Thousands of San Joaquin Valley children and their families know miracles happen every day at Children's Hospital Central California, and the Thomas family expected one for their 2-year-old, Anthony. They anxiously waited week after week to experience it, enduring a string of days that dragged like years. “The first month I was so stressed,” said Timica Thomas, Anthony’s mother, recalling the frightful circumstance of keeping watch over her critically injured son in the hospital. “He was not even moving,” she said. “For Anthony to be able to move again was not a promise we were given.”
Little Anthony Thomas was admitted to Children's Hospital on May 16, 2009 with a traumatic injury to his cervical spine. “I dropped him at my cousin’s house that day and took my daughters shopping,” said Timica. “I wasn’t very far away, just a couple of blocks, when I got the call,” she said. The phone call from her cousin delivered devastating news. Anthony had fallen from the top of his cousin’s bunk bed while playing video games. The fall caused the first two vertebrae in Anthony’s neck to break.
Damage to the uppermost part of the spinal column normally causes paralysis in the muscles of the chest wall and affects the neurologic control of breathing. Anthony’s fall literally took his breath away. He needed a tracheostomy and ventilator to survive. The doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital worked diligently to treat Anthony. In addition to performing his lifesaving tracheostomy, they fitted the bright-eyed boy with a halo to stabilize his neck while the vertebrae healed.
“Anthony's injury was complicated because the damage to the spinal cord was so high on his cervical spine,” said Dr. Jennifer Crocker, medical director of Children’s Rehabilitation Center. “There were so many vital systems affected.”
More than four weeks into his Hospital stay, Anthony could not move anything below his neck, and his head remained secured by the halo. In spite of it all, Anthony’s expressive eyes and mouth were full of life. “The nurses called him ‘Music Man’ because he babbled all the time,” said Timica.
The day Anthony’s parents watched their son move his feet, the medical staff at Children’s told the family that spasms were common with spinal cord injuries and cautioned them not to have false hope. Anthony’s parents understood the effects of the neurological damage caused by their son’s fall, but they continued to believe and hope for the best possible outcome for Anthony. They still expected their miracle.
“After Anthony was in the Hospital about a month and a half, he squeezed my hand,” said Anthony Thomas, Sr., Anthony’s dad. “I got the nurse and showed her, and all of a sudden everyone was in the room – doctors and nurses, everyone.” He smiled at the memory. “Anthony did it. He squeezed my hand.” The Thomas family finally received their miracle.
“The Hospital was great,” said Timica. “Even if Anthony wasn’t their patient, the nurses came in to see him.”
Diagnosing whether a spinal cord injury is “complete” or “incomplete” depends upon the patient’s ability to move. Children’s Hospital confirmed Anthony’s diagnosis was an incomplete spinal cord injury known as central cord syndrome. Anthony’s brain maintained the ability to send and receive signals to and from his arms and legs, as well as other parts of his body below the site of his injury at the highest point in his neck.
Anthony’s recovery would involve countless baby steps over a period of many months, but the elder Anthony and Timica had reason to hope their son would recover additional neurological function, and perhaps sit unsupported and even transition from a wheelchair to a walker one day.
“Despite his young age, Anthony was a very hard worker and he displayed a fantastic attitude during his rehabilitation stay,” said Dr. Crocker.
After a four-month hospital stay, Anthony was discharged on Sept. 15 with a wheelchair and ventilator. Tristan Yang, respiratory therapist at Children’s Home Care, first met the Thomas family in the Hospital a few weeks before Anthony’s discharge, and began visiting their residence on a regular basis the day Anthony went home. Yang helped the family learn ventilator operation and tracheostomy care while Anthony was still an inpatient, and coached them on a weekly basis in their home for the first several months.
“In the beginning when I showed up, Anthony would cry while I was there,” said Yang. “I made him think of needles and procedures. But six months later he gave me his trust. I remember the day he said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” Yang continues to visit the Thomases, stopping in once a month and staying about an hour each time. “You go to the house and you see the way they struggle,” said Yang. “And you share your life with them, too. It helps them trust you.”
“Tristan is wonderful,” said Timica. “The time and quality that Home Care puts into what we need means so much to me. They’re the best. To be honest, I didn’t expect this. I thought I’d be left here on my own, but it’s not like that at all.” Children’s Home Care has made it possible for Anthony to receive the same high level of care he experienced as an inpatient. Yang sees to it that the family has everything they need to maintain as much normalcy in their lives as possible. Anthony’s portable ventilator has been invaluable.
“We went to Wal-Mart yesterday,” said Timica. “We go to the Chaffee Zoo and he loves it.” Anthony breathes air so he does not require an oxygen tank, but the portable ventilator hanging on the back of his wheelchair makes a rhythmic sound. “At first I was kinda scared to take him places because people stare and ask questions, but now it’s not as bad,” she said. “People still ask. They want to know what happened.” Timica shrugged her shoulders in a warm gesture of acceptance. “We are working toward using the ventilator only while Anthony is sleeping.”
For a little over a month, Timica experimented with removing her son’s ventilator for two hours a day under the direction of their pulmonologist at Children’s. Anthony became anxious and tired easily, so his doctor suggested shifting to a period of 30 minutes two times a day. Timica has stayed with this schedule for about three months now, and Anthony has responded well. The family hopes to increase Anthony’s time away from ventilation more and more in the months ahead.
While many things in Anthony’s life have changed, much remains the same. He still loves to play video games. “We bought him a Wii and he is able to play with the Wii,” said Timica, referring to the gaming console that requires players to move their bodies, not simply trigger a controller. “Mario is his favorite,” she said. “And he likes hockey and basketball.”
Anthony’s energetic personality and talkative nature have also remained. In the two years since his injury, he has become more adept with his version of a walker. The apparatus, known as a “Kid Walk,” has a seat to bear his weight, but he must use his legs in order to move. “He loves it!” exclaimed Anthony’s mother. “His left side is more mobile. He drags his right foot, but he gets around.”
Every night Anthony asks for help walking to bed – without the Kid Walk. “I put my hands like this,” said Timica, pantomiming wrapping her hands around an invisible waistline. “And I support him while he walks to his bed. If I’m tired and don’t want to help him walk, he gets upset. He really wants to walk to bed every night.”
“I see a high spirit in their home,” said Yang. “Mom is a strong believer and has high hopes for her son. Big hopes bring a down life back up,” he said. “Having that spirit, making Anthony believe he can walk again and hold a spoon, and being strong-minded, it makes a big difference.”
“We are grateful to have been able to work with such a terrific kid and family and continue to hope for more recovery,” said Dr. Crocker.
Christopher Reeve, famous for his role as Superman, received accolades for his heroic achievements after injuring his cervical spine. The medical staff at Children's Hospital Central California, who have enjoyed the honor of treating Anthony Thomas, know another hero who overcame a devastating spinal cord injury. Here at Children’s Hospital we call him “Music Man.”