Thomas Family Story

“This is serious — there’s bleeding on Emma’s brain.  She needs surgery.”  The Memorial North Emergency Room doctor’s words were grave.  “We need to send her to Denver Children’s or Memorial Central immediately.”

Based on Emma’s rapid decline, the doctor chose Memorial Central, with an ambulance ready for transport.  Urgency required Emma instead board Memorial’s Star Helicopter, as even mere minutes mattered.  Driving over as quickly as they could, Emma’s parents, Brian and Carol, learned the neurosurgeon and his team were prepped and ready for Emma’s surgery.

It had been a typical Sunday morning, like any other – Emma and her family were getting ready for church.  She was particularly Mom, Dad and girl posing for photoexcited, as, now that she was 13, she was able to volunteer in the church nursery.  Emma’s last minute simple trip downstairs to brush her teeth changed everything when  she  simply  tripped.

Hearing the fall, Carol was immediately with Emma.  Lying very still, Emma said, “My elbow really hurts.” Brian helped get his daughter to the couch.  Conscious and aware, it was during their assessment when Emma said she had a headache.  Brian’s concern grew when he felt the large bump on the side of his daughter’s head.  Checking her pupils, Brian said, “Honey, let me know if you feel like you have to throw up.”  Emma was nauseous.  She soon vomited.  With over 30 years of marriage, Brian, a C-130 Navigator with the USAF, and, Carol, a lifelong educator, knew they had to get Emma to the ER immediately.  Driving to Memorial North, (just 15 minutes from their home), Carol remembers Emma becoming really quiet; Emma said she ‘felt tired’ and she began to look pale.

The CT scan revealed that Emma’s fall caused a skull fracture with an epidural hematoma arterial bleed.  Emma’s parents were nervous.  EVERYTHING had changed so quickly.  Knowing they wanted to “be strong for Emma”, they tried to pull themselves together.

Given the severity of Emma’s injury and her rapidly declining condition, it was amazing that she remained conscious and aware the whole time.  About to be loaded on the helicopter, Emma said, “I didn’t really know what was going on.”  She paused, “I felt afraid.”  Her parents remembered Emma mustering her courage, asking them a pleading question, “…am I .. “ she paused. “Am I .. going to .. be OK?”  Seeing the worry in her eyes, her parents assured their daughter she would indeed be alright.

At Memorial Central, Brian and Carol were quickly met by Dr. McVicker, the neurosurgeon, whose words were brief: “There’s no time for consent.  No time for 2nd opinions.  The bleed has been and will continue to spread very quickly. We need to do the surgery RIGHT NOW.  People die from this.”  After brief “I love you’s”, Emma was wheeled in.

Brian found both assurance and terror in the doctor’s words, replaying them in his head.  “I know exactly what we need to do and there’s no time to waste…”

The first hour of Emma’s surgery was quiet, as Brian and Carol were alone in the waiting room.  Sitting together, they prayed and they hoped for the best outcome for their only daughter. Soon, their son, Cory, arrived.  “Cory’s presence ushered in such a spirit of peace and calm.” Brian said, “He hugged me with a hug I’ll never forget.”   Soon, others started to arrive.  There were stories of remembering and caring; there was love, support and prayers.

Two hours in, the OR nurse called, saying, “Dr. McVicker is done.  Emma’s doing great.  Now, the doctor has to put everything back where it belongs – which can take a while” Relieved, Brian responded, “Please tell the doctor ‘thank you’ and to take his time.”

Emma in hospital bed, shortly after brain surgeryAfter four long hours, Dr. McVicker came to the waiting room.  “Everything was just as I thought,” he said.  “Emma needed surgery immediately.  It went well.”  He followed up with, “I think she’ll make a full recovery.  Are there any questions?”

Completely relieved and a bit stunned, everyone looked at one another.  Finally, Amy, a friend of Emma’s slowly raised her hand.  With some hesitation, Amy asked, “will she .. remember me?”  Everyone held their breath, as they had all been wondering the same thing.  The doctor responded, “That’s a good question.  Yes.  I think she will.”

Emma’s oldest brother, Kyle, and sister-in-law, Jessica, had driven 4 hours from their home in Crested Butte to be with their family.  With both of her brothers and her Mom and Dad now by her side, Emma ‘woke up’.  She recalled, “I remember I felt so happy to be there – to be alive”.

Later that evening, when Emma’s brothers, went to sign in at the House, Cory couldn’t shake feeling like he had been there before.

Carol said, “Staying at your House was such a help.  Once I knew Emma was going to be OK, I was finally able to exhale and fall apart.  My process shifted from the worst case scenario to ‘OK.  What does this look like now, moving forward’?”

Emma recoving and learning to walk after surgeryOn Monday morning, Emma’s Pediatric Neurosurgeon ordered the post-surgery CT brain scan.  Amazingly, everything looked good.  Soon, Emma was up and moving with the help of a walker.

Using the “tag team” method, Brian and Carol took turns at the Ronald McDonald House, ensuring one of them was always with Emma; they felt better when they were with her, and Emma seemed to do better, too.

Brian said, “Years ago, one of my friend’s daughters had heart problems and they stayed at a Ronald McDonald House while she was in the hospital.  His experience was so amazing, I decided to support RMHC.  Now, flash forward to 30 years later.  This time, it’s me who needs this House.”  “When I was exhausted and needed a minute to rest, your House was like a home to me.  Just steps away from Emma, we were well cared for, as the House had everything we needed — fully stocked kitchens, beautiful bedrooms, and,” he excitedly added, “there was even a dog!”

Carol agrees.  “We were so grateful to be so close… Your care for our family was such a gift!”  She added, “It was the little things.. to be able to sleep for a couple of hours, take a shower, open the refrigerator, knowing the food in it was for us – and, provided by complete strangers… it was a such a blessing.”  Son, Cori agreed, recalling his déjà vu moment.  “I remember now!” he said.  “I volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House when I was in high school!”

By Thursday, Emma’s drain was out and she was released.  Her doctor said, “Emma’s recovery from her craniotomy and TBI is incredible.”  One doctor commented that she’d seen far more damage with far less trauma.   Brian held Emma close.  Smiling, he said, “Our family now has a new story. Your Ronald McDonald House will always be a part of our story.  Forever.”

At a recent follow up appointment, Emma asked, “Will I still be able to do the things I used to do?” Dr. Pierce’s orders were specific: “no” to headers in soccer, and hurdles in track for the remainder of this year, while giving full clearance to dance, play basketball and run cross country.

When Emma expressed some disappointment that she couldn’t do hurdles, we understood.   And, in our assessment, she already has.  PRESS ON, Emma!Smiling Emma