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A girl, partially paralyzed by a brain injury, is now a role model

Reagan Bischoff, 13, won an award from Brain Injury Services, a nonprofit in Springfield

Reagan Bischoff, now 13, is shown in the red vest doing taekwondo in 2017. She recently received an award for working on ways to deal with a brain injury she's had since early childhood. (Courtesy of family of Reagan Bischoff)
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For 13-year-old Reagan Bischoff, who lives in Potomac Falls, the simple tasks that other people accomplish with ease were often the hardest and most frustrating for her: buttoning her jeans or brushing her hair.

Since early childhood, she’s had to deal with the mental and physical challenges of cerebral palsy and partial paralysis on the left side of her body after brain surgery. But her determination, drive and willingness to learn and teach other kids ways to tackle those challenges recently won her an award from Brain Injury Services, a nonprofit that provides services to people with brain injuries in Northern Virginia.

Sarah Pickford, manager of ComPASS — Community Participation and Skill-building Services, a Brain Injury Services program that works with Reagan — praised her for putting so “much energy and attention in to living her full life” while also positioning herself to help other people.

“It’s not just about her. That’s exceptional for someone who’s only a young teenager. Her reaching out to others is a wonderful inspiration,” Pickford said.

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Based in Springfield, Va., Brain Injury Services each year helps about 1,000 people who have suffered from brain injuries. Established in 1989, the nonprofit has treated about 20,000 children, adults and veterans. They offer a range of services from counseling and helping people to better use technology to job training and placement. Plus they offer speech improvement techniques and teach kids skills to better learn at school.

Since 2016, Brain Injury Services has given out the “Bryant Cohen Empowerment Award” — named for one of the nonprofit’s clientsto recognize people who “commit to their recovery process while leading and empowering others and maintaining a positive outlook,” officials said.

Reagan said she was honored and thrilled “that people recognized me for my work.”

Reagan was born after her mother, Danielle, had a normal pregnancy. But when she was about 6 weeks old, her mother said, she started to have seizures. Sometimes she would have as many as 60 a day, her mother said, even with medications and under hospital care.

At 3 months old, she underwent brain surgery, which stopped the seizures but left her with cerebral palsy and paralysis on her left side. Reagan also has attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia and troubles with organizing — which her mom said are believed to be related to her brain injury because part of her frontal lobe that controls executive functioning was removed.

Over the years, Reagan’s parents said, she pushed herself to participate in swimming, horseback riding and lacrosse. She is a black belt in taekwondo and also plays the trumpet, using a special support to maneuver the instrument with one hand.

Few classmates or friends would know of what she and her family call her “invisible disability” because at first blush she doesn’t appear to have any physical challenges.

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“When you see her walking down the street, you’d never know there’s anything wrong with her,” said her mom. But in middle school, some kids started asking her, “Is your hand dead?” Others mocked her inability to move her left side.

Even though she’d done lots of therapy, as she got older she still struggled with some basic skills such as typing, washing or brushing her hair, opening a bag of chips, putting on a bra or zipping a pair of jeans by herself. She started to work with experts at Brain Injury Services two years ago to figure out ways to deal with her challenges.

She came up with the idea to use a smaller keyboard so she could type with one hand to finish her online assignments during the coronavirus pandemic. Reagan, who will begin eighth grade at Riverbend Middle School this fall, and her therapists also decided she should get a special hook that looks like a Swiss Army knife and allows her to hook buttons on pants by herself. She learned how to use a cutting board with spokes on it to keep an apple steady so she could cut it one-handed.

“We wanted her to figure out a creative way to do things,” said her mom. “Not just say, ‘I can’t wear jeans.’ It’s about figuring out a way where she can do it herself and how to function in real life.”

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Reagan’s parents, who also have a son who’s legally blind, encourage their kids to seek ways to overcome obstacles. Their family motto: “I will try but I might need help.”

As she developed skills and confidence to deal with her disability, Reagan also started a YouTube channel called “Throw Leftie” to “help kids who have disabilities like me, so they can learn things I wasn’t able to do and had to figure out.”

“People feel uncomfortable talking about loss, and disabilities are the exact same way,” said her mom. “We don’t talk about it, so kids don’t have role models.”

In one of Reagan’s recent YouTube videos, she uses a pair of jeans on a counter to show how to use the special tool called a “pocket dresser” to hook the button on the pants. She flips through each part of the tool with her right hand.

“This one is for smaller buttons. ... This one helps unknot shoelaces and stuff like that,” she says. After she successfully buttons the jeans, she shows a little black case that holds the tool and explains how she asks someone to help her hook it on her pants, “so it’s always with me.”

As she closes out the video, she says, “I hope these videos are helping someone who you know or for you.”