LANSING — Teresa "Teci" Avila was an active, jolly kid who liked to dance and run around and watch "Frozen" and "Peppa Pig."

Her family hopes she can be that again.

In July, the 3-year-old choked on a grape, cutting off oxygen to her brain. Paramedics arrived in time to save her life, but she had severe neurological damage.

She can't walk or talk. Doctors have told her parents she'll likely never be the same as before the accident.

Her family isn't willing to accept that.

Two days after Teci's accident, her mother was watching the news when she saw a segment about a 2-year-old drowning victim who was in a similar situation as Teci. The 2-year-old is now mobile and verbal again, the girl's mother told reporters, because of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

That girl was treated at the New Orleans office of Dr. Paul Harch. After Teci's accident, her family reached out to Harch — and have moved to Louisiana temporarily so the 3-year-old can receive the treatments.

"We're taking a chance," Elizabeth said. "It's not a guarantee we're going to get results, but we're hoping and praying we do."

Every weekday for an hour, Teci, accompanied by her mother, lays in a sealed chamber that delivers pressurized oxygen. She is scheduled to get 40 treatments, lasting until late December.

A life-changing incident

On July 18, Teci's mother, Elizabeth, was at her job at Beggars Pizza when she got a call from her nephew, who said someone had choked. Elizabeth didn't even hear the name.

She rushed home, expecting it to be her elderly mother or father.

"I couldn't pull into the house — there were so many firefighters and paramedics," Elizabeth recalled. "I saw my baby on the floor. All she had on was a Pamper. They asked me to step outside I was so frantic."

After 19 minutes, first responders were able to revive Teci.

She was on life support for eight days. She was treated with oxygen for a month, but her lungs kept collapsing. She did inpatient rehabilitation for two months.

Doctors told her family she would likely never walk, talk or eat on her own again.

She eventually started to groan and cry, to breathe normally, to hold her head up for short periods of time, eat pureed baby food.

Still, she needs 24-7 care. Doctors are unsure if she can see. They believe she can hear but don't know if her brain can interpret sound.

Off to New Orleans

Elizabeth Avila saw it as a sign that she saw the segment about the hyperbaric oxygen therapy just two days after her daughter's accident. So she called Dr. Harch. He told her to get down to New Orleans ASAP.

He said the sooner a person starts treatment the better. The therapy aims to stop or minimize any further loss of brain tissue, as well as stimulate the growth of new tissue.

The trouble is, the procedure is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating brain damage and thus not covered by insurance. The treatments will cost the Avilas $8,000. Elizabeth and her husband, Guillermo, also will be out of work for two months while they live in New Orleans.

Harch said he can't guarantee that Teci will reacquire her speech or mobility, but noted that she has already made progress after a few treatments: she's moving her eyes, face and body more; she's beginning to look at people and follow their voices. Elizabeth Avila said Teci seems overall more relaxed, and that her swallowing has improved and she can eat more baby food than before.

"I expect she's going to continue along this line, with an increase in her awareness, continued improvement in her eye movement, head and neck/extremity movement," Harch said. "But we don't know if this is done on a long-term basis what the potential outcome could be. I'm kind of conservative about that expectation."

He said the treatments stimulate tissue growth, inhibit inflammation and stop cell death. Generally, he said, his patients "become more alert, aware, their eyes start to focus on you, they begin to track, they start having oral motor function, stop drooling, start to swallow."

He doesn't believe the treatment will be approved by the FDA for this use anytime soon, if ever. Part of the reason is that hyperbaric oxygen therapy, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, isn't patentable.

"No deep-pocketed investor, researcher or company stands to gain by investing to what amounts to these days hundreds of millions of dollars to do studies to put in front of the FDA to get approved," he said.

He said he hopes more doctors become aware of the effectiveness of the therapy, so patients who have brain injuries can get it sooner.

Family has hope

On a recent day in her room, as Teci lay in her hospital bed, immobile, staring straight ahead, her mother remembered what she was like before the accident.

"She was bubbly, had so much energy," she said. "Her laugh was contagious. She was so silly."

Avila wanted to tell their story in part to warn other parents about the dangers of choking. "We never thought it could happen to us," she said. "She ate grapes every single day. If we can save one baby from choking on a grape, we'll keep telling it." She says kids should always eat at a table, not play and eat at the same time.

In getting the experimental treatment for Teci, the Avilas are taking a leap of faith in an effort to see her sunny smile once again.

"God willing she will come back the same she was before," Elizabeth said.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.