It’s May 1, 2018, a warm Tuesday evening and Luke, age 7, is excitedly showing off his bike, his remote control car, his soccer gear, and his mad skills in basketball. Seriously—the kid has a better shot than most 12-year-olds.
“Luke played through community ed last year, and when the coaches started lowering the hoops for the kindergartners, Luke was like ‘Why?’” recounts his mom, Sarah Olson. “He learned how to play after the accident, incorporating both hands.”
The accident. Six years ago on May 1, 2012, also a Tuesday evening. The significance of this is not lost on Sarah and her husband, Paul Olson.
The evening of May 1, 2012 was among the first warm nights of the year; spring had finally sprung. The Olsons cracked open a window to let in the breeze while they watched Luke’s favorite show, ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ Luke, then 16 months old, kept busy with his toy hammer.
It only took a second. Luke’s attention shifted from hammering on the wall to the screened window just inches away. The screen gave way and Luke fell two stories, landing on a small patch of concrete—the only patch in the family’s grassy backyard.
Paul rushed to the backyard while Sarah called 911. While Luke showed no outward signs of bleeding, his parents soon learned he had sustained a traumatic brain injury and needed to be airlifted to a hospital immediately. “The pilot asked which hospital we wanted Luke to go to. I didn’t know,” Sarah says. “I asked, ‘Where would you take your kid?’ The pilot said, ‘I would take him to Gillette.’
Luke was rushed to the Level I Pediatric Trauma Center operated by Gillette Children’s and Regions Hospital. Emergency surgery alleviated the pressure inside his skull, essentially saving Luke’s life. The physician who performed Luke’s life-saving surgery, Patrick Graupman, MD, became an integral part of the Olson’s lives that day.
“Looking back, I did not think Dr. Graupman had a single other patient,” remembers Sarah. “Same with the rest of Luke’s care team. It was like, ‘Do you even GO home?’”
Luke spent a difficult two weeks in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Thankfully he pulled through, all while endearing himself to the unit’s nurses. Sarah recalls the day after Luke woke up from a medically induced coma. “His grandpa was telling a story, gesturing with his hands, and Luke opened his eyes and laughed.”
The Olsons credit Luke’s Gillette team for not only treating his injury, but for helping to heal the entire family. “Words cannot describe the appreciation we have for the doctors and nurses at Gillette who saved our son’s life,” says Sarah, who notes that even the Gillette housekeeping staff came to care about their family.
“None of This Matters”
Luke still faced a long road. After a month at Gillette, his parents brought him home—only to return days later when Luke developed hydrocephalus and needed emergency surgery. That summer Luke spent another month at Gillette when Graupman, while attempting to replace a piece of Luke’s skull that was removed to help his brain heal, discovered an infection. His skull flap was finally replaced that October.
Once Luke came home after the accident, Sarah and Paul did something. They threw away every how-to baby or toddler book they owned. “I said to myself, ‘None of this matters. We’re gonna raise Luke like we’re gonna raise Luke, and no book will be able to tell me about my kid.’” It’s advice Sarah still gives to new moms.
Courage and Perseverance
Now in first grade, Luke is reading at his grade level and loves school. He receives special education support for math and occupational therapy support for writing, but for the most part, he is integrated with his peers.
“Luke’s school does student of the month based on character traits. Last year Luke got it for Courage and this year he got it for Perseverance. That’s just Luke and I don’t even think he knows he’s doing it!” Sarah says.
Before the start of first grade Luke returned to Gillette for tibial derotation surgery on his left leg, the side of his body affected by the brain injury. The surgery helped Luke, who was tripping and dragging his left foot, walk and run more steadily. Sarah calls orthopedic surgeon Libby Weber, MD, an amazing addition to Luke’s team.
In 2014, Luke became a big brother to Benjamin Patrick, now 3 ½. Sarah and Paul picked Benjamin’s middle name to honor Patrick Graupman, MD, the Gillette neurosurgeon who saved Luke’s life. Sarah says she’s pretty proud of herself for leaving Graupman speechless, which, in her words, “never happens.” “The first time Dr. Graupman met Benjamin he was acting up or something and I said ‘Benjamin Patrick!’ and he said ‘That’s a good middle name’ and I said ‘Yeah, I know’ and he said ‘No!’ and I said ‘Yes—you saved my kid’s life.’”
“For sure I was honored,” adds Graupman. “Luke’s family is very engaged and proactive. They’re great people. We have similar styles of communication—dry, irony.”
Sarah and Paul can’t help but be proud of their son’s resiliency—and how far he’s come over the past six years. “Luke has the kind of determination that has helped him survive, and continue to defy the odds,” Sarah says.
Still, the reality of the Olsons’ life is that Luke isn’t a 100% “typical” kid. In fact, “typical” kid milestones can be disappointing, even heartbreaking, for his parents. They call Luke their bubble kid: He doesn’t run as fast as his soccer teammates; he still has some gait issues and left-hand weakness. But he isn’t impaired enough to receive intensive services through school.
“So he sits on this bubble, Sarah explains. “And his perseverance is what keeps him continuing to be mainstreamed. He’s always been a fighter.”
Adjusting the Sails
When all is said and done, it’s Luke himself who will decide what Luke can do. It’s for this reason that Sarah and Paul resolve to set hopes, not expectations, for their son. Sarah sums this up best: “Luke sets his own hopes. He wants to tie his shoes. We never told him he had to, he wanted to. He wants to learn to ice skate, that's his hope, so we support it and gather resources.
“It goes back to the famous Aristotle quote, ‘We cannot control the wind, but we can adjust the sails.’” If you set expectations, you are trying to control the wind. If you operate on hopes, you are continually adjusting the sails to progress. Gillette helps us adjust the sails and add to the list of things that he CAN do.”