November 20, 2019 // Written for the Columbia Missourian by Claire Hassler
Taylor and Ally Moreland were preparing dinner one night when they glanced into their living room and realized their 1-year-old son had disappeared.
“Where’s Brody?” Ally asked.
“I don’t know,” her husband replied.
They looked in the living room; Brody wasn’t there. After calling for him a few times, they eventually found him in a bedroom down the hall.
Most parents would be terrified to have their baby go missing, but the Morelands were overjoyed.
Born with spina bifida, Brody is paralyzed from the rib cage down. He had spent the first 12 months of his life lying wherever someone put him down. Now he was mobile.
For the first time, he had moved on his own from one room to another, just like any other kid.
“It was the craziest moment, and I will never forget it," Taylor Moreland said. “It's amazing. He’s getting into trouble and running away from us.”
A device called "The Frog" made all the difference. Brody’s parents designed it for their son when they couldn't find any contraption that would allow him to crawl and interact with his surroundings the way most toddlers do.
Both a cart and a wheelbarrow, The Frog puts Brody’s lower half on wheels and enables him to use his arms to pull himself around, as if he were crawling.
As a baby with spina bifida, Brody “spent a lot of time on the floor on his belly,” his father said. The baby could move a bit from side to side and play with toys in front of him, but anything out of his reach was off limits.
His condition is caused by a disconnect between the spinal cord and the human muscle system, keeping the muscles from being able to “fire” on their own.
It’s relatively rare — 1,600 babies of the nearly 4 million born in the U.S. annually have spina bifida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brody’s condition is extremely rare because he has a combination of spina bifida and spinal cord atrophy, which means an area of his spinal cord is much thinner than it should be.
A tinkerer with power tools at his disposal, Taylor Moreland was determined to build a device so his son could move.
His first effort was just a board with a rolling pin attached to the back and two caster wheels on the front.
“It did not work at all,” Moreland said with a laugh.
The next experiment became the model for The Frog. In August 2018, Moreland combined leftover hardwood flooring with two wheels from one of Brody’s old toys. The green plastic wheels propped the wooden cart off the ground. Fabrifoam bandages served as Brody’s chest strap.
The Morelands took this model to Brody’s physical therapist, Gerti Motavalli, figuring she’d have good input. The three had always taken a collaborative approach to Brody’s care.
“I just knew that he had something very special there,” Motavalli recalled.
Their device is different from others on the market because it allows a crawling child to rest his head. Motavalli has also noticed the physical benefits of The Frog in helping to strengthen Brody’s upper body, improve his posture and engage different muscles than those he uses to sit upright.
It took a few weeks, however, for Brody to master the piece of equipment. To motivate him, the Morelands used blueberries as an enticement.
Brody's mother would sit on the floor with a blueberry a few feet away from him. He’d scoot toward her and eat his tasty snack, then head to the next mission — perhaps reaching his dad across the room.
It has been a resounding success, Motavalli said. When Brody uses The Frog, “he has this bright grin on his face,” she said.
What began as an effort to help their son has evolved into the Frog Mobility Project.
The Morelands wanted to share The Frog so other kids with spina bifida could move the way their son does. They didn't want to charge for it because parents with disabled children already spend so much money on therapy and equipment.
Since the first model was invented a year ago, the Morelands have refined their craft. They have a workshop in the office of their agriculture business, Moreland Seed & Soil, about a mile outside Centralia.
Surrounded by farmland, the 20-by-30-foot room inside the office has become the headquarters for Frog Mobility.
Since that first model, the Morelands have built and given away more than 150 Frogs to kids who need them in at least seven countries.
The manufacturing process has also been streamlined. When all of the Frog pieces were cut by hand, the device took six hours to build. Now, with a computer-controlled router, it takes only three.
A robot arm cuts shapes from a half-inch sheet of red PVC plastic as easily as if it were a hand moving through water. Then, once the plastic pieces are cut, the device is assembled by hand, still an intricate, time-consuming job.
As an agriculture business owner, Moreland had to teach himself to work with plastic forming, relying on YouTube videos and pointers from a machine shop in town.
When he reached the limit of time he could devote to design lessons, he contacted the MU College of Engineering to find students interested in the project and now has one making 3D images for him.
In January, the Morelands introduced a GoFundMe page, hoping to send Frogs to a few families who needed them. Their page received slow but steady donations until $25,000 was pledged.
At that point, local news outlets were interested, the national media picked up the story and it spread like wildfire. Both "Good Morning America" and "World News Tonight" aired short clips about the project in June, which prompted another $50,000 in donations in less than 30 minutes.
"Orders just started rolling in. Emails started rolling in,” Taylor Moreland said.
“It was really overwhelming and quite humbling,” his wife added.
Arisa Midgett, who lives two hours from Chicago, was one of the first to get a Frog. She ordered it in April for her son Max, who also has spina bifida.
Midgett said her son, 20 months, figured out how to use his Frog within a week and could cruise around the house after a month or two. He uses it to follow around his brothers, Xander, 8, and Axton, 3.
“The Frog is really nice that he can still do his little army crawl, but his legs stay out of the way,” Midgett said.
The Morelands rely on friends and family to keep up with the ever-growing demand for the Frogs. At one point, they were 70 orders behind when Ally’s brother gathered the entire extended family for a weekend in July.
Everyone worked in assembly-line fashion to catch up with the orders.
“It's exhausting, but you can get a lot of frogs made,” Ally Moreland said.
After Brody began using the new device, Ally said his cognitive development “exploded.” He learned new words and become more social and outgoing.
“It kind of helped him create his own little personality because of his independence,” his mother said.
Tracy Stroud, a developmental pediatrician at MU who has never met the Morelands but has heard about The Frog, said children experience physical and cognitive benefits when they start to crawl.
“You have to be able to access your environment and develop skills by being able to see things from various perspectives and distances,” Stroud said.
From a cognitive standpoint, Stroud said early mobility develops a child’s visual-spatial skills, which allows a person to understand space, measure distance and navigate their environment.
In Brody’s case, Stroud said adding access with The Frog gives him opportunities for social development, creativity and exploring his environment.
Now a lively 2-year-old, Brody zooms around his house on The Frog like a pro. His tiny fists reach out in front to touch the floor and propel him forward.
Sometimes he alternates hands, or he'll hold a sippy cup of milk in one hand while his other does all the work. But most of the time, he uses both hands to achieve optimum speed.
He can race around the island in his kitchen, chase his cat, Jill, around the house and duck under a bedsheet fort in his living room. Motavalli said the older Brody gets, the less he will use The Frog. She predicts when he is turns 5, he will want to be upright in a wheelchair.
Brody’s parents are ready for that, too. They’ve built other devices to make Brody’s world more adaptive and playful, including The Giraffe, a child-sized table with a circular hole in the middle. Wearing a full-body brace, Brody can stand on a lazy Susan inside the hole and spin himself around.
They’ve also built the GoBro, a mini wheelchair low to the ground so Brody can reach his toys on the floor. The GoBro has a built-in toilet, important for kids who follow strict bowel programs. Routines are necessary when someone is paralyzed at the waist because they don't feel bathroom cues.
“People who don't live this life don't really understand that or what freedom it brings you, but it's really amazing for us,” Brody's mother said. “It makes life a lot easier.”
According to Motavalli, building devices for Brody is just one example of the family’s hard work and dedication.
“They are some of the most amazing people I've worked with in 30 years, just so dedicated and so detailed, so smart,” Motavalli said.
In fact, this year, Moreland is one of three recipients of the Patient Innovation Award, sponsored by Patient Innovation, which recognizes innovative medical solutions.
Motavalli will accept the award in Paris in early December on Moreland's behalf because the family is busy with Brody’s newborn brother, Brett.
“He's what drives innovation in our company,” Taylor Moreland said about Brody. “He's kind of the product design engine, I guess.”