In the early days of this week my family lived deep in a dark chasm of anguish. No one else lives in this chasm. Not even God. Or so we felt at times.
On Monday, March 2nd, my three-year-old son, Cullen, fell and hit his head on the gymnasium floor at his school. My wife, Jamie, teaches at Cullen’s school, and was in the gym when the fall occurred, though she did not see exactly what happened, nor did any of the other adults who were present. Cullen’s mouth was bleeding, and he was crying, but Jamie was able to calm him down, and he sat in her lap for the next hour or so. Things appeared to be getting back to normal–no harm done–when suddenly Cullen started coughing and vomiting. Jamie rushed him to the bathroom where he continued vomiting and then lost his balance and fell over. As Jamie describes it, Cullen did not seem to be unconscious, but it appeared as if he suddenly lost all feeling in the right side of his face, the same side he had fallen on an hour earlier. A wonderful friend of Jamie’s who serves as the co-director of the school rushed her and Cullen to the ER in Tuscaloosa. I met them at the hospital shortly thereafter. Within the next few hours Cullen vomited two more times and appeared very tired. We also noticed that he had a pretty bad fat lip on the right side of his mouth. At this point, Jamie and I both thought he had a concussion. The hospital in Tuscaloosa did a CT scan, and they didn’t find anything disconcerting, but the doctor wanted us to go to Children’s Hospital in downtown Birmingham to have Cullen examined by the specialists there. Just before we left Tuscaloosa, the doctor said, “In the end I think this is just going to be a fall at school combined with a case of the flu. I don’t even think he has a concussion.” And so we headed by ambulance to Children’s, hopes high.
When we arrived at Children’s we met with the general pediatrics team and the neurology team, and they almost immediately expressed their concern for Cullen. By this time, the right side of Cullen’s face appeared swollen, he could not move his eyes to the right, and he could not stand to his feet or walk. He also insisted on laying only on the right side of his face. They did another CT scan, this time taking a close look at the neck as well, but again the scan showed nothing problematic. We stayed in the hospital overnight and were told they would most likely do an MRI the next morning. At this stage, we knew it was more than the flu, and the two teams at Children’s were in agreement that it did not appear to be a standard concussion. So we prayed. And we questioned God, albeit quietly. All night long.
On Tuesday, March 3rd, they did the MRI. Cullen did fine in the “bear cave,” as we called it, and as he rested in the hospital bed I stepped out to get a cup of coffee. I returned to our room to find a neurosurgeon talking to Jamie. She was crying. The MRI revealed that Cullen had suffered a stroke. “Are you sure?” I asked. “He’s three years old! How can he have a stroke?” We met later with the neurology team; they confirmed the news. Indubitably, our little boy had suffered a minor stroke in his pons, the message station of the brain. The pons contains nuclei that deal with equilibrium, eye movement, facial expressions, posture, and so on. This fit with what we had been seeing in Cullen. The general pediatrics team came by later to tell us that we would be staying one more night. They also informed us that they would be starting a series of tests, trying to determine the cause of the stroke. Our tears were our food that night. And with the one who penned Psalm 42, we screamed at God: “Why have you forgotten [us]?!”
Wednesday, March 4th, the neurology team visited us again. In short, they said that Cullen is a medical mystery. For starters, strokes among children are very uncommon. Additionally, the doctors do not currently know what caused Cullen’s stroke. Nor do they know if the stroke and the head trauma are related. Finally, they do not know why the stroke affected the right side of Cullen’s face but not the entire right side of his body. “It’s kids like you,” the chief neurologist said to Cullen, “that keep us doctors humble.” The much more encouraging news was that everyone seemed optimistic about Cullen’s recovery. The portion of his pons that was not getting the blood it required to function properly is no longer operational. There is no “reviving” this section of the brain. But what often occurs in that small number of children who have strokes is that the brain rewires itself, so that other parts pick up the slack caused by the part that is no longer functioning. If this happens with Cullen, the neurology team told us, he will eventually get back to normal.
We’ve been at home for a few days now, and we have good reason to think that Cullen’s brain is rewiring itself. His eye movement has improved greatly, as has his balance. He no longer complains of dizziness or blurred vision. He is getting his appetite back. He seems to be regaining control of the right side of his face. And he is starting to walk again. On Wednesday he took several steps while holding both my hands. Thursday he walked across the room holding only one hand. Today he walked across the room and back without assistance. He is still very shaky as he walks, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.
Many, many friends and family members have been praying for us this week. For this, we are so very grateful. Please continue praying in the weeks and months ahead. Specifically, please pray for six things. 1) Pray for a full recovery for Cullen. 2) Pray for the doctors to learn more about the cause of Cullen’s stroke. If they can determine the cause, hopefully they can prevent this type of thing from happening again. 3) Pray for Cullen to stay flu free. Until the doctors learn more about the cause of the stroke, they have put Cullen on aspirin. If he is exposed to the flu while taking aspirin there is a small chance he will develop Reye’s syndrome, a very serious, potentially fatal condition. 4) Pray for Aidan, Cullen’s five-year-old brother. Obviously, Aidan does not understand everything that has happened, but he knows that something is wrong. Pray that he will not think the increased attention mommy and daddy are giving to “Culley” means a decrease in affection for him. 5) Ask the Lord to supply strength and patience for me and Jamie as we work with Cullen each new day. 6) Pray for our extended family as they cope with all of this.
We are emerging from our chasm, though “emerging” sounds too triumphant. Crawling is more like it. There have been hours where God seemed absent. But we are beginning to understand that He wasn’t absent; we were just unaware of His presence. Like Aslan before Lucy finds the proper spell in the magician’s book, God was invisible to us. We couldn’t see anything properly when our eyes were blurred with tears. But the spell has been found. We have seen the Great Lion. He was with us all the time. And now we know Him more intimately than ever before. For without sickness, you cannot know God as Healer. Without pain, you cannot know Him as Comforter. And without despair, you cannot know Him as Sustainer.