My son is four, which explains a lot. The holes in his jeans, the scuffed toes on his shoes, the bruises on his legs. He is a rough and tumble boy who has two speeds – awake and asleep. I am constantly telling him to slow down and be careful, especially in the house. But he has gotten hurt, including cuts and bumps on the head, even with my uber-cautious approach to mothering. These have landed us in urgent care more than once. I’ve done the waking him up every two hours thing with due diligence, even when there were no outward signs of an injury or concussion, partly because my personality is that of a rule-follower. So if the doctor says to do it, I will.
I also do it because of something that happened in our family before he was born.
In February 2011, my dad fell off a ladder at the church where he is the pastor and hit his head on a doorknob on the way down. He was unconscious for just a few seconds, and he was taken to a local hospital where he was checked out. The doctor told him everything was fine, and that evening I picked him up. My dad met me outside with the assurance that he was fine and yes, he would be more careful on ladders in the future. He quickly returned to his normal activities, and life went on as if nothing had happened. No big deal.
Five months later, he and my mom were visiting my brother’s family in another state and my dad passed out. He had been having some strange symptoms for a couple of months, but nothing he could put his finger on exactly. Just episodes where things seemed “off.” (A doctor at home told him it was “nonspecific vertigo.”)
When he passed out at my brother’s home, they took him to a local hospital where the prevailing medical opinion was that everything pointed to his heart. They felt he was finally due for a pacemaker, something he had been told to expect eventually.
We happened to be passing through on our way home from visiting my husband’s family, and stopped at the hospital to see him. I mentioned his prior head injury to one of the doctors. He waved me off with the comment, “Once someone has a head injury, everyone thinks all their symptoms are from that, but that is not usually the case,” and he went on with an explanation about the pacemaker.
In spite of the crazy that put into my parent’s visit, the surgery to put in the pacemaker was without incident, and once again my dad went on with life as normal. No big deal.
I remember driving into our neighborhood with our daughter one morning. Life had certainly changed for us. I was now two months pregnant with our rainbow baby-after-loss. While everyday was a struggle with anxiety, I was starting to get used to the idea and to think I might get to keep this one.
Just as I pulled into our driveway, emergency vehicles screamed past our cul-de-sac. Though there was no apparent reason to worry, I had a sinking feeling, and quickly pulled out to follow them … to my parents’ home two blocks away.
My dad was sitting up in a chair getting checked out by the EMTs, awake but not entirely himself. My mom told me they were worried he was having a stroke. He had woken up that morning confused about what day it was. He couldn’t remember preaching the day before or helping me to fix the crib in our home that Saturday. Having taken his vitals by now, the EMTs didn’t think it was a stroke. They took him to the hospital to get checked out just in case.
I was even more concerned when we saw him there later that afternoon. My dad was alert, but his memory was getting worse. He had forgotten recent events like his brother moving and going to see his mom in Florida. He had forgotten the names of most of his grandchildren, that both my sister-in-law and I were pregnant. What was especially painful to me was that he forgot about the babies we had lost – three over the previous two years.
We left deeply worried, only to get a phone call from my mom soon after. She told us that my dad had had a massive seizure. He was resting now, she assured me. It was another piece in this strange puzzle
Over the next several days in the hospital, those pieces all fell into place.
Apparently, the “no big deal” head injury had been a bigger deal than it seemed.
Those incidents of feeling “off,” the passing out at my brother’s home, and the memory loss were not symptoms of heart problems or a stroke. They were all pre-seizure symptoms associated with what was a TBI, traumatic brain injury, over six months earlier. My dad even started to have another “off” feeling just before the seizure. We were told it was not unusual for a head injury to manifest itself like this weeks or even months later.
Fortunately for my dad, he was already in the hospital when the seizure came and not driving or alone somewhere. Also fortunately, that seizure was his last. He was put on anti-seizure medication, his memory mostly returned and, except for the hassle of not driving for six months, was able to return to his regular activities.
That scary time reinforced to me how important it is to take head injuries seriously. Concussions are nothing to make light of, as I learned with my dad. I am thankful that for our family, this was a slight bump in the road. It could have been much more life-changing. And now, as the mom of two, including a little boy who just won’t slow down, I am perhaps a bit more paranoid than others about wearing helmets and being careful not to fall. I’ve seen up close how a “little” head injury can, indeed, be a big deal after all.