Georgia Francis works with SCUBA Gym divers to rehab her arm and hand muscles underwater at the Hiwassee Valley Pool & Wellness Center in Murphy. Photo by BEN KATZUsing a loom, Georgia Francis is able to bring therapeutic exercises into her home – and through making and selling her potholders, into her wallet. Photo by BEN KATZ

Young girl's recovery a journey of exploration

    Ranger – She’s 11 years old, in sixth grade and somehow “all of my teachers are my favorites.”
    When she grows up, “I want to be a Cherokee County EMS like my mom, a baker, a teacher, a bus driver, a masseuse and a firefighter at the Ranger Volunteer Fire Department.”
    Her mom, Mandy Francis, does indeed work with Emergency Medical Services, while her stepfather, Mike Taylor, is a lieutenant with the Ranger Volunteer Fire Department. Her name is Georgia Francis, although she confesses, “Some people call me Georgia Peach.”
    “My favorite subject,” Georgia remarked recently, “would have to be science because last week we did an experiment dissecting frogs.”
    However, for Georgia, there are a few extra classes that she takes at Ranger Elementary/Middle School. On Mondays and Tuesdays, she has physical and occupational therapy due to a sad January day in 2013.
    Three years and three weeks ago, “We were going to my Uncle Pub’s” on U.S. 64 along the Ocoee River when, “The truck behind their’s saw the truck swerving and slowed down.”
    Then a blowout happened – “that’s what saved Georgia’s life,” said Mandy Francis, Georgia’s mom, due to the additional time in between.
    “I was in one hospital for one month and another hospital for about two months,” she said.
    Georgia even met Carolina Panthers’ star quarterback Cam Newton when he came into Levine Children’s Hospital.
    Although she wanted to do her favorite cheer with him, her stepfather convinced her “Sack that quarterback!” might not be the best cheer to do with the 2015 NFL MVP. So instead they cheered, “Rock the house!”
    While Georgia was recovering from the accident, Cherokee County residents looked into their hearts and spirits. “As difficult as it was, there is a testimony that came with it … with one miracle after another,” Mandy said, as the community reached out in support of the family, sending prayers, gifts and love.
    Because of the severity of Georgia’s injuries, “We thought she was coming home in a wheelchair,” Mike said.
    “When I came home from the hospital,” Georgia added, “I came in, walked up on the porch and knocked on the door.”
    They didn’t tell anyone at the family home when she was returning. The surprise fell over her brothers and grandmother like a fresh blanket of snow, signaling the cancellation of classes for a day of sledding.
    Since coming home, Georgia’s life has changed dramatically. Although she could walk up the steps through her determination, the left side of her body was severely weakened. She has tried many therapies, including occupational, physical, speech, horse and SCUBA.
    Horse therapy involved Georgia riding and spending time with the animals. It helped Georgia to strengthen her core, practice balancing and as a self-proclaimed “horse person,” spending that time with one of her favorite animals counts as a big positive.
    Mandy likes to “challenge her ourselves” with a supportive outlook that life is filled with therapy to rehab Georgia’s body. As a firefighter, Mike spends time at the Ranger station, where Georgia likes to come and visit. When there’s no emergency calling the firefighters away, Georgia has a great environment to work on her arm strength, as rolling up fire hoses “is a fun activity and a good therapy.”
    “We look at opportunities in everyday life as therapy,” Mandy said.
    One day, Mandy was in Walmart when she saw a little loom and remembered, “I had one of these when I was little.” She got one for her daughter, and pretty soon Georgia had woven enough potholders to sell.
    “It takes time and practice to do these,” Georgia said with pride. She connects bands of cloth on the loom, then weaves more into them. With the bands and weaving, Georgia has to use both hands.
    “I really use my left hand to hold the loom a lot,” she added.
    Although her favorite therapies are split between horses and SCUBA, Georgia, Mandy and Mike believe “she had the most growth and success with SCUBA.”
    Enter Greg Carroll, stepping out of his day job and into the pool.
    Carroll spends his days working as manager of facility operations at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in Murphy. But every Wednesday, Harrah’s Heroes Program sponsors the SCUBA Gym and Carroll in his pursuit of a stronger community.
    Carroll works with people in a therapeutic fashion, bringing them into and under the water before beginning exercises. To do this, the first few sessions with Carroll are focused on learning how to breathe, swim and communicate with a SCUBA tank on one’s back.
    Georgia first came to Carroll a little more than six months ago. She had a very pronounced limp, a leaning stature and a lock in her knee every time she took a step. Once Georgia learned how to SCUBA, she had a new rehab to attend every week.
    Carroll doesn’t get repetitive like some therapy may be, and “every week is something different,” Mandy said.
    In the pool, Carroll has a controlled environment. By using oxygen tanks, he and Georgia can fully immerse in the water for extended periods of time. By changing their surroundings from land to water, Carroll said they remove a barrier to the recuperating process – gravity.
    In the water, “you have a zero-G environment,” he said, which allows Georgia to be free of fear of falling or embarrassment.
    When SCUBA started, “I couldn’t put on my booties, or my tank, or my goggles even. Now I can put my goggles on, I can put my tank on and I can put my booties on all by myself,” Georgia said.
    Carroll added that “the small steps are big victories.” Both he and Georgia are excited about the victories still to come. Carroll believes the limp and lock-knee are going to disappear soon. He also looks forward to work on strengthening Georgia’s left arm and hand.
    One of Georgia’s stated goals is “to get my left side and right side equal,” but the goal she most looks forward to reaching is to become a certified SCUBA diver.