Even a 5-year-old can look at her baby pictures, see her inwardly curved ankles and feet and understand the importance of all the medical procedures she has endured.
Today, Emma Frick tackles playground equipment at Union Elementary School in Belleville like any other child. She skips across the bridge and climbs the tower with ease. Her ankles are straight and strong. Her feet are flat.
Most observers would never guess how much time the blond-haired girl with purple glasses and two bottom teeth missing has spent at Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis.
“She’s a little pistol,” said “Aunt” Joy Prigge, 40, a family friend, neighbor and lending banker. “She is 5 years old going on 30. She’s very smart. She’s independent, and she’s a little lover. She likes to cuddle.”
Not only with people but with her many dolls, which she seems to rename once a week; and her stuffed cat, Zuri, which the doctor fitted with a cast after one of her surgeries.
Emma is something of a poster girl for the Shriners. A giant photo of her as a toddler wearing a ruffly pink dress and hair bow appears on signs for screening clinics and the side of a van that transports patients and drives in parades.
“Remember when a parade went by and Aunt Joy came up and grabbed me and took my picture?” she said, giggling. “It was weird.”
Ultrasound detects problems
Emma is the daughter of Jeff and Cari Frick, of Belleville. Jeff is vice president of a company that makes corrugated boxes. Cari is business manager for a lock company.
Doctors broke the news that Emma had clubfoot when a pregnant Cari went in for her 20-week ultrasound. They also rightly suspected the baby had arthrogryposis, a joint condition preventing her from opening her hands completely.
Emma was born on July 28, 2011. She started treatment almost immediately at the Shriners hospital, which specializes in orthopedic care for children and covers costs not covered by health insurance.
Cari’s father, the late Robbie Thomas, was a member of Ainad Shriners of Southern Illinois, based in East St. Louis.
“I’ve grown up with the Shriners,” said Cari, 40. “So after everyone found out about (Emma’s problem), they were waiting in line to help her. Everyone wanted to sponsor her.”
For three months, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Matthew Dobbs put new casts on her tiny feet and legs every week, making slight adjustments to straighten them out. It’s called the Ponseti Method.
The baby underwent surgery that October to lengthen Achilles tendons near her heels. For the next four years, she wore boot-style leg braces, going from 23 to 18 to 12 hours a day. She recently “graduated” to nighttime use on one leg only.
“Dr. Dobbs was able to cure this with casts and one surgery, which is amazing in my book,” said Jeff, 48.
Determination and humor
Emma inherited arthrogryposis from her father, who underwent 11 surgeries as a child to loosen contracted joints in his hands. Thanks to medical advancements, she only had one surgery.
The toddler made regular trips to Believe to Achieve Pediatric Therapy Agency in Swansea, where co-owner and occupational therapist Trish Miller helped her with simple tasks such as eating, drinking, drawing and fastening buttons.
“She’s a determined little girl,” Trish said. “She’s smart, and she knew what she wanted to do. Nothing was going to stop her.”
The therapist has been equally impressed by Cari and Jeff for accepting the reality of their daughter’s situation, handling it with grace and humor, staying positive and focusing their efforts on research, advocacy and getting proper treatment.
Joy agrees, noting the Fricks have never been “woe-is-me” people, despite their challenges. Cari credits the support of wonderful friends, family and health-care professionals.
Emma’s brother, Ethan Friederick, 12, also has been a trooper. He looked out for her during the 2016-17 school year, when she was a kindergartner and he was in sixth grade at Union Elementary.
Ethan plays baseball, enjoys camping with the family and plans to start taking guitar lessons soon. He doesn’t seem to mind that Emma gets a lot of attention because of her medical issues.
“It’s not really a big deal,” he said. “She’s my sister, so yeah, I’ve got to deal with her. We have our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we’re family.”
At a glance
- Belleville Shriners Parade 5K — The run/walk will begin at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Union United Methodist Church, 721 E. Main St. in Belleville, and follow the parade route. There also will be a 1/4-mile kids fun run for ages 9 and under at 6:15 p.m. Participants can register ($30/$12) from 4 to 6:15 p.m. Friday. For more information, call 618-795-4711, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Facebook page.
- Ainad Shriners Circus Parade — Floats, bands and plenty of Shriners in fezzes will begin marching at 7:30 p.m. Friday at 17th and West Main streets in Belleville and continue east to the 800 block of East Main. For more information, visit the Ainad Shriners of Southern Illinois website at www.soilshrinercircus.com/.
- Ainad Shriners Circus — Carden International Circus will bring tigers, elephants, ponies, dogs, clowns, aerialists, trapeze artists and other acts to six locations in Southern Illinois. Show times are 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville; 7:30 p.m. Monday at Monroe County Fairgrounds in Waterloo; 7:30 p.m. June 6 at Wayne County Fairgrounds in Fairfield; 7:30 p.m. June 7 at Olney City Park in Olney; 7:30 p.m. June 8 and 9 at Marion County Fairgrounds in Salem; and 7:30 p.m. June 10 and 2 and 6 p.m. June 11 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in DuQuoin. Tickets cost $10 for children and $15 for adults.