Every parent lives with the fear that catastrophe will strike his or her child. But how does the parent cope when an accident suddenly happens? And how does Children's Hospital play a part? My associate, Beth Schwinn, spoke last week to an Alexandria mother about the accident that almost killed her son, and the treatment he received at Children's. Her report:
"People kept asking me how I could manage, how I could look so calm. What else could we do? You roll with the punches. If your son is hit by a car, you deal with that. If not, you make dinner."
When Christopher Dunning, 4, was hit and dragged by a car at about 5 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1985, Nancy Dunning had just been talking by phone to her husband, Jim, who was at his office. Her son had been in the back yard of their Alexandria home with his best friend, Willie Helms, trying to make a bird trap with a box and some seed.
As Nancy Dunning hung up the phone, she heard a thud from the front of the house. She started toward the sound, noticing Willie running toward his family's house, looking back over his shoulder at the street. Something was wrong. As she reached the front door, she saw neighbors running toward her house. She knew in that moment that he son had been hit by a car.
"There was a pool of blood around his head that was getting bigger while I watched, as if someone had turned on a garden hose. He was lying right in the middle of the street, in an unnatural position. His leg was also broken, but I never even saw the bone sticking out of his leg. All I saw was the blood. I put my hand on his head where he was bleeding, trying to stop the flow. My arm was rigid -- like steel."
A neighbor from across the street, Sean Sullivan, reported over and over that Chris must not be moved, or touched. "Swoop and scoop," the desire to cradle and comfort a crying child, could have been fatal in this instance, because Chris had a broken neck. At the very least, doctors say, Sean Sullivan's intervention kept Chris from being paralyzed for life.
"I was upset, praying. About 15-20 people had just appeared out of nowhere. They were all cyring. I said to them, 'Stop crying and just pray.' One said, 'I am, I am.' Chris was lying there, vomiting. He seemed so fragile. His eyes were rolling back in his head. He was heaving these great gaps of air. I thought, 'This is what a child looks like when he's dying.'
"At the same time, I felt very detached. I had this feeling that I was watching myself. I looked at people looking at me and thought, 'How sad they must be.' "
Nancy Dunning remembers crouching over her son's body, trying to protect him from further injury. But she doesn't remember that a blanket was draped over her and her son, or that she had to be virtually pried from Chris when the resuce team came.
Fortunately, the rescue team realized immediately that they were dealing with a neck injury. They put Chris gently on apapoose -- a stiff board used for such cases -- before putting him on a stretcher and into an ambulance. Nany Dunning got in with Chris, and they headed for Alexandria Hospital about five minutes from their home.
Meanwhile, two neighbors had called Jim Dunning to tell him of his son's accident. Both calls reached him at the same time. He put the first on hold while he answered the second. When he heard what had happened, he rushed out the door to the hospital, leaving both neighbors on hold.
"It was 5:30, the height of rush hour. Just the night before, it had taken Jim 45 minutes to get home from his job in the middle of D.C. He made it to the hospital in 15 minutes. It was like the road just parted for him."
At Alexandria, Chris was bandaged and X-rayed. The staff put a Philadelphia collar on him -- a foam and plastic brace that holds the neck still -- and arranged to fly him by helicopter to the trauma unit at Children's.
"While I wai I waited, I washed the blood from my face, hair, hands. Chris's hair was under my fingers, and I remember taking it and putting it in my wallet.
"When the helicopter came, it was incredible. I don't know how often we'd seen helicopters coming on M*A*S*H, or police shows, and now one was coming for our son. Our hair and coats were blowing.
"I was already feeling a little better. I had seen Chris look like he would die in the next five minutes. It was such a comfort to see the blood cleaned off, to see him bandaged. He had stopped vomiting, and they had cleaned out his throat."
Family and friends now headed for Children's, after getting directions. None of them had ever been there. Nancy Dunning does not consider herself strongly religious, but she remembers praying that day as she had never prayed before. She says she believes in miracles.
"We got lost on the way to Chilodren's, and passed the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with the stars on the roof. I saw a double rainbow over the church, and took a lot of comfort from that."
Children's was nothing like her idea of a hospital. Instead of long, dark corridors, and tense atmosphere, they came into the four-story atrium with its green carpet and play areas. Summer sun poured through the skylights.
Chris had a dislocated cervical spine and would need a halo, a metal ring which is bolted into the skull and keeps the neck immobile. But no halo was available in his size; one would have to be ordered. Meanwhile, if Chris lived, doctors warned that his leg would be permanently shortened unless it was treated right away. The Dunnings agreed.
The parents stayed through the night, listening in the next room as the staff worked on Chris. The others with them were appalled by the amount of screaming and yelling Chris was doing, but the Dunnings were relieved. As neurosurgeon Dr. Dennis Johnson put it, "He is behaving appropriately." At least he was alive.
"It was a long night. Dr. Johnson, who looks exactly like a young Abe Lincoln, sat down and talked to us. He told us what they wanted to do. I wanted to know the worst possible case. I didn't want to be surprised any more. I asked, 'Can he die tonight?' Dr. Johnson said, yes, he could.
"We spent that night in the Intensive Care waiting room. I slept about five hours. Jim didn't sleep at all. At 6 a.m., we went in to see Chris.
Was he coherent?
"Well, he sort of woke up, and said 'New Jersey, I hate New Jersey,' (remembering his mother's comments on the New Jersey Turnpike). Then he asked for his Transformer doll. He was still behaving appropriately.
That day, Dr. Johnson found he happened to have a halo Chris's size in the trunk of his car. That evening, the staff operated on Chris to attach it.
"It was never really over until they took the halo off toward the end of October. We had to learn how to unbolt it, so that we could revive Chris if he had a heart or respiratory failure. Either was possible."
Even now, the Dunnings don't know whether or not Chris will need to have his vertebrae fused, which would give him a "stiff neck" permanently.
"I'm more anxious now. Until recently, I used to think I heard him crying or screaming, when he wasn't. I tchanges the course of our lives."
Elizabeth, Chris's 8-year-old sister, still feels jealous of the presents and attention Chris got in the hospital, and guilty for feeling jealous.
"She's still not quite what she used to be. She still loves Chris, but I think she wouldn't mind if he moved away for a month . . . We're stronger now, I think but more fearful -- the older you get, the more precious things are to you.
"I know all the doctors at Children's are good, but Dr. Johnson and Dr. Laura Tosi (a pediatric orthopedic surgeon) are just the best we've ever met. Under the worst possible circumstances, we were in the best possible place."
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN: Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071. The campaign ends on Jan. 24.