Heidi and her husband David re-located their family from California to Massachusetts to teach and live at a boarding school. Both teachers, they work with children on a daily basis. However, their lives changed on Sept. 8, 2004 when their second child, Jacob, then 2 1/2 years old, fell from a third-story screened window onto a concrete courtyard below.
“When he first fell, a student saw it happen and ran to tell David,” Heidi explains. “Jacob then had a seizure during his ambulance ride, and the doctors immediately put an intra-cranial pressure device in because of the nature of his injury.” Jacob spent 17 days on a ventilator in a drug-induced coma so that his body and brain could heal with minimal movement.
Some early evidence of Jacob’s injury included an inability to speak due to the ventilator, and his cognitive abilities were not what they had been before the accident. “Jacob knew his colors before the accident. In therapy following the accident, he did not,” says Heidi. “He knew who his parents were, but he was lethargic and acted much like a four-month-old for a while. We called him a Raggedy Ann doll!
“When he left UMASS, we went to Franciscan Hospital for Children. I remember the first time I was able to discipline him again. Jacob was sitting in his crib, doing something I had told him not to do. —‘Jacob I asked you to stop, I need you to stop.’ Who would have thought disciplining a child would have been a great thing, but it was a sign of his recovery.” Jacob spent three months in in-patient rehabilitation at Franciscan. He was then in early intervention for six weeks. He received outpatient physical, occupational and speech services for two more years, as well as services in the school system. Even now, nine years later, he continues to receive speech therapy, and he just recently discontinued adaptive physical education.
Currently, Jacob is an 11-year-old fifth grader with hemiparisis on his right side, as well as some learning issues. “He had a neuropsychological exam three years ago by a woman who works with people who have brain injuries, and it was determined that he has some recall and retention issues,” says Heidi. “Anything with numbers, he remembers. But, if he reads a book today and I ask him questions about it tonight, he can’t recall specifics from the book.” Jacob is also fatigued by the end of the day, and is dealing with the emotional piece including impulsivity and anger. “Sometimes we aren’t sure if it’s the brain injury or just his age, since he’s moving into his teenage years,” says Heidi.
She says that her biggest frustration is that people do not realize how easily brain injury can happen. “Why don’t more people wear helmets? Or keep a couch away from a window?” Heidi and David advocate for helmets in activities like riding bicycles and scooters and skateboards. She wants people to become more aware of how easily brain injuries can happen.
She also gets frustrated by people’s perception of individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI). “When people hear brain injury they automatically think, ‘quadriplegic living at home forever,’ when they could be highly functional individuals who just need our patience,” explains Heidi.
“Many injuries can be prevented. When your child is arguing with you about wearing a helmet, because it isn’t the cool thing to do, talk to them about the alternative. Of course you need to keep the discussion age appropriate, but as a parent, you do not want to be standing over your child in PICU, wondering what their future will be like. We have been there. We have seen other families’ realities – what life is like for them now. We were lucky – Jacob is highly functioning, and many people would never know he has a TBI. But you may not be so lucky. Brain injuries can happen very easily. Take precautions!”