Charlotte Volante

Meet the patients: Charlotte Volante

It was the ultimate 18th birthday present.

Charlotte Volante, from the Channel Islands, had been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 11.

Born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, doctors had told her she would never walk again and to simply get on with her life. 

But that was before she met a specialist at Southampton General Hospital who gave her new hope.

Children’s orthopaedic expert Caroline Edwards was confident she could get Charlotte standing again – and was true to her word.

After a complicated operation in July 2012 to lengthen the tight muscles at the hips, knees and feet, Charlotte amazed her family by standing up next to her hospital bed.

But that was only the start. Not only did the procedure enable Charlotte to stand upright in a supported frame, the improvement in movement allowed her to take her first steps.

Supported by a nurse and her mum, Bernadette, 52, the teenager then proceeded to walk around her ward and the nurses’ station.

The breakthrough was just ten days before her 18th birthday and left Charlotte and her family with a double reason to celebrate.

Charlotte, the youngest of five girls and two boys, said: “When I was 11, I was given an electric wheelchair and told to just get on with it.

“After I met Caroline, I agreed to let her do the op she suggested but I didn’t really know if it would work.

“Walking again after my operation did not feel strange and it didn’t hurt; it just felt completely natural.”

Since then, there has been no stopping Charlotte.

After a birthday party at home in Jersey, she returned to Southampton for further treatment including having new splints fitted. 

The breakthrough operation this summer had been Charlotte’s 43rd surgical procedure. She has undergone numerous operations on her head, legs, back and stomach. In total, she and her parents have made more than 500 return trips to Southampton for treatment.

Dad Tony, 50, said: “We have been coming to Southampton General Hospital regularly since Charlotte was just a day old and have nothing but good things to say about it.

“The staff have been brilliant and there are still one or two we remember from when we first came in all those years ago.”

Charlotte is due to return to Southampton to be fitted with specialised braces which lock at the hips, knees and under the ankle to help support her legs when walking – then she hopes to fulfil another ambition.

She said: “Caroline has given me the confidence to go on and make all my dreams a reality and now I hope I can begin to drive - and I’m already saving for a car!”

Charlotte is one of 15 children and young people who have benefited from a pioneering accelerated rehabilitation programme developed at Southampton General Hospital.

Led by Caroline Edwards, consultant paediatric orthopaedic surgeon, the programme can see patients walking within six weeks of hip surgery through the use of a removable brace.

Conventionally, patients are placed in plaster shorts – known as a spica – for six to eight weeks. These hold the hip in place but limit movement, causing muscle wastage, delaying the start of therapy treatment and preventing them from standing for at least three months.

Under accelerated rehabilitation, patients are placed in their brace at night or during periods of rest following surgery, allowing early movement and standing to preserve muscle strength or comfortable seating.

The programme is already helping young cerebral palsy patients as well as those with spina bifida, where a series of birth defects affect the development of the spine and nervous system. 

“It is fantastic to see children and young people like Charlotte to be up on their feet so soon after major invasive surgery – the early movement with the brace seems to be the key,” said Miss Edwards.

“I am delighted for Charlotte and her family, especially as they thought she would never walk again.”

This story was first published in Connect magazine.