A brief moment. That’s how long it took for ten month old Jesse, who had just learned to walk the week before, to fall into his grandparents’ backyard pond. It was this brief moment that would change the life of this little boy, and his family forever.
It was May 17, 2012, and Kristin was playing with Jesse in the backyard of her parent’s house. He had just awoken from his afternoon nap and Kristin was putting together a small tent for Jesse to play with while he played beside her. After only a minute, Kristin noticed Jesse was no longer within sight, at the same time, Kristin’s mom came outside after she couldn’t spot him either from the kitchen window where she had watched him play just minutes earlier. Kristin immediately scanned the backyard and then saw something she will never be able to erase from her memory. Her little boy’s body in the garden pond, still and lifeless.
Kristin ran to Jesse, pulled him out of the water and felt the blood drain from her body. Her ears pounded with the thumping sound of her heart racing as she tried to absorb what was happening. Jesse's grandmother Bonnie ran inside to call 911.
Kristin knew what she needed to do. She had taken CPR courses before and quickly began giving Jesse chest compressions and breaths. “Even though I had taken three CPR courses before, you don’t expect that you will need to use it on anyone, far less your own child,” said Kristin. “I just couldn’t believe what was happening; I just kept doing CPR while screaming for help.”
A neighbour and off duty police office, Peter Morris, was just returning home when he heard the calls for help and hopped fences to reach Kristin and Jesse. He was able to take over CPR for Kristin and paramedics arrived within minutes and rushed him to the nearest hospital by ambulance.
In the hours that followed, medical teams worked tirelessly to keep Jesse alive. He endured 45 minutes of CPR, and suffered two cardiac arrests before he was stable enough for the Pediatric Critical Care Transport Team to transport him to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. The prognosis did not look good. Doctors were uncertain if Jesse would make it through the night and tried bracing the family for the worst. “I couldn’t believe what they were telling me,” recalls Kristin. “Only a few hours before this, we were laughing and running around playing, and now he had tubes and lines coming out of him everywhere. It seemed like there wasn’t even an inch of skin on him for me to kiss.”
Over that heart-wrenching night, Kristin never left her baby’s side. Morning came, and Jesse had survived the night. Every day after that for two weeks, Jesse’s family had to face the day not knowing if it would be his last; they tried to remain cautiously optimistic.
After two weeks in the hospital, Jesse’s breathing tube was being removed and it was explained to Kristin that it was likely he would succumb to his injuries at that point. She made the agonizing decision to allow Jesse to be an organ donor should he not survive. Kristin laid beside her little boy as they removed his ventilator, the medical team and the coroner stood by. Minutes felt like hours when Kristin heard her son gasping as air flowed to his lungs. Everyone waited with heavy hearts. Remarkably, Jesse’s breathing began to stabilize and the critical timeframe passed where organ donation would no longer be an option.
As a result of his brain being deprived of oxygen, Jesse developed a progressive condition called Muscular Dystonia, which caused his muscles to atrophy and seize up, and Kristin was told it would eventually leave Jesse with little control over his body. She tried to comfort him as his body contorted to the point where his feet were only inches from the back of his head, his little hands and feet clenched. “The medical team explained some scenarios for Jesse’s future, but all of them led to him eventually passing away. I thought to myself ‘how could I give up if he hasn’t given up.’ He was fighting with everything he had, and I’d be in his corner all the way.”
The family’s pastor connected them with another family who had a similar experience. “It was so helpful to hear from a family who had been through this,” said Kristin. “They were the ones who suggested oxygen therapy.”
One month after his accident, Kristin was able to leave the hospital with Jesse on a one hour pass, and she brought him to a private clinic that specializes in hyperbaric oxygen therapy. This type of therapy, involved Kristin entering a chamber with Jesse where he’d receive 100% oxygen for about one and a half hours a session.
“After even the first session, Jesse’s heart rate lowered to a more reasonable level, and by the second or third session, his hands opened up from being clenched. We knew nothing in Jesse’s recovery would be a fast fix, but we were overjoyed at the progress he was making with this type of therapy.”
After three long months in hospital, Jesse was discharged home and continued oxygen therapy until his condition improved so much that he was able to be admitted to Bloorview Children’s Hospital for additional intensive rehabilitation. Kristin and Jesse stayed there for over two months and made great strides in his recovery.
“Jesse used to have this blank expression. I knew my little guy was in there somewhere but he didn’t laugh, or cry or show any emotion. But seven months after his accident, he had his first tear during a rehab appointment,” said Kristin. “It might seem odd that he was crying and we were overjoyed, but it was the first time since the accident that he showed emotion.”
Now, over 16 months later, Kristin and Jesse have been to over 160 oxygen therapy sessions and she credits the oxygen therapy along with his other rehabilitative therapies that have Jesse surpassing all expectations. He is able to bear weight on his feet, use a crawling track on an incline, gives ‘high fives’, loves music, and cries like he used to when he wants to let you know he’s frustrated. He also gives infectious laughs and smiles and is described as a very happy little boy.
Unquestionably, without Kristin and her neighbour performing CPR on Jesse, he wouldn’t have survived. New poling from the Canadian Red Cross reveals that one in three children who drown were not expected to be in the water, and that four in 10 children drown in water that is less than one meter deep. It is important to prepare yourself because instances, such as Jesse’s, can happen to anyone at anytime. Unlike in the movies, drowning does not often involve a big splash, with yelling and arms flailing. Many children who drown are silent.
For Jesse and his family, life is different now than it was. Their days are filled with endless appointments, a rigorous therapy schedule, and tending to Jesse’s on-going medical needs. But thankfully, Kristin still has her little side kick (as she calls him) to play with, sing to, and kiss goodnight each night. “I realize nothing will come easy to him. I think he knows it too. He really works so hard during therapy,” said Kristin. “I look at him with such awe and admiration.”
She receives tremendous support from her parents whom she lives with currently. Instead of considering herself a single parent, she says Jesse has a three-parent team thanks to the help of her mom and dad. “Everyday is a blessing,” says Kristin. “I have a great network of people around me. Even most of my friends now are moms with children who have special needs.”
Every day Kristin finds reasons for celebration. “Just this week he reached a milestone. He gets his nutrients three times a day through his g-tube, but I was able to feed him 40 millilitres of pureed squash and he loved it. He was wanting a second helping.”
Jesse’s ability to achieve what he has so far is remarkable. With his continued progress, it will be exciting to watch what’s in store for this brave little boy in years to come. Although Jesse may experience set backs along the way, with his determination and the love and support from his family, the sky is the limit for Jesse James Arrigo .