Tessa Puma’s appearance is characterised by floppy bows and the colour pink, but her tough mentality is more like that of her surname – courageous and strong in the face of adversity.

After contracting a severe infection from strep throat, the six-year-old competitive dancer from Northfield, Ohio, in the United States, is showing more courage than ever on her road to recovery.

In April, Tessa underwent over a dozen operations, including a leg amputation from the knee down, when a rare infection, caused by the strep throat, called necrotising fasciitis spread throughout her body.

Tessa, who recently finished kindergarten at Nordonia’s Northfield Elementary School, is one in a million – literally.

Necrotising fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) occurs in one in a million children per year, and Tessa’s odds of beating it were slim.

Tina Puma, Tessa’s mum, said doctors at Akron Children’s Hospital initially gave her a 20% chance of survival.

When it was clear she’d survive, doctors told her mother that it would take about five surgeries to remove the infection.

It only took two.

“She’s completely beaten all odds of everything,” her mother said. “Everything she’s done is real quick. She’s an over-achiever, even with this stuff.”

therapy dogs

Accompanied by physical therapy assistant Turranna Rice (right), Doggie Brigade dog Gracie who is also an amputee, with her handler Chris Witschey (left) at the park in front of the hospital.

Fear of the unknown

Tessa’s recovery moved quickly, but it was a slow start.

When she finally awoke from being heavily sedated in April, Tessa was missing part of her leg, and she’d received several skin grafts to cover other infected areas of her body, including her shoulder and arm.

Stretching out the grafts in her arm are the painful portions of Tessa’s therapy sessions, but the intimidating prospect of relearning to walk proved just as tear-inducing.

“A lot of it was fear of the unknown,” said Turranna Rice, a physical therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital.

It wasn’t until a tail-wagging tripawd (three-legged) friend stopped by that Tessa found the courage she’d needed.

The underdogs

Rudy, a golden retriever with a prosthetic limb, is one of disabled dogs that works with kids during therapy sessions as part of the hospital’s Doggie Brigade programme.

At Tessa’s first therapy session with Rudy, she could barely stand.

By the end of it, she had walked six laps around the room.

“Now, if she hears him or he hears her, they find each other,” said Julie Parton, Rudy’s trainer. “They really hit it off.”

Tessa’s therapy sessions now regularly include service animals. Many are disabled dogs, but even Petie the pony makes a special trip to see her from time to time, donning his best pink harness.

“They’re so soft and cuddly,” Tessa said.

The animals are integrated into her therapy sessions to do everything from pushing her harder to comforting her during painful moments.

Above all, though, Parton said kids find comfort – and sometimes even inspiration – in animals who have similar disabilities.

In Rudy’s case, the two-year-old dog was born with a shortened front leg. Parton loves to share the story of how vets said Rudy would never be able to swim.

“He swims straight as an arrow,” Parton said with a smile. “If someone tells you you can’t do something, tell them you know better.”

therapy dogs

Like many other disabled kids, she, finds comfort in animals who have similar disabilities.

Dancing again

After three weeks of in-patient therapy, followed by three weeks of outpatient therapy – both five days a week for more than six hours a day – Tessa is doing more than just walking with her walker.

She’s walking on uneven surfaces with it, swinging on it and even dancing with it.

“That’s her main goal right now – to get back to dance,” Tessa’s mum said. “She’s ready to go back, like, yesterday.”

During a recent therapy session, Tessa braved the strange terrain of brick roads and squishy grass as Gracie, another three-legged dog, hopped alongside her.

As Tessa’s cheeks turned pink in the sun, she jolted forward when her walker hit a bump.

“In the past, she would’ve cried buckets from her fear,” said Rice, who walked beside her. “This time, she didn’t even whimper.”

Tessa recently received her permanent prosthetic leg. Tina hopes Tessa will be back in dance by this year. – Tribune News Service/Akron Beacon Journal/Theresa Cottom