Every time I hear about a near drowning on the news or read about one in the paper, I can’t help but get overcome with emotion as it brings me back to the day my own son, Brennan, made headlines for the very same reason. From the outside looking in, our son appears to be just another happy, healthy 8 year old. No one ever suspects that he is a near drowning survivor who has defied all odds.
It was September 21st, 2007, a beautiful, sunny day and Brennan’s 2nd birthday. I had just picked up my daughter from her morning kindergarten class and was preparing food for our birthday picnic we were going to have in the backyard. My daughter went up- stairs to our family room to watch television and my son was in the kitchen with me. I needed to use the washroom and went up-stairs as well, leaving Brennan in the kitchen. I was only gone for a few minutes and when I returned, he was gone. I didn’t worry at first as I figured he had just gone to another room. Looking across the kitchen, I noticed the patio door was slightly open and I walked over to see if he had gone out to the backyard. I didn’t see him outside. I looked around the house and asked my daughter if she had seen him. She said she hadn’t and I continued my search down to the basement. Still no luck finding him, and at this point my heart was beating a little faster. I again went to the backyard and called for him. No answer. All the gates were shut and the yard was completely fenced in.
A thousand thoughts went through my head and I ran to the front yard and glanced up and down the street for him. I started to think of all the horrible things that could happen to him. Once again in the back yard, I looked over at our small pond and a knot grew in my stomach. There was a bridge over the pond and not much room on either side but I was sick thinking that he may have fallen in there. I ran over and looked down. I saw nothing. No motion, no bubbles, no child. I felt a brief moment of relief and then more panic. I grabbed a phone from the house thinking I may need to call the police if I didn’t find him soon. As I went back out to the yard, I got and overwhelming feeling that I needed to check the pond again. This time I lifted the bridge that was over the pond and lay on the ground, reaching down into the pond as far as I could. Still, I did not feel or see anything. I couldn’t reach the bottom though, so I grabbed a pole from our shed and slowly went down one side and across the bottom. As I brought the pole up, I noticed an object coming up to the surface with it. When I first caught a glimpse of it through the dirty brown water, I though it may be a plastic bag. I took a step forward to have a closer look and immediately realized that it was actually Brennan’s arm. I dropped to the ground and pulled him out of the water. I laid him on the ground and called 911. I was shaking like a leaf and I must have been talking in a panic as the 911 operator asked me to slow down as she was having trouble understanding me. Those words were like a trigger and suddenly a strange calm came over me. I once again told her what had happened. I started to try and give him CPR and within minutes I was surrounded by firemen, policemen and paramedics.
It never crossed my mind that I may have just lost my son. I guess I just thought they would perform CPR, he would cough up some water and he would be back at home the next day. I did think of the possibility that the lack of oxygen may have affected his brain, but I could never have imagined what was to come.
Brennan was transported to a nearby hospital and they eventually got his heart going again. They began treating him for severe brain, liver & kidney hypoxic damage. He was going to need specialized care that they could not offer there so he was air lifted to another hospital out of town.
When I first saw Brennan in the PCCU (pediatric critical care unit) I was in shock at all the tubes and wires coming from his tiny body. One machine to breath for him, another to monitor his vital signs and a whole host of IV lines delivering fluids and medications. His eyes were closed and the little energetic boy who was running around just hours ago was lying there so lifelessly.
Over the next few hours, we were told repeatedly that Brennan was very sick and that this was a critical time for him. He was not out of the woods yet and we could still lose him.
We made it through that night pacing around next to his bed. Staring at the numbers on the monitors, and waiting, watching for a sign from him to tell us he was still there.
The next morning, we were taken to a room where we sat at a table with one of his doctors, his nurse and a social worker. They told us that they estimated that our son had been without oxygen for 45-55 min. and that he would have significant brain damage as a result. They explained that there was little hope of him ever living a “normal” life and that he would never be the same child we knew before the accident. After a short speech about quality versus quantity of life, they informed us we needed to make a decision about whether we wanted them to continue with life sustaining measures or whether we wanted to let him pass away.
We decided that we would face this head on and give Brennan the best life we could no matter what the outcome was. I am the first one to admit that given the information we had at the time, we made a very selfish decision. The thought of deciding to end our son’s life was just too much to bear. But were we sentencing him to a life in which he was bedridden and completely dependent on others like they suggested?
A few days later, the doctors lifted his sedation and we finally got a glimpse into his future. He seemed to be trying to move but every movement and every sign from our son that he was there and ready to come back to us was minimized by the doctors and nurses. “It’s just a twitch, involuntary movements” they would say. We saw it as a sign that he was fighting and we needed to keep fighting for him.
When he was not sedated, our son suffered from severe dystonia. We could barely hold him due to the severe arching. He required nightly sedation to sleep due to the pain and he was unable to control his own body temperature which led to a vicious cycle of fever reducers and cooling blankets alternated with heat to try and keep his temperature stable.
About two weeks after his accident, we were approached by a doctor who wanted to insert a G-tube for feeding. At that point they did not see our son being able to eat by mouth within the next 6-9 months and it was doubtful that he ever would. We felt like they hadn’t even given him a chance yet but we were informed that once he left the hospital, he would need extensive therapy and that he would not be able to receive it if he had an NG-Tube in. Reluctantly we signed the consent form. After postponing the surgery once due to his dystonia being too severe, the G-tube was eventually inserted. After two and a half weeks at the second hospital Brennan was transferred yet again. This time he was air lifted to The Hospital For Sick Children.
Although the doctors and nurses had kept our son alive, we felt as though they had given up any hope of him leading a “normal” life. Feeling alone and not knowing what to do, I started an internet search one night that changed everything. I came across a story from the 1990’s about a 2 year old boy who had fallen into a pond and had a near drowning. It was like reading our own story. They had listed the treatments they had tried and most I had heard of but one in particular caught my interest. HBOT or, hyperbaric oxygen therapy. I started to research the treatment and found many other stories about drowning victims, kids with autism and other disorders and how they benefitted from it. We decided that we needed to give it a shot. We managed to find a clinic that was willing to treat our son, all we had to do was get him there. He still required some sort of medication every 30 to 60 minutes and was still on oxygen. There was no way we could safely take him out of the hospital. However, we knew that the hospital across the street had hyperbaric chambers so we headed over to plead our case. The technician informed us that they could not help us and that it was not a proven treatment for brain injury. He told us it did not work and that we should not waste our time or money on it. We were determined to take him for treatment but we would have to wait until he was off oxygen. About a week later, he was off oxygen and after much pressuring and debate, we convinced the hospital to let us take our son out on a day pass. His dystonia was still so severe that he could not sit in a car seat and the hospital would not let us take him out if we were going to have him in a car. So, we brought in our stroller, reclined the seat all the way down and headed for the subway. It was a long trip first by subway, then bus and finally a taxi cab. A total of 6 hours to get there, have a treatment and return. The hospital thought we were crazy but we knew we had to try. That night, Brennan slept through the entire night without having to be sedated. A first since the accident. It was then that we knew we were on the right track.
Over the next two days we saw Brennan slowly start to come back. His eyes opened and we saw his mouth form a smile. He seemed calmer throughout the day as well.
At this point, about three and a half weeks after his accident, Brennan was transferred to Bloorview for in-patient treatment. He began to receive daily physical, occupational and speech and language therapy. On admission, he was still so dystonic he could not be put in a sitting position, he had no head, arm or leg control and even when he opened his eyes, he seemed distant. We then took him for a second and third HBOT treatment.
Slowly he began moving his right leg and rubbing his eyes with this hand. After just 4 treatments, he began to make noises and the severe arching caused by his dystonia was almost non-existent. By his 7th treatment and just ten days after his first treatment, he was trying to use his right arm and leg to roll over. By his 8th treatment he was starting to move his left leg and was able to turn his head when lying down. We continued to take him for treatments as often as we could and the results just kept coming. After only 10 treatments we were able to start weaning him off his medications and he had once again spoken his first word. Just shy of a month after starting hyperbaric treatments, we were able to start giving him small amounts of food by mouth again. Twenty treatments and one month later, our son was not only saying a few single words but was able to count to 3! By the middle of December he was eating all of his food by mouth and his G-tube was removed in January. We continued with treatments and he continued to progress quickly. His therapists were amazed at his progress and they too continued to work with him and watch as he met and surpassed their goals for him. We slowly saw him relearning all of the things he used to know. He progressed from sitting to crawling and slowly to walking independently again. Over the next 2 years Brennan received over 100 hyperbaric oxygen treatments and he continued to receive physical, occupational and speech and language therapies on a weekly then monthly basis. When the government covered therapies ran out, we paid for private sessions and we incorporated other non-traditional therapies like cranial sacral therapy and chiropractic therapies into his routine. We continued to watch him in amazement while he learned things both for the first and second time.
Brennan’s progress has been a long road filled with many ups and downs but his will to live and his perseverance through all his challenges has been nothing short of inspiring to us. Just over 6 years after his accident, I am proud to say that our son leads a pretty “normal” life. He is happy and healthy and very social. Physically, he functions quite well. He has minor balance problems and some weakness in his fine motor skills on his left side. He requires an ankle foot orthotic as he has some slight tone in his right leg which causes him to turn his foot inward slightly when he walks. Academically, he is also doing quite well. He is in grade three now and is functioning slightly below grade level but it is believed that the loss of time he had due to the accident is a contributing factor in that.
Brennan’s near drowning has changed our lives and his forever. It will always serve as a reminder of just how precious life is and how we as human beings can overcome even the most challenging of situations if given the right tools.