A father's memoir of his son's encounter with traumatic brain injury
Chapter 1: Saturday Night, December 29, 2001
Streaking down the New York State Thruway, we bantered nervously about not speeding too fast. It wouldn’t do to have an accident tonight. Twenty minutes earlier we had spoken by phone with a police lieutenant. Dayle and I comforted each other with the thought that our son, Bart, was uniquely qualified to survive a head injury. One of his family nicknames was “bowling ball.” His head was large, perfectly shaped, and remarkably sturdy. When barely a year old, he stumbled head-on into an older toddler at a local pizzeria. The other kid went down like a bowling pin, with Bart hardly seeming to notice. By age three he loved to challenge his uncle or another willing adult to headbutt with him, invariably winning. In soccer, basketball, and baseball, all of which he played in middle and high school, he was a dogged defender, never shy about taking a hit. Opposing players just careened off him. He seemed nearly indestructible.
* * *
Our first sight of Bart as an infant had been in a lounge at JFK airport’s International Arrivals Building. A frazzled escort handed him to Dayle, saying only, “Here. Here’s the strong one.” In the excitement we had no chance to ask her to expand on that cryptic remark. With eleven children arriving on the flight from Korea, the lounge was jam-packed with glowing new parents, relatives, and friends milling around in dazed, happy confusion. Arriving home that evening, we began to get a feel for what she meant. At barely five months, Bart could sit up, crawl, and even stand with someone to help keep his balance. Big for his age, he sported huge hands and feet, and an unusually large head supported by a thick neck. Apparently well fed, he looked like a miniature Buddha. We later learned that foster mothers in Korea, for whom fat is beautiful, compete over who can best “plump up” their little charges.
* * *
Earlier tonight, the police lieutenant told us that the car had wrapped around a tree on a narrow side road, a stone’s throw from Main Street. The village speed limit is 30 mph, and one could hardly go faster if one tried. Surely Bart’s solid constitution and rock-hard head would stand him in good stead. A letter from a dying uncle written later while Bart was in a coma boasted, “In a contest between a tree and your head, my money’s on your head any day.” Luckily the New Paltz Rescue Squad is one of the best in the region. Other towns around Ulster County send new recruits to train with them. The squad would take excellent care of our boy. We tried to take comfort from these and similar thoughts during the desperate ride to the hospital. Cell phone service is spotty in the mid-Hudson valley, but we managed to ascertain that Bart had been taken into surgery. That bit of news burst our fragile confidence. Brain surgery on a minor without even obtaining parental consent — it must be do-or-die. I began to exhibit an odd nervous reaction — rapidly shaking my head from side to side, much like a dog shaking water off its coat; as if trying to shake unbearable images from my mind’s eye. Oddly, it seemed to temporarily dislodge the awful visions.
The evening had begun pleasantly. With our eleven-year-old daughter, Cassidy, sweetly dozing in the back seat, Dayle and I returned home from a Christmas party around 11:30 p.m. in holiday spirits. Sixteen-year-old Bart had spent the previous night at a friend’s house and was scheduled to return home along with a couple of buddies to crash in his room. In rural upstate New York, endless rounds of sleepovers are a way of life for teens. Coming up the driveway, as we noticed every light in the house on, Dayle sighed with relief, “Good, they’re home.” But upon entering we found only the dog, and on the kitchen counter a hastily scrawled note, “Went to Gary’s.” With Bart out, I felt obliged to check the answering machine, which blinked, “1 Message.” It was from a lieutenant with the New Paltz police, asking us to call right away. Assuming what I thought was the worst, I worried that the boys had been arrested. The last couple of years Bart had led us on a very merry chase, in trouble at school and even a near run-in with the law. Lord knows what mischief the knuckleheads had gotten into. The dispatcher seemed reluctant to talk with me, saying I’d have to speak to the lieutenant, who apparently was unavailable. Finally, after a couple of agitating minutes on hold, another officer came on the line. Bart had been in an accident in the village and was on his way to Westchester Medical Center, some seventy-five miles south. Yes, he was alive. No, he couldn’t say how serious it was, but he had been medivaced. Why take him to Westchester when there were five hospitals within thirty minutes of home? And by helicopter no less?