FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Little Cheyenne Leslie entered the Ocean Medical Center and ran into the arms of her physical therapist, to the cheers of smiling staff workers as the girl seemed unhindered by her arm and leg brace. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts.
Hours later, the 4-year-old who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant — and who doctors once said likely would be confined to a wheelchair for life — ran through an airport terminal Tuesday evening to hug a soldier mother who missed her child's first unaided steps.
Cyd Leslie, a 24-year-old Army specialist who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other posts abroad for the past year and a half, had only seen video of her daughter's first successes walking alone.
The last time Leslie saw Cheyenne in person, she would take a few tentative steps and stumble. So to finally see her walking, much less running, seemed nothing short of a miracle for this mother back on a holiday break.
"I'll never forget this feeling," Leslie said, wearing fatigues, moments after Cheyenne bounded into her arms.
'Miracles Do Happen'
At the playground near her home, Cheyenne would watch other children on seesaws and swings, monkey bars and ropes. But it was the slide that captivated her.
"Grandma, why can't I do that?" she said, watching the children walk up the steep steps.
It broke Grandma Dominga Leslie's heart. "Someday you will," she told her.
Doctors offered little hope when Cheyenne began having seizures only a few weeks after she was born. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors said they would just have to wait and see if she could ever walk or talk.
Mother and grandmother were stunned at the news. Cyd couldn't speak for an hour.
"I looked at her and said, 'I know what the doctors say, but we believe in God and miracles do happen,'" Dominga Leslie said.
Dominga Leslie, who cared for Cheyenne and her 2-year-old sister, Niome, while their mother was overseas, prayed for a miracle ever since. By chance, she found Therapies 4 Kids, an intensive physical therapy program.
The program's waiting room is filled with hopeful parents from France, Italy and the U.S., all marking small victories together. The first time Maria lifts her head. Matteo's first crawls. When 17-year-old Georgia says "mother" for the first time in over a decade.
And certainly, little Cheyenne's first steps.
Four hours a day, five days a week, Cheyenne reaches for bean bags to strengthen her right arm, balances on one leg, stabilized by pulleys in the "spider cage," and practices with a speech therapist. The rest of the year, Cheyenne works with her therapist, "Miss Sheryl," a few times a week.
First victories come small. Around the house, Grandma Leslie noticed Cheyenne using the furniture to pull herself up and taking some steps.
During a party at a friend's house, Cheyenne sits and watches as other children run and play. Suddenly, Cheyenne is standing, taking determined steps toward the youngsters.
"She's walking!" Grandma Leslie yelled. "We just started screaming and crying and jumping."
Soon Cheyenne, a lithe girl with black braids and pierced ears, was climbing into her car seat unaided. By October she was running to greet her grandmother after school.
Her speech began improving, too.
Seeing an airplane overhead, she would point and say, "Airplane, bring my mommy home."
Minutes before Cyd Leslie's plane landed Tuesday night, Cheyenne jumped and squealed as she said, "Mommy's coming."
For Cyd, seeing steps in real life was "breathtaking."
The last time Cyd saw Cheyenne, "she was walking with assistance. She was falling everywhere," she added.
Now, watching her daughter run through the terminal, she declared: "I never thought I'd see it."
Leslie is home for a two-week Christmas break and will report back to Germany for a few months before she's permanently reunited with her daughters. Her first plan with her now very active daughter is a trip to Disney World.
It's taken more than 200 hours of intense physical therapy over the years for Cheyenne to learn to walk, run and climb the steps to the slide.
With insurance only covering a fraction of physical therapy, it's much harder to make significant progress with children with neurological disabilities, said Eileen de Oliveira, the center's president.
Her son Lucas, who also has cerebral palsy, learned to walk at Therapies 4 Kids. She and her husband later bought the facility and opened locations in New York, Miami, even Bahrain. The children come for weeks at a time from all over the world.
The therapy is costly. But de Oliveira said the nonprofit she started, Bright Steps Forward, raises funds for kids who can't afford treatment so none is turned away.
Cheyenne's family never paid a penny.
Hours before Tuesday's reunion, de Oliveira and a surrogate family of therapists watched Cheyenne as she balanced on a tiny, blue beam and later as she colored a "Welcome Home" poster for her mom.
They understand the magnitude of her tiny steps into a soldier's arms.