Have you ever had a day that changes the entire trajectory of your life? A day that when you look back on it, if your life was a movie you can distinctly see the foreshadowing moments. I have known this day was coming. I have written this story 100 times in my head. It’s a day that I wish had never happened, but also a day that I never want to forget.
It was 2013. It was a Saturday. And to talk about February 9th, I always remember the foreshadowing on the night of February 8th. Some of my oldest son’s friends had changed out their regular skateboard decks and added penny board wheels. The boys were all 12 and 13 year olds and had decided this made the board go faster. My son had changed his out and wanted me to come step on it. As soon as my feet were on the board, it flew out from under me. I landed on my elbow, sure that it must be broken (it was not). I am not a skateboarder, so this may have happened with any board. I just share it because looking back it seems so obvious as to what would follow.
The next morning I laughed about it with some friends at my daughter’s soccer game. We talked about how my husband’s dad was doing (his leukemia had turned to lymphoma, hospice had been set up, and my husband had just recently returned from being with him in Virginia). My daughter and I were heading to Naples immediately after the game. It was about a three hour drive from where we lived in Stuart, Florida. We got over there and visited all my family. At about 3:00, my husband called to tell me that our oldest son had fallen off of his skateboard, while riding on our road, and hit the back of his head. I could hear my son in the background, a little distraught, but that was not abnormal for him at this age. I felt a little nervous, but knew my husband would make the right decisions. He called me a few hours later to tell me that our son had started throwing up and he thought that was a sign of a concussion so he was taking him to our local emergency room. Later, when I called to see what had happened, he told me that they had done a CT scan and that there was blood on his brain.
I was racking my mind with what that meant in relation to a concussion. What did that mean? Why was my husband so calm? Later, he would call me back and tell me that they had decided to MedFlight our son to the trauma hospital in West Palm Beach. This was about a 45 min drive away from Stuart. They thought the helicopter would be faster (with the amount of time that they waited for the helicopter to show up, that’s highly doubtful). It was pushing 9:00. Do I come tonight even though I’m exhausted? Do I get up and head over early in the morning? I didn’t know what to do. My husband was so calm that I still wasn’t sure what was going on. I got my son on the phone and asked if he wanted me to come. He said yes, so I packed up our stuff and jumped in my car and my mom jumped in hers to head over and watch my other two kids.
We flew down back roads across the state. We picked a way that would avoid cities and stoplights. Ten minutes into the ride, I called my husband to tell him that I was on the way. He told me that his father had lost his battle with cancer. He had gotten the phone call while sitting in the emergency room waiting to hear what the results of our son’s CT were. And suddenly I understood his calmness this entire time. He was in shock. I was in shock. This was a surreal experience, this flying through the outskirts of towns across the state of Florida late at night.
I needed gas. Parts of West Palm can be sketchy. I don’t know where those parts are. The hospital is located in an area where it closes all the gates surrounding except the one into the ER. We come to a gas station on the outskirts of town. I put my daughter in my mom’s car, give her the keys to my house, and then I fill up my tank and head to the hospital. I walk inside and check-in. The pediatric ER is closed, so my son is in the regular ER. I’m let inside and there is a police officer who asks me who I’m looking for. I don’t know if this is normal that he is there, but he walks me to the room. My son is there, looking like his normal self. They tell me that he has an epidural hematoma and a skull fracture. The neurosurgeon has seen his CT and will talk to us at some point, but he is in surgery.
My son tells me that when he was wheeled in that he saw a man with his head split open and a glazed look on his face. He repeats the way the man’s eyes looked during the time we are waiting there. I know that he is disturbed, and I am sad that he had to see such a thing. I don’t know if it’s the guy in space next to us. There are police in there taking pictures of the man’s shoes, asking where his clothes are (I think they need pictures of those too) There has been some type of bar fight. Maybe this is why the policeman was sitting at the front desk. This person will need the neurosurgeon. My son tells me about the parts of the helicopter ride that he was awake during. The landing pad at our local hospital is on the water. The men in the helicopter would give him a thumbs up to be sure he was fine. The helicopter was fast.
Sometime after midnight we are taken to the Pediatric ICU. They don’t think we’ll need the services, but want the nurse ratio that is on ICU. Only one person can stay. That’s all there is room for anyway. My husband leaves, and I try to get our son settled. He is groaning, he is tired, but his head hurts so bad that he cannot sleep. This goes on for a while. My body is completely worn out, finally running out of the adrenaline that it has been functioning on. He falls asleep and I do so intermittently. At 3:00 in the morning, the neurosurgeon comes in. He is a tall, broad man with big hands. Hands that have been saving somebody’s life while I have laid in this room with my son. He tells me that I may have looked up an epidural hematoma and saw the actress that recently died from one (he is talking about Natasha Richardson), my heart lurches into my throat and I feel ill, but he tells me this fracture is on the occipital bone which is on the back of his skull, not the temporal bone above the ear that an epidural hematoma is usually associated with; the blood clot has not grown and he will not require surgery.
My husband and I rotated stays at home with our other kids and stays at the hospital with our son. I was traveling the 45 minute drive down to West Palm on I-95 when the song “I will praise you in this storm” by Casting Crowns comes on and I raise my hand, singing loudly with tears streaming down my face. I am in a storm, but I am also so thankful that my son is alive. One of the doctors tells him that he is far ahead of other kids that he sees there because he has family with him. I think this is so sad that some children, most much sicker, are on the ICU with nobody there. I can’t stand to have him there alone. He will end up getting more CT’s and a very long, very thorough MRI. I don’t think he realizes how serious it could have been until one of the doctor’s tells him that with an epidural hematoma most people seem fine and then go into a coma that they never awaken from. I know this is true. I have read about it. They call it the “talk and die syndrome”. I am thankful that this is not our outcome.
He is finally able to eat real food and leave the bedside to travel to the bathroom. The combination of the two makes him sick. When the neurosurgeon (a different one than our first) hears that, he says that he must stay another day. They tell us that they are going to move him to the main floor. He is looking forward to that because he can finally take a shower and brush his teeth. The next day, there is a lady coming around offering pillowcases to the children on the pediatric floor. It is the 12th, almost Valentine’s Day, he picks one and puts it on his pillow even though we are waiting to be discharged. In our world of social media, I suppose people would have lots of pictures, but it never occurred to me until this moment to take a picture. I was too engrossed in living moment to moment and remembering to breathe.
My husband has to leave on the 13th for his father’s funeral. Obviously, we will not be going with him. On the evening of February 15th, my son starts have some vision problems. He can’t describe them exactly, but says it’s similar to seeing through a fish eye lens. The distortion is making him feel very nauseous. I call the trauma center from the number on his discharge papers. They tell me since the fracture is in the area of vision center, I should take him for another CT just to be safe. They tell me to just go to the local hospital since it’s evening time. My husband is still in Virginia, so I load up my 8, 10, and 12 year old and head to the ER.
We walk in and the girl at the check-in desk asks him why he’s back. It never occurred to me that they might remember him. I was not here for the original part of this hospital visit. The woman who takes our insurance information tells me that they were just talking about him at the morning meeting, wondering what happened, not knowing because of HIPAA. This also had never occurred to me. She calls the woman over who had checked them in the day of his accident. She begins to cry. And in that moment, I realize how serious it had been. This woman did not know if my son had died. By the time I had seen him many hours later, he seemed to be his normal self. She is beside herself with tears of joy that my son is alive. We wait an interminably long time in the back after our test, entertaining ourselves by cracking jokes and going into the hall and dancing and making monkey noises. They come in and tell us that nothing has changed on the CT and that it is post concussion syndrome. As we leave, the lady asks if she can give my son a hug, crying again, and even though I am exhausted because it is late, I am happy that we are there. That she has peace over this heaviness she carried for a child that she did not know.
He would spend the next two weeks at home. And then I would take him to school half days, rotating which classes each day. I did not let him spend lunch there because he was not supposed to be around a lot of noise to let his brain rest. I did not let him participate in PE the rest of the school year. The neurosurgeon had warned me that any brain injury within three months of the last is considered a “rebound injury” and the effects would be worse. I also didn’t allow him on anything with wheels until the “all clear” CT three months later. That was a long time for him, and he joyously awoke that morning and rode everything with wheels before school. To say I was a nervous wreck was an understatement. Leading up to this time, we had reassessed things, spent time in prayer and had various signs that pointed we should move closer to my mother-in-law after my father-in-law’s passing. A job opportunity had opened up and my husband had already moved by the time the day of “wheels” occurred.
This is my son’s YouTube video about that day. It’s also featured at Getusedtoit.com a collaboration between Triple8Nyc and Mike Vallely about helmet usage.
His recollection differs somewhat in minor places from mine. As it should. We were two different people living out the experience in different ways. He was a 12 year old boy who had just suffered a traumatic brain injury and I, the mother trying to process it all.
Today, I am grateful for all three of my children and I remember my father-in-law. My in-laws were high school sweethearts, traveling the world for 20 years with the Navy, and finally settling down in a small town in Virginia to become teachers. He always called her “doll” and she called him “love”. I remember the last time I would spend with him in the summer before he passed away. We were sitting beside the pool. He told me that he was ready to go, but was trying to make it past my mother-in-law. He did not want her to be alone. And as much as my tears welled up as he said this to me, I couldn’t help but be in awe of a love so deep. As one of my favorite poems says, “do not go gently into that good night” and he didn’t, he “raged against the dying of the light”
That day changed the trajectory of our lives and is how I now find myself in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. In a few weeks, I will celebrate my son’s sixteenth birthday, I will celebrate the man that he is becoming, and I will rejoice that we made it through the storm.
Let your light shine!