EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Judah Aspenberg walked into the dining room, banging on a toy drum with two sticks clenched in his hands, smiling wide for his parents.
Judah looks like every other energized, healthy 3-year-old boy, but small signs point to the contrary.
As he made his way around the house with relative ease, his left leg sometimes buckled in weakness. While he’s able to lift, throw and hold onto things, his left arm stays tucked into his side at the elbow.
Judah’s muscle weakness and partial paralysis are results from contracting acute flaccid myelitis, a rare but serious illness baffling doctors and scientists as more cases crop up across the United States and experts continue to search for a cause.
An illness that mimics some polio and West Nile virus symptoms, such as paralysis, is affect…
“He does look great compared to what it could have been, but there are moments that it hits me when I see the reality,” said his mom, Misty Aspenberg.
So far this year, 273 confirmed or suspected cases of AFM in 29 states have been reported, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 106 cases, mostly children, have been confirmed.
There have been five confirmed cases in New Jersey this year with seven more under investigation, according to the state Department of Health.
Experts don’t know what causes AFM, which affects the nervous system and spinal cord with polio-like symptoms, including weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs. It has been found in vaccinated and unvaccinated children alike, it is not contagious and treatment is limited.
AFM was far from the minds of Misty and Rich Aspenberg when Judah and their two older daughters, 5 and 7 years old, came down with some runny noses toward the end of September. While the girls got better, Judah developed a fever, glassy eyes and lethargy.
Was it a cold? Had it turned into a sinus infection, they wondered.
While Misty attended a wedding in North Jersey that weekend, Rich noticed the symptoms getting worse.
“We were talking and Facetiming the whole day. I was thinking about it at the wedding and found a link about viral meningitis,” Misty said. “I told Rich, I might be crazy, but bring him to the ER.”
The family didn’t know that their son would not return home for six weeks.
“I was coming from the wedding and down the parkway, thinking the worst things,” Misty said.
Judah was ultimately transferred to the pediatric unit at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where doctors performed scans of his head, took blood samples and did a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap.
What was happening to their son remained a mystery as he started to vomit and develop extreme pain.
“Into the second week, an infectious disease doctor did a thorough exam and she said that something else wasn’t right,” Rich said. “While we were waiting, my brother’s wife sent us an article about AFM, and we thought, that sounds right.”
After additional scans, doctors confirmed the diagnosis. Judah improved while in the hospital and was sent to Weisman Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Marlton, Burlington County, where doctors were hopeful he would continue to recover.
“In the first week we were there, he had a neck brace on to help support his head and was walking with a walker,” Misty said. “I was sobbing taking video of him. His knees were buckling, but he was walking.”
National experts say many patients have regained mobility through physical therapy, with some undergoing nerve transplants. In more serious cases, patients remain hospitalized and continue to have muscle weakness or paralysis.
So far there have been no deaths among AFM patients reported to the CDC in 2018, officials said, though several parents in the United States have challenged that with claims their children died from AFM.
“There was a moment there when we thought we might lose him,” Misty said.
Through it all, Rich, a youth pastor, said friends, family — especially his parents, who live across the street — and the community were there to support them.
“People dropped off wood for our wood-burning stove, they made us food, gave us gift cards, created GoFundMe accounts,” Rich said. “As hard of a roller coaster as it was, our church family was always there, and I saw God’s faithfulness through people.”
The road to recovery remains long. Misty and Rich said they’re still looking for more answers, and preparing for the possibility that Judah will need a nerve transplant to regain full mobility, but they are already seeing their son return to his old self.
He has physical and occupational therapy each twice a week at Weisman Children’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center in Northfield.
At a recent therapy session, Judah was instructed to walk up a blue ramp and throw a beanbag into a basketball hoop.
“I can do it myself,” he said, brushing off physical therapist Wendy Witzel, who was spotting him from the side.
He got up to the top of the ramp and paused, looked around at Witzel, his mom and his two sisters, who were nearby coloring.
“I’m gonna slam dunk,” he said, before throwing the bag through the hoop and bringing his hand down on the rim amid some cheers from his fans.