Five years, three months and three days ago, my little boy fell. William was 15 months old, and was getting into the trash can, so being the brilliant mother that I was, I took the trash can and placed it up on the sink. Because, of course, he couldn’t get it there. Unless he climbed up on the potty. So he climbed up on the potty. He had done this many times before, he was rather sure-footed and he was a climber. Those of you with little boys will understand that term.
I had my back to him, literally 18 inches from him, and he fell. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was terribly wrong with my little boy. When I tried to stand him up, his entire body just buckled. I laid him down, looked for obvious signs of injury but couldn’t find any. Then I realized that when I picked up his left leg, it was floppy. I tried his arm. Same thing with his left arm. He couldn’t sit up, he couldn’t even roll over. He was crying inconsolably; it was a strange cry, one I didn’t recognize. The 911 operator told me not to pick him up, because if his neck was broken, I could paralyze him. So I knelt over him, trying to comfort him, all the while my worst fears playing like a video in my head.
I remember crying and asking “Oh my God, what have I done to you? I’ve ruined your life…” I shouldn’t have had my back to him…If I hadn’t had my back to him, I would have seen him climbing and I could have stopped him from falling. The paramedics came and assured me nothing was wrong–he was fine. I told them that “*something* is wrong with him. He’s just not right.” At my insistance, they took us to the ER (imagine me and two screaming SCREAMING toddlers riding in the back of the ambulance), where I proceeded to wait well over an hour-maybe 2-with my child, because there was “nothing wrong with him.” I had hoped that I was wrong, but once the ER doctor saw William it became clear that there was, indeed, something to be concerned about. We were transferred to a bigger hospital that could handle more complicated cases.
I answered question after question about how the fall happened. I wondered if I was being questioned for another reason…I felt a bit like there was some suspicion, as though I may have caused some trauma that resulted in William’s injury. After about a day and a half of questions and tests, we finally had an answer.
William had suffered a stroke. While it is not that terribly uncommon for a child to suffer a stroke, it is uncommon for an otherwise healthy child to suffer a stroke. Most incidences of strokes in children are associated with other conditions such as sickle cell, or heart conditions. We then went through a battery of blood tests and an ultrasound on William’s heart, all of which came back normal. I don’t think we’ll ever have all of the answers we’d like( was it the fall that caused the stroke? or did the stroke cause the fall? and if so, what caused the stroke?).
I remember the neurologist, Dr. William McClintock, visiting and telling me that William was young, and that he should make a full recovery. I remember specifically that William’s face was affected by the stroke. His entire left side was limp, but it really showed on his beautiful little face. He smiled only once in the hospital and it broke my heart; his smile was disfigured. I was so worried about his face. And I remember asking Dr. McClintock if “even his face would look normal” again. He just smiled at me and said “yes, even his face.” He was such a gentle doctor. I really liked him. I wonder what he thought of me, the vain mother that was so concerned about her little boy’s face…
We were discharged and went home with a 15 month-old child that could no longer roll over, could no longer sit up unassisted, could not stand, or walk and could barely move his left side. They warned us that he could easily choke, that he may not be able to toilet easily, that drinks may just run out of his mouth because he may not be able to close his lips around a bottle or sippy cup. We struggled through the next few days, trying to figure out what our new “normal” was. William seemed to make progress on a daily basis. Within 3 days he could get to a seated position from his belly. At four days, he was cruising around the coffee table and rolling over. By day five William could stand, and by the sixth day post-stroke, he attempted to walk unassisted, crawled and pulled himself to a stand. This is truly unbelievable progress. I understand now what a blessing it was that William was a “mover.” From the moment he was born he couldn’t sit still. (He STILL has ants in his pants, especially during Mass.) Without this antsy nature about him, I am not sure that he would have been so successful. We spent a few years in physical therapy. At first it was 2-3 times per week, then once a week, down to twice per month, until the need faded. He wore a brace for a good part of that time and an insert in his shoe to keep his foot from pronating.
Today, William is a very normal little boy. He swims, he plays baseball and soccer, he rides his bike and his scooter and he can keep up with the best of them. I am constantly amazed by him. I watch him sometimes, and I remember the days when I wondered what his life would be like. Would he always wear a brace? Would he be coordinated? Would he be able to play sports competitively? I analyzed every little movement, to see if he was using both feet equally, to see if his left side was as strong as the right, and if he had equal balance. When you have a child with special needs, you lose the naivety you once had. You realize how complicated and fragile our lives are, and that when one thing “breaks” it often affects many different parts in ways you never would have expected. I longed for the days when I could watch him play and just enjoy what I was seeing, and not analyze each step he took. Even now, though I can watch him and feel confident that he is well, I worry about another stroke. We were given less than a 5% chance that would happen again, but for me, 5% is bigger than I’d like.
All of that history is to get you to this. Last Friday, we were seeing a new family doctor, and I was filling out the new patient forms for William. A million questions always errupt when a doctor sees the health history of this six year old boy. As he read through the papers, the doctor asked me what the presenting symptom of the stroke was, and I began to tell him how he had fallen off the potty… He got this puzzled look on his face and asked what hospital. When I told him, he said to me “I was there.” He said “I remember you, and how you reacted when we diagnosed William, and it has never left me. I never forgot that.” (For all of you wondering, I have no idea how I reacted, but I wonder, too, what I did that left such an impression.) What are the chances that our new family doctor would be one of those that worked on William’s stroke diagnosis?!
He told me that pediatric strokes “don’t happen very often.” He asked me questions that I don’t remember our other doctors asking. He really looked at William. He looked at his muscle tone, at his back, at his balance. He asked to see his old records. I sat there, watching my little boy. To look at him you would never know what challenges he faced 5 years ago. No one asks anymore, about how William is doing — that is probably a good thing. But I felt appreciative that this doctor did. I am so glad that he knows what William went through, and how far he has come. I feel really blessed that we found our way to him. And I am constantly amazed how life sometimes comes full circle. I am certainly happy that it does.