overwhelming,” says Debbie, who grew up in Santa Barbara. “I feel like we live in such a special community…it’s heartwarming to see the goodness in people. We’re very grateful… We really feel our community is pulling for us and helping us to rebuild Gracie’s life.”
Friends of the fishers have opened a bank account to help the family. Donate online at posthope.org/gracefisher or with a check to Gracie Fisher Fund, 308 Paseo Del Descanso, Santa Barbara, CA 93105.
Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.