Just for kids: Local Shrine eager to help children with medical needs
It's a safe guess that Austin Berglund has the coolest right forearm of anyone in his preschool.
"His friends think it's so cool that he has got a grabber hand with Spiderman and the Hulk on it," said Austin's mom, Christina Berglund of Esko.
The 4-year-old, who was born with part of his right arm missing, is on his third prosthetic forearm provided by Shriners Hospital for Children — Twin Cities.
It's an underutilized service, said Paul Vizanko, potentate for Duluth's Aad Shrine. One of only three Shrine temples in Minnesota, it serves the northern half of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin.
"To be honest with you, we're having a hard time finding patients," said Vizanko, 57. "Because the medical community is very, very competitive, so I don't think we get the referrals."
Last year, 52 children from the Duluth Aad Shrine's large region were treated at Shriners Hospitals, Vizanko said. That includes Austin, who can be treated until he turns 18 at the Twin Cities hospital, which specializes in orthopaedics.
Thanks to an ample separate endowment, the local Shrine has its own van, driven by volunteers, that can be used to bring child patients and their families to the hospital in Minneapolis, Vizanko said. It can help with lodging and meals while the family is in the Twin Cities.
If a child's medical need requires treatment at a different Shrine hospital, the local Shrine can cover the family's airline expenses, he said. Thanks to a transportation-specific gift made years ago, it has greater transportation resources than many local Shrines.
The Shrine has a total of 22 hospitals in North America, Vizanko said, and children from the Duluth region recently have been treated at hospitals in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The latter specializes in burn treatment.
Although the Shrine Hospitals are a part of most major insurance networks and Medicaid, children are treated regardless of their family's ability to pay, he said.
The problem, in Vizanko's view, is that people don't know it's available.
"Most people don't know what we do," he said. "I'll bet I could ask 50 people, 'What do Shriners do?' 'They drive around in little cars.'"
Exactly, Christina Berglund said. "Before this happened, they were just the guys in the parades with the little hats that drove the cars."
'It meant everything'
That changed when Christina was 16 weeks pregnant with her second child. (Christina and Jeff Berglund also have a 6-year-old daughter.) The couple were told their child would be born with some of his right arm missing, although it was too soon to tell how much. Through an acquaintance, they learned about the Shrine and the help it can provide for pediatric patients.
By the time Austin was born, Jeff and Christina were set to have his prosthetic care at Shriners Hospital, they said.
"It meant everything to us," Jeff said. "You don't realize there's this kind of help out there, and they're all so wonderfully nice. ... We connected with other families that also had issues the same as we did. It actually turned out into a very positive experience for all of us."
Austin was fitted with his first prosthetic arm when he reached 6 months, Christina said. The color matched his flesh, and the hand was passive. When he turned 2, he stepped up to his second arm, which included a hand he could grab with and had a design featuring trucks. The current model came when he was 3.
The process is kid-friendly, the Berglunds said.
"They bring in a wagon, and it's full of materials," Christina explained. "He gets to go through and he can choose. They have just about anything you can think of. Sporting, obviously trucks, superheroes — all sorts of cool patterns. And he gets to go through them and pick out the design, and it's a lot of fun for him."
A prosthetic hand with five fingers was available, but the Berglunds favored a more practical model.
"We're not going for fashion or aesthetics here," Christina said. "We want it to be as functional as possible for him."
Outside of his partially missing limb, Austin is a healthy child, his parents say, and he isn't deterred from doing anything any other little boy would do. That includes riding his bike and hanging on the monkey bars.
"There's nothing that he can't do," Christina said. "For all the fears that we've had, we've been disproved a million times over.
"... We want him to have all the options, and this is part of that. And thankfully, Shriners gives us the opportunity to give him those options."
To get help
Services from Shriners Hospital for Children — Twin Cities may be requested by contacting the intake office at (888) 293-2832 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can contact the Aad Shrine at (218) 722-7488 or by email at email@example.com.