Health & Medicine

Eppie’s Great Race adds ‘Epic Challenge’ for 13 Shriners kids

Soon after sunup at Discovery Park, 7-year-old Malyia Jeffers bolted from the starting gate on her stumps, ran half a mile, climbed on a special bicycle, pedaled hard with her hand stumps and joyfully motored across the finish line a half mile later.

The little Sacramento girl who lost her hands and feet raised her arms in triumph, one of 13 Shriners Hospital kids who transcended their physical challenges Sunday to complete the first ever Eppie’s Great Race “Epic Challenge,” which preceded the 10th annual Eppie’s Kids Duathlon.

“This was fun!” Malyia exclaimed. “I got to ride a bike for 10 minutes! I hope we can get one at home so I’m able to ride with my brother.” She reached down and displayed her medal and announced, “It’s real gold!”

Her dad, Ryan Jeffers, squinted back tears and said, “I’m very proud – she used both arms to pedal it.” Malyia’s family’s struggle to help her reclaim her life after a near-fatal infection, Streptococcus A bacteria, took parts of all four of her limbs was chronicled in The Sacramento Bee in a series of stories by Cynthia Hubert.

On Sunday, Malyia was one of 13 Shriners kids from across Central and Northern California who completed the Epic Challenge, each accompanied by volunteers from the Christian Brothers High School girls golf team. They included kids ages 4-13 treated for burns, spinal-cord injury, cerebral palsy and absence of limbs, said Shriners Director of Public Relations Catherine Curran.

Another exhilarated finisher, 9-year-old Zachary Nazareno of Tracy, didn’t want to stop after the race. He simulated shooting baskets as he ran around in the grass on his prosthetic legs and red sneakers. “The first half mile we ran, then biked another half mile,” Zachary said. “It was pretty good.”

Zachary was ambushed by a strep infection that tore through his body in 2011, causing him to lose parts of his legs, the tips of his fingertips and the tip of his nose. “He was 4 years old and had multi-organ failure, and the doctor said if he doesn’t turn around in 24 hours he’s not going to make it,” Zachary’s dad, Gerard Nazareno, recalled. “In July 2011 they did at least a dozen surgeries, including on his birthday.”

His physical therapist, Laura van Houtryve, was all smiles. “He was one of my most challenging patients, but I knew it was in him to get up and walk and ride a bike,” she said.

Zachary’s mom, Receliza Nazareno, who supports her family as a nurse while her husband takes care of Zachary and his younger sister, Zoe, beamed at her son’s accomplishment Sunday. “This is his third pair of legs – Shriners has been so wonderful to us over the years.”

Gerard Nazareno called his son’s sickness terrifying and surreal, “but you do whatever it takes.”

“Life goes on, even through the darkest times,” Receliza added. “Now he’s thriving – he’s involved in wheelchair basketball and sled hockey and runs half a mile every day.”

The idea for the Epic Challenge came from Athena Johnson, 13, the granddaughter of Great Race founder Eppie Johnson. Athena was diagnosed with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, when she was 9 months old. Her parents, race organizers George and Molly Johnson, were told Athena might never walk. She had her first appointment at Shriners Hospital at 18 months, and after a comprehensive course of treatment, “at 26 months and one week, she began to walk and hasn’t slowed down since,” her mom said.

Athena competed last year in the annual Eppie’s Kids Duathlon and then asked her dad why there wasn’t an adaptive division for kids like her and her twin brother, Epaminondas George Johnson II, who has his own physical challenges. Shriners jumped at the idea, and for the Great Race’s 42nd year, they added the Epic Challenge.

“It was so awesome,” Athena said. “Malyia ran on her little stumps – it was intense!”

Athena and her brother E.G. didn’t compete this year, but both were big-time cheerleaders. “I hope we get more Challenge Division kids next year,” Athena said.

“It gives you a warm feeling to see this,” E.G. added. “They’re just kids. They really want to get out here and be normal kids.”

More than 60,000 children have been accepted for care since Sacramento’s Shriners Hospital for Children opened in April 1997 to provide specialized care and rehabilitation to children younger than 18 with congenital conditions and complex medical needs regardless of a family’s ability to pay, Curran said. Parents in need can call the referral center at 916-453-2191.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini