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8-year-old 'superstar' named 2024 ambassador of patients at Alberta Children's Hospital


A young Calgary-area girl has been chosen as this year's ambassador for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation because she's impressing doctors with her abilities and ambitions.

"She is a superstar," said Dr. Adam Kirton, a pediatric neurologist with Alberta Children's Hospital.

Claire Sonnenberg has cerebral palsy and is unable to move or talk on her own, but the eight-year-old is using cutting-edge technology called Brain Computer Interface (BCI) to explore the world and communicate like she never could before.

"It's a way for her to connect with the world without having to use her body. She can just use her brain," Kirton said.

"She is in a sense trapped in her body.

"But she's highly capable, very intelligent, very aware of the world around her."

With the use of a cap hooked up to her brain, Claire has learned to use her mind to control devices.

"I didn't believe it on Day 1 when she turned a light on, and then she drove a wheelchair," said Claire's mother, Stephanie Sonnenberg, who explained her daughter also loves to bake and started a cooking business.

"This year, she opened a company as an eight-year-old entrepreneur. So the future holds everything for her."

She has conquered such a wide variety of new skills that she stands out for doctors at Alberta Children's Hospital.

"We have many families participating who have all achieved things. But Claire and her family have been uniquely successful in not just the number of things they've learned to do, but in the different environments," Kirton said.

He says technologies like this are expanding rapidly, but few focus on children.

"Having kids like Claire and their families tell us what BCI needs to do for kids with unique brain challenges ... they give us the good ideas and we try to tweak the technology to make it work," Kirton said.

The technology is helping Claire express herself, gain independence and interact with her family including her two younger brothers.

"They can play board games with her they can play video games with her. And you know, she can shoot them with the water gun and they can actually get mad at her for doing something," their mom said.

"It's really life-changing."

This year is also expected to be life-changing.

As the official ambassador, Claire represents 100,000 kids cared for at the hospital each year at events in Canada and the U.S.

"It's just the biggest honour that she can get … and us as parents," her mom said.

Kirton says Alberta Children's Hospital is one of the leading facilities in clinical trials of BCI and there is a long wait list of patients hoping to be part of the program.

In Sept. 2022, the Sonnenberg family, from De Winton, Alta., launched a GoFundMe page aiming to raise $44,600 to help Claire walk.

As of Thursday, $30,000 had been raised.

With files from Timm Bruch Top Stories

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