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Kiki Hargrove

Kiki Hargrove and her therapy dog Zarah watch as her guardian Abby Hinthorne, right, and Dr. Erin Grantham look at pictures at Billings Clinic.

Kiki Hargove is far from a typical 18-year-old, but she’s done what many teenagers do — serve on the student council, learn to drive, ride a horse.

Kiki has done all that as a double amputee who for years bounced around the foster care system before landing with the people she now calls mom and dad — Abby and Tom Hinthorne, her guardians for almost three years.

After being born with spina bifida, caudal regression syndrome (abnormal fetal development of the lower spine) and scoliosis, Kiki was taken from her birth parents at age 6 and placed in the foster care system. Born with legs that were locked at the knees and clubbed, Kiki had them amputated in 2012.

In severe pain, she turned up at Billings Clinic four years ago to see Dr. Erin Grantham, a pediatric urologist. She’d received a new augmented bladder in Seattle and had faithfully done everything her surgeon told her to do, but without aftercare, she’d grown 40 jagged stones in her new bladder “and had bad belly pain and no answers,” Grantham said.

“I thought she’d be like some of the doctors I had in the past," Kiki said of Grantham. "They look at you and tell you, ‘Sorry, there is nothing I can do for you.’ (Instead, Grantham) said, ‘We are going to make you better,’ and I said, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’”

Grantham surgically removed all 40 of the painful stones — “the most I’ve ever seen,” she said, adding that Kiki's new bladder was completely full of stones — and later gave her patient some of them to keep.

“She’d been treated with morphine, and it came to the point where morphine wasn’t touching it,” Abby said. “That’s how much pain she was in.”

Later, Kiki turned up at the home of the Hinthornes, who offer emergency placement care for foster children, even though the family has a home that’s not readily accessible for her wheelchair.

“‘Don’t worry’ we were told,” Abby Hinthorne said. “They said, ‘She’s in a wheelchair and has no lower limbs, but she’ll be fine. She’s learned to walk on her hands.’”

Kiki looked around the house and suspected she’d found her home. “We told her what we expect of our other daughter, and she said, ‘When can I move in?’” Abby Hinthorne said. “She moved in the next day. We were her seventh foster placement.”

Two weeks later, state placement officials called about finding Kiki a more long-term placement, “and we decided she wasn’t going anywhere,” Abby Hinthorne said. “She was a very hurt young lady, not very trusting of us. But I kept telling her, ‘Hey, we are the real deal.’ It took us two years to get guardianship. We thought that was an important step, for her to know that we are fighting for her.”

During the first six weeks Kiki was in her new home, she had 20 doctor appointments and underwent emergency surgery.

“I had a lot of urinary tract infections and abdominal pain,” Kiki recalled. “The family I’d been with, they really didn’t care how I got treated. I was kind of left alone to deal with it. I was not a happy kid because I was always in pain. Then when I started living with mom and dad, the first thing they did was to start getting me better.”

“She’d been fighting chronic infections for eight years without any help,” Grantham said. “Her body was doing amazing things, but when you have infected (bladder) stones, the infection never really clears.”

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After recovering, Kiki began to ride horses, and the saddle concept gave her an idea for the design of a mold that allows her to sit up in her wheelchair. After no small amount of prodding on her part, designers in Denver used a 3-D scan of her in a saddle to create a mold for her.

Sitting up straight since February has also contributed to her improved health, she said.

To help her learn to drive, Grantham loans Kiki an automobile that has hand controls. Grantham’s husband, who’s also in a wheelchair, is the car’s main driver.

Four-legged therapy

Kiki found a riding home at Intermountain Equestrian Center, the stable that Rocky Mountain College uses for its equine therapy program, which Kiki hopes to enter after high school graduation in 2019. Horses Spirits Healing, which normally serves only veterans, made an exception to include her in the program.

Kiki’s creative bent also helped design an adaptive saddle she can use — one that holds her in on one side using a Velcro-type fastener, the other sewn to her clothing. “It helps me not to slide off, or to be bucked off,” she said.

Her riding lessons and hard work have paid off: during MontanaFair, she took second place in Western Pleasure and horsemanship, winning a belt buckle — all while competing against able-bodied riders.

“She’s not in a disabled class. Her trainer didn’t want that,” Abby Hinthorne explained. “Kiki doesn’t see herself as someone with a disability.”

A smaller companion provides her everyday care. Born the night Kiki was baptized in fall 2016 at Faith Chapel, Zarah, a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu mix, is her therapy dog, the gift of good friends who are also dog breeders.

“Kiki used to have night terrors. When she’s sick, Zarah will lie on her chest. When her stumps are cold, she lays on those and keeps her warm,” Abby Hinthorne said. “When Kiki cries, she licks her tears.”

Billings Clinic’s emergency room workers bend the rules to allow the dog in when Kiki is receiving treatment.

“She’s well-behaved,” Kiki said, “but sometimes when a nurse needs to place an IV, she stares at the nurse, and she growls at a few of them.”

If a sense of humor is a sign of healing, Kiki’s on the mend.

“I have a cousin who thought of my campaign slogan,” said Kiki of running for student council at Senior High School last year. “It’s this: ‘I may have half a body, but I have a full opinion.’ ”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.