Patient Stories

Shriners Children’s 2023-24′ International Patient Ambassadors

Story Summary

Every year, Shriners Children’s selects a pair of International Patient Ambassadors to represent the healthcare system’s patients. The ambassadors share their stories of perseverance and the ways Shriners Children’s has made a difference in their lives. We are honored to have these impressive young people advocating for our healthcare system.

Meet Juan Diego

Juan Diego, 18, was burned in an electrical accident when he was 13, leaving his hands seriously disfigured. He spent more than a month in the hospital in his home country of Honduras. When he returned home, he was completely dependent on others for even the most basic tasks. He could not take care of himself, go to school, or draw or play music, two of his passions.

The Ruth Paz Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Honduras devoted to providing quality medical services to children, learned about Juan Diego’s burn injury and connected him with Shriners Children’s Boston. Four months after his injury, he arrived at the hospital in Boston. Some of his burn wounds were still open, requiring immediate attention from the acute burn team. Juan Diego knew the road ahead was going to be challenging, but he approached every day, every treatment and every obstacle with a positive attitude.

During his two and a half months in Boston in 2018, much of Juan Diego’s treatment involved intensive physical therapy and occupational therapy. He worked with therapists at least five days a week, sometimes multiple times a day. Occupational therapist Courtney Updegrove fabricated customized splints for his hands, enabling Juan Diego to relearn how to care for himself. He was even able to draw and play the drums again.

“I have learned from working hard through my recovery that I am always ready for a challenge.” – Juan Diego

Along with his traditional therapy sessions, Juan Diego was a member of Team Brave, the hospital’s community reintegration program, and competed in a Spartan Race as part of Team No Limits. He was also one of five patients who attended Game 1 of the World Series. He said it is a night he will never forget.

Juan Diego transferred to the reconstructive phase of his care where Joseph Upton, M.D., a plastic surgeon hand specialist, was able to restore sensation and mobility by taking tissue from another part of Juan Diego’s body and building a web space between his thumb and index finger. Juan Diego continues to come to Shriners Children’s Boston for reconstructive and laser surgeries to improve the function and mobility of his hands.

With every improvement, Juan Diego is able to do more of what he loves. From art and music to so many sports – soccer, football, tennis and ping-pong, Juan Diego keeps very busy. He would even love to go to the Paralympics to compete in ping-pong someday. “I should probably start practicing!” he laughed.

Now a college student in Honduras studying international relations, Juan Diego is honored to represent Shriners Children’s as an International Patient Ambassador.

Meet Gianna

Gianna, 15, was born with a rare condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), which caused her to be missing part of her left femur. Her parents knew they had to find the right specialized care for their daughter, and were grateful to learn that the orthopedic team at Shriners Children’s Southern California had the expertise to treat PFFD.

Gianna’s left leg was shorter than her right one, and she faced hip malformations and other congenital left extremity limb deficiencies, said Robert Cho, M.D., pediatric orthopedic surgeon and chief of staff at Shriners Children’s Southern California. “Gianna did not have a functional knee joint, and she had a non-functioning foot that was pointed inward. It would have been essentially impossible for her to walk without amputating that and giving her a prosthesis,” Dr. Cho said.

Gianna had her first visit at Shriners Children’s when she was 3 months old, and at 9 months, she received her first prosthesis.

As Gianna grew older she became aware of her physical differences and at times struggled with her self-image. With the unwavering love and support of her family and her care team at Shriners Children’s, she developed the confidence to embrace life. The prosthetics and rehabilitation teams worked with Gianna to teach her how to adapt and build the skills to meet her physical challenges.

“My Shriners Children’s family taught me to never let my leg hold me back from being the best version of myself,” she said.

“My Shriners Children’s family taught me to never let my leg hold me back from being the best version of myself.” – Gianna

Now Gianna is an active high school student who is both an artist and an athlete. She is an avid sports fan and keeps busy by competing in tennis and golf. She especially loves football, and her favorite team is the Kansas City Chiefs. Her dream is to be the commissioner of the NFL someday. With her drive and spirit, Dr. Cho has every confidence that Gianna can achieve what she sets her mind to.

Gianna’s father was so impressed with the care his daughter received that he was inspired to become a Shriner, and currently serves as chairman of the Board of Governors at Shriners Children’s Southern California. “I’m so proud of my dad. I’m glad that he has found a brotherhood and a community. Just as I have found support, he has, as well,” said Gianna.

“Shriners Children’s was there for me when I needed them,” said Gianna. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Being an International Patient Ambassador gives me the opportunity to show my gratitude for Shriners Children’s. I want to inspire and encourage kids just like me, and let them know that the limits are endless. All they have to do is try!”

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