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Thoughts on my Birthday

Luke2Five years ago, I had the most intense birthday of my life.

Two weeks earlier, my youngest son Luke was in a single car accident early in the morning on Memorial Day. He was headed to work when he went off the road, down an embankment, and hit a tree. We got the emergency call from my sister, who said it was very serious, but when we got to the scene, the paramedics said he took a knock to the head and hurt his ankle, but seemed to be okay otherwise. They sedated him to remove him from his Jeep, a fact which worried Lissa, since combativeness after a head injury is an indicator of potentially severe damage.

We got to the hospital, and went to the ER, where I was allowed back into the treatment room. I think my son Isaac was back there with me. They’d given Luke a drug to counter the sedative, and he was very groggy, but did smile once when Isaac made a joke. The orderly came to move Luke to the ICO for observation and we were told we could see him in a few minutes.

The few minutes turned into an hour and when we were finally called in, we were told that Luke had decompensated, a fancy medical word for getting much worse. They had put him into an induced coma and initiated the Traumatic Brain Injury protocol. When we saw him next, he was on a respirator and had a hole drilled in his skull for a monitor to watch his Inter Cranial Pressure or ICP.

The next two weeks were a roller coaster with more valleys than peaks. Luke was diagnosed with DAI, or Diffuse Axonal Injury, more commonly known as shaken baby syndrome. The injury can be very severe but his neurologist felt that his injury was fairly mild, and that he had a good chance of complete recovery, with some minor personality changes. Unfortunately, his lungs reacted badly to the ventilator and began failing. They were scarring, filling with fluid, and not transferring oxygen to his bloodstream. They crashed so quickly that Luke was too sick for a tracheotomy, which is protocol for patients in his condition.

We hit the low point on the night of June 13th. His blood oxygen level was sinking, and worse, his blood was becoming acidic due to the buildup of CO2. Around 11PM that night, the doctor on duty said we had to take drastic action and a major risk, or he felt we were going to lose Luke. The hospital had a special bed coming in the morning that rotated 360 degrees, which would allow the lung tissues on the back side of his lungs to come more fully into play, taking some of the burden off the front side, which were in horrible shape. But in order for Luke to make it through the night, the doctor said he would have to be placed prone and propped up with pillows. The risk was that his lungs would react poorly to the move, and he would lose what little breathing capacity he had left.

He asked us what we wanted him to do.

Luke in the ICU

Luke in the ICU

Three days before, I had been sitting by Luke’s side in the ICU, praying harder than I’ve ever prayed before or since. There’s a verse in the Bible about the wordless groanings of the spirit, and I can tell you that I know exactly what that means. In the midst of that prayer, I felt a cool breeze and was filled with the assurance that Luke was going to be okay. I’d like to pretend that my faith was strong and that I boldly told the doctor to do what was necessary, but that would be a lie. I did tell him to do what was best, but I was filled with fear. I mentioned to Luke’s nurses that I hoped the move didn’t kill him since the next day was my birthday. They looked shocked and asked if I were joking; I could only say that I wasn’t.

Led by the head nurse, the medical team and Lissa and I prayed together before Luke was moved to the prone position.  Shortly after midnight, the team went into action and flipped Luke over onto his belly, propped him up with pillows, and the waiting began.

By morning on my birthday, Luke was still hanging in there. His blood oxygen had come up, but his acidity had remained the same, which was not a hopeful sign. The doctors told us that if his numbers didn’t improve soon, and significantly, it would no longer be a question of if there would be additional brain damage, but how much. They moved Luke to his new bed, flipped him upside down so he was dangling from the bed, and started rocking him side to side, almost a full 180 degrees. Throughout the day, Luke’s blood gases started to improve; CO2 coming down, O2 going up. By midnight, it was pretty clear that he had turned the corner. Isaac bought me a slice of cake from the gift store and wrote ‘Happy-ish Birthday!’ on the plastic cover.

I still have that cover.

We were still on the roller coaster, but this time, there were more peaks than valleys. As he improved, they finally got to put a trach tube in. Luke improved enough over the next two weeks that the doctors terminated the TBI protocol and began to wake him up.

The big question was how much damage occurred due to the lung failure and nobody could tell us anything for certain. Luke woke slowly over the course of several days, and we went from being quiet and not disturbing him to talking to him, asking questions even though he couldn’t respond yet, and in general stimulating him. He could squeeze hands on command and to answer simple questions, but we didn’t know how much of him was actually there.

Luke out in the sun for the first time.

Luke out in the sun for the first time.

Until the day he tried to use sign language to ask a question. At that point, we knew he was going to be just fine.

In all, Luke spent 29 days in the ICU, another 6 days in the hospital, and 7 days in a rehab facility before coming home. His full recovery took about a year, and he has some slight lingering impact from the accident, mainly a stiff knee and a stiffer neck. But then, the boy did need a little seasoning so that isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Every year, when my birthday comes around again, I remember those days and nights spent living at the hospital. And I remember the night before my birthday, thinking we might lose my son.

But mostly, I remember the day we discovered we weren’t going to lose him after all.


Luke and Gideon, my newest grandson.

Luke and Gideon, my newest grandson.

Best birthday ever.


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