Cassidy Almquist headed to California hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 2, 2014 

When Cassidy Almquist last traveled by plane, it was a commercial flight to visit family in the Carolinas. She was 14 or 15 and able to board the plane herself.

On Sunday, her parents, Mark and Kari Almquist, lifted the 18-year-old from her wheelchair and seated her in a twin-engine private jet inside a hangar at the Tri-Cities Airport.

The destination? The Northern California Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, known for its work on spinal cord injuries.

And the trip won't cost the family a dime.

"I'm excited," Cassidy said just before being lifted into the plane. "Nervous, but excited."

The all-expense-paid trip is the work of Bright Bowe of Kennewick, his fellow Shriners and private donors. It's the latest round of public support for Cassidy and her family since she was seriously injured in a fall this past summer.

"We're taking care of her," Bowe said.

The trip will hopefully yield treatment options for Cassidy, who has been unable to walk since she was injured. She and her parents said they are grateful for the support they've received and are just focused on getting the best care possible.

"Every set of experienced eyes we can have on her, we're game," Mark Almquist told the Herald.

Progress and support

Cassidy was working at the Bar M Ranch in Eastern Oregon in July when she fell 40 feet from a swing. She fractured her pelvis, broke her right leg and crushed her right elbow. She also broke vertebrae in her spine, but her spinal cord remained intact.

Her parents said she was improperly fitted for a harness, causing her to fall from the swing's starting platform.

Cassidy was hospitalized for about a month at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. Her shattered bones were pieced back together with metal wire and rods. She has been in and out of physical therapy between surgeries.

Tests show Cassidy is regaining nerve control, and she's progressively experienced new sensations and pains. But it's unclear how long it could take for her to walk under her own power.

Support for the family poured in after Cassidy was injured. Tens of thousands of dollars were collected from fundraisers large and small, with much of that going to making the Almquist home wheelchair accessible.

Cassidy has also become a local celebrity. People sometimes stop her for autographs or photos when she's out with her parents. An avid singer, she performed during First Night festivities at the Three Rivers Convention Center on New Year's Eve.

Overcoming obstacles

Bowe, a former Benton County undersheriff and former official with the Spokane-based El Katif Shriners, ran into Cassidy's father recently and talked about her condition and progress, he said. He suggested Cassidy go to a Shriner children's hospital for treatment.

Shriner hospitals provide excellent treatment, Bowe said. There are 22 in the United States and Mexico.

Shriner organizations in the Mid-Columbia regularly take four to five children to Spokane a month for treatment. About 10 children were taken to Spokane in January, said Jim Hay, who oversees those transportation efforts and children's clinics in the region.

"We are seeing an increased need," he said.

The hospital network accommodates patients who aren't able to pay for their care, Bowe said, though the Almquists have said they do have health insurance. However, Shriner hospitals only treat patients under the age of 18 and Cassidy had her 18th birthday just a few weeks after she was injured.

"My obstacle was her age," Bowe said.

Bowe worked with officials in the Shriner hospital system to get Cassidy admitted. She was 17 when she was injured, he said, and she required emergency care -- a service not offered by Shriner hospitals -- until her 18th birthday.

"They have looked at her medical charts, and they think they can help," Mark Almquist said.

There are Shriners hospitals in Spokane and Portland, but the Sacramento facility specializes in treating injuries like Cassidy's. That meant Bowe had to find a way to get Cassidy to California so she could be evaluated.

He worked with local Shriners and others to get Cassidy and her parents to Sacramento. A Tri-City business and a group of potato farmers donated the use of their private planes to fly the family down and back. Other donations will pay for a week's stay at a hotel, transportation to and from the hospital and for the family's meals.

Bowe and other Shriners said they hope people who also need health care for their children won't be afraid to approach them for help.

'A healing and waiting process'

Doctors at the Sacramento Shriners hospital have only looked at Cassidy's records. Only after numerous tests and examinations will they know how they'll be able to help her.

Even with new options, Cassidy's parents have said their daughter has a long road ahead. She is homebound and depends on her parents for much of her care.

It was hoped she could return to Southridge High School for the second semester of what is her senior year. But her condition and demanding therapy schedule has prevented that, so she works with a school district tutor instead.

"Now it's just a healing and waiting process," Mark Almquist said.

But Sunday was still a happy day. Not only was Cassidy getting the star treatment for her trip, but they would land in time to easily be able to watch the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

The only way it could have been better? If the airplane hangar's resident tuxedo cat, named Charlie Alpha Tango, was allowed to make the trip as well.

"Awww," Cassidy said when she learned he would have to stay behind.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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