Two-year-old Andrew Larson was goofing around in his living room, watching television, examining new Christmas gifts and playing with his sister, Hannah, 9. It was a cozy Tuesday morning during winter break. His mother had taken the day off from work, and his father worked at the kitchen table to be near his family.
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But what started as a fun family day on Dec. 29 almost turned deadly for the toddler soon after breakfast.
At 10:30 a.m., both parents heard a scream from the living room, and it was the type of scream that catapults a parent straight to the scene.
“I was on the computer upstairs,” says Andrew’s mom, Lisa Larson, 38. “I ran to the living room and found Andrew crying.”
He had fallen and hit his head on the family’s 100-year-old wooden trunk — a handsome antique with sharp metal corners that served as a coffee table for a decade.
But there was no blood, no bumps, no bruises, so the incident appeared minor. After being soothed by Mom, Andrew dried his tears and resumed playing with his brand-new toy ambulance. Later on, Andrew would take the ride of his life in a real one.
Sharp pain soon returned, and Lisa noticed that a small red spot had appeared on the right side of her son’s head, near the temple. This time he was inconsolable, worrying his parents as he became more lethargic and sleepy between crying jags. And then he vomited.
The family bolted straight for Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall without calling for emergency assistance.
“We didn’t want to waste a minute,” says Andrew’s father, Bjorn Larson, 41. “He had signs of a concussion.”
Finding the problem
The diagnosis turned out to be far more serious. A CT scan — or CAT scan, meaning computed tomography — revealed an alarming mass that attending physician Dr. Jeffrey Thewes suspected was a life-threatening blood clot outside the brain.
He sent the scan to Dr. Jon Walsh, a critical-care surgeon for Bronson Trauma Services, for confirmation. Walsh reviewed it in an instant via the wonders of telemedicine — an electronic link allows Oaklawn to transmit its X-rays to other facilities.
“I knew right away that this child was in trouble,” Walsh says. “He had an epidural hematoma, which is a clot from bleeding outside the brain but inside the skull. These clots compress the brain, and if they are not removed quickly, permanent brain damage or death can occur. If they are untreated, a patient with an epidural hematoma will die.”
Andrew’s parents — in the midst of a sudden flurry of medical personnel inserting IVs into Andrew for medication and anesthesia, along with a breathing tube — discovered that their toddler’s injury would require brain surgery, as fast as possible.
“I was in disbelief,” Bjorn Larson says. “I tried to stay calm and focused on my son, but my mind was racing. An avalanche of things happened so fast to get him ready to get into the ambulance. It was a blur.”
Rushing to be ready
Thirty-five miles away, as the ambulance sped toward Kalamazoo, Walsh and his team were in high gear. They hastily coordinated the operating-room preparation, assembled its staff, prepared the paperwork necessary to bypass an exam and have immediate brain surgery. Then they threw open the back doors and waited for their young patient to arrive.
“I wanted Andrew to go straight to the operating room when he got here. Every single minute counts with this injury,” Walsh says. “He was rushed straight from the ambulance to a room right near the doors.”
“I couldn’t believe he had to have brain surgery,” she says, “and when we got to Bronson, he was gone so fast we didn’t even get a chance to kiss him or say goodbye.”
Neurosurgeon Dr. Alain Fabi was scrubbed and ready to begin operating within moments. Fabi removed Andrew’s large clot in 28 minutes, and the Larsons, holding hands and praying for their son’s life, were surprised when Fabi and another surgeon emerged from surgery so quickly.
But the confident smiles on the doctors’ faces said it all. The procedure was successful. Andrew would be just fine.
“They told us that the surgery went great,” Lisa said. “I was so relieved, and I felt so much hope after it was done. Those 28 minutes felt like hours to me.”
Andrew recovered for six days at Bronson after slowly emerging from a deep, anesthetic sleep.
He had been typically articulate and active for his age before the accident, but he did not walk for five days after emerging from sleep, and he needed assistance to stay balanced. He could not lift his head, open his eyes or move initially and was unable to speak for two days. When he finally did, he was adamant.
“No!” the toddler commanded, eyes still shut, as a nurse tried to insert a pain-killing suppository. The defiance brought great relief and was the Larsons’ first sign that their little boy really would return to them whole, healthy and happy.
Technology played an enormous role in the chain of events that saved Andrew Larson’s life.
“Not every hospital has a CAT-scan machine,” Walsh said. “He had it right there instead of going to another facility.
But it wasn’t just technology that saved Andrew’s life. Walsh was quick to point out the human factors involved in this success story. Knowledgeable parents and fast-acting, well-orchestrated professionals contributed to the happy conclusion, too.
“First, the parents recognized signs of a head injury and brought that child in,” Walsh said. “They (professionals) worked fast at Oaklawn by ordering the scan immediately and sending it over. The breathing tube was so important to add oxygen for the ride to Bronson because if the patient doesn’t breathe deeply as they should, the brain can swell.
“The people at Oaklawn Hospital did exactly the right things to prepare Andrew for the surgery before sending him to us.”
The Larsons’ experience with Andrew’s injury has led them to become outspoken advocates of home safety among friends and family.
“We thought our house was completely child-proof,” Lisa said. “We have gates on both sets of stairs, cleaning products are up high and out of reach, we’ve got child latches and plug covers everywhere. We tell all of our friends now to get rid of anything sharp or put protective pads on the edges.”
The makeshift coffee table on which Andrew hit his head has been relegated to the Larsons’ garage. The trunk’s fate remains undetermined, but selling it is a possibility, the Larsons said.
“I don’t know what we’ll do with it,” Bjorn Larson said. “We thought about burning it, but, well, it’s a really beautiful piece. We’ll see.”
Full recovery expected
Andrew is now a typical 2-and-a-half-year-old who rides his bike, plays on his backyard swing set and, according to his mother, speaks more articulately than he ever did before the fall.
“The only thing he’s working on now in rehab is balance and coordination,” his father said. “He still has a little trouble with that, but the doctors expect him to recover 100 percent. Everything else has come back.”
The Larsons said they are very grateful to the area medical professionals who helped save their son’s life.
“Everyone at both hospitals moved so fast to give Andrew the best care possible,” Bjorn Larson said. “All of them helped save his life. We are thankful every day to God to have our son.”