Surgery brings hope to kids impacted by rare illness

(CBS) -- Maipele Burns was born with chronic asthma, but an attack just before her second birthday was different.

"She takes the nebulizer, that wasn't working. So I called a friend to take us to the emergency room," says Carlene Burns, Maipele's mother.

She appeared to make a full recovery in the hospital, but when she returned home…

"She was playing… normal kid… and my husband noticed her arm was kind of just hanging there."

Maipele had lost all function in her right arm. She was diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM, a rare condition that can be caused by a virus. AFM affects the nervous system, specifically part of the spinal cord. Muscles and reflexes are weakened and some patients are left paralyzed.

"About half of kids with AFM will strengthen up enough on their own that they won't require any form of surgical intervention for their nerves... the other half won't," said Dr. Mitchel Seruya at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Seruya is pioneering nerve transfer surgery to help these patients. For Maipele, doctors performed two surgeries, taking nerves from her ribs and diaphragm and diverting them to her arm to make her fingers, wrist and elbow bend and straighten.

"You have to get in there by 8 to 12 months ideally to fix the nerve. Otherwise, the nerve loses its connection to the muscle and at that point, you run the risk of not being able to reverse the paralysis."

Therapists have been working with Maipele to train her nerves. It's been 18 months since the first surgery. The now four-year-old has regained movement in her elbow and hand.

"We had to teach her how to go up the stairs, how to get up. We try to treat her like a normal kid."

Doctors hope as she continues with therapy, she will see even more improvement.