Seeing what’s possible: Pediatric stroke doesn’t slow James down

James, who had a stroke, shows an arm and that reads "stronger, tougher"
James hasn't let a stroke slow him down. (Photo: D. McCollester/Boston Children's)

James Veling is only 6 years old, but he has a whole bag of medals. He’s won them by placing in various Spartan obstacle races and 5Ks, sometimes besting multiple adults in the process. James is following in the footsteps of his father, David — literally. “I started running a few years ago, partly as a way to cope with the stress of James’s health challenges,” says David.

Although James was born about four weeks early and initially wasn’t responsive, he seemed to bounce back quickly. “He was growing and hitting his milestones,” David remembers. “We weren’t seeing anything that made us wonder about further issues until he was a year old.” It was then that David and his wife, Amy, began to notice that their son was having trouble sitting up and relying more on his right side when he crawled. Their pediatrician referred them to Boston Children’s Hospital.

James. who had a stroke, poses in an orange Under Armor shirt
Dr. Michael Rivkin and his team have helped James thrive.

A chance meeting

In Boston, clinicians determined that James had experienced a significant right hemispheric stroke, which likely happened shortly before, during, or after his birth. The diagnosis “made a world of sense,” says David. “It explained the weakness on his left side.” Not long after, Amy was at the hospital, waiting for one of James’s appointments, when she heard a familiar voice ask, “Amy, what are you doing here?”

The question came from Dr. Michael Rivkin, director of Boston Children’s Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center. Years earlier, he had met the Velings when his daughter was applying to a school where David worked in admissions. Grateful for the help, the Rivkins had stayed in touch, especially after their daughter transferred to a school where Amy worked as the librarian. Now, Dr. Rivkin wanted to return the support. “Once upon a time, you helped change my daughter’s life,” he told Amy and David. “I’d like to help change your son’s.”

James, who had a stroke, walks in between his parents while holding their hands.
James with his parents, David and Amy

On the go

Dr. Rivkin and his team determined that James was unlikely to have another stroke and worked to create a care plan — “a huge relief,” says David. When the little boy stopped gaining weight at age 2, Dr. Laurie Fishman and her colleagues in the hospital’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition recommended that they try a feeding tube. Although they had originally hoped it would be only be a short-term solution, “it’s turned out to be necessary,” says David. “We know it’s working and he’s getting the nutrition he needs while he plays catch up.”

James and his parents return to Boston Children’s and its satellite offices every four to six weeks to see various clinicians. Despite some difficulty with anxiety and social interactions, he’s a happy, friendly kid who’s always on the go and loves trying new things. Case in point: After watching David compete in adult Spartan races, James told him, “I want to do that, too, Daddy!”

James, who had a stroke, poses on the Boston Children's sky bridge
James doesn’t let his feeding tube and ankle braces slow him down — in fact, he’s built strength and improved his coordination through running.

Staying motivated

Today, James enjoys running right alongside his father. Before the pandemic, he also ran in solo kids’ races, especially the F.I.T. 5K Trail Race Series. He doesn’t let his feeding tube and ankle braces slow him down — in fact, he’s built strength and improved his coordination through his new hobby. And he’s inspired his dad to take his own love of the sport to the next level: This week, David will be participating in this year’s virtual Boston Marathon as part of Boston Children’s Miles for Miracles team.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run a marathon, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it for something I really care about,” he explains. And when he feels like he can’t run another step, he’ll draw on thoughts of James to keep him moving. “He’s a big part of my motivation,” he says. “I want to show him what’s possible.”

Learn about the Stroke and Cerebrovascular Center.

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