By: Mary Barsness
When our kids are little we ask them to hold our hands in situations we feel they could get hurt. As they grow up we give them more room to make their own way in the world. We warn them of all the dangers, but we work to balance that with the pure joy the ignorance of childhood affords. Some of the dangers we can control and some we cannot.
When my 14-year-old son fell off his longboard (a longer, faster type of skateboard) the evening of July 7, 2014 we almost lost him. He was alone. He was not wearing a helmet. Although he initially presented a bit disorientated, there wasn’t a scratch on him. Thankfully, a neighbor friend and his father both knew something was wrong. That night Willi’s brain began to bleed and swell. He had fractured his skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
I first saw Willi in the Level I Pediatric Trauma Center at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare and Regions Hospital. It was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. My first instinct was to grab his hand. Along with his father and our families we would sit by his bedside, someone always holding his hand so he knew we were there. On July 11th the doctors lifted the medications for a bit to see if he would respond. After a lot of persuasion, Willi squeezed his father’s hand with his left hand and mine with his right. We didn’t know if he would walk or talk to us again, but he squeezed our hands. That somehow meant he knew we were there. It felt safer.
Last week Willi had a checkup with Mark Gormley, M.D., who’s been with us since the beginning of Willi’s rehabilitation. There’s a standard series of physical tests to see if the brain is operating correctly. I choked up watching this drill I have now seen a hundred times because he did it perfectly. I thought of that first time he squeezed our hands in the PICU. It was weak, confused and uncertain. These days Dr. Gormley is putting his own hands at risk telling him to squeeze as hard as he can. Dr. Gormley released Willi from his care – a mere nine months after his fall. It has been a miraculous recovery.
We’ve learned a lot from this journey. We know how amazingly blessed we are to have a place like Gillette so close to home, how incredibly powerful it is when a community of friends and family surrounds you in love and support, and that miracles are real. We have also learned how many kids are not wearing helmets. A lot of the scary things in life are things we can’t prepare for, or protect our kids from. This is not one of those things. Willi probably would have gotten hurt even if he had had a helmet on, but would he have gotten this hurt?
While waiting for him to wake up, I had a lot of time to think. Seeing Willi’s friends who were coming to the hospital, all I could say was, “Wear your helmets. Promise me you will wear helmets.” They all promised. It wasn’t long into this experience I knew I had to share this message. I did a phone interview from the hallway of the PICU the first week. Bring Me the News headlined it “No Helmet No Ride” (link below) and it stuck with me.
As a parent I guess I had given up the battle. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I just stopped fighting it. He was such an amazing athlete with great reaction time, and he was right; none of the kids at the skate park or riding around the lake were wearing helmets. Since Willi’s accident it’s all I can see — kids on skateboards, rollerblades and bikes without helmets. I decided to launch a program offered through the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance called No Helmet No Ride. The goal of the program is to reach out to middle and high school students and encourage them to wear their helmets on bikes, blades, and boards. Eventually, we hope to add helmet giveaways.
I’ve heard people talk about getting their “calling”. I know what they mean now. It’s the thing you know you have to do, even though you’re not sure how. It’s the thing that wakes you up at 4 in the morning and whispers to you that you’re supposed to share this because it will make a difference. I am not sure I would be strong enough to share this message if our story had a different ending. If it weren’t for the doctors, nurses, rehab staff and everyone at Gillette giving us all such amazing love and care, including their support of the No Helmet No Ride program, we wouldn’t be able to have this voice. There just are not adequate words of gratitude for our newfound family.
P. S. I still try to hold Willi’s hand. Fifteen-year-old boys love it when their mothers hold their hands.