Thursday, June 19, 2008

Holding onto hope


Thomas Clark, 17, in his family home in Ira Township. He is expected to make a full recovery after suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage in November.
Rochelle Clark recalls with startling accuracy the exact details of the night, nearly seven months ago when her son, Thomas, emerged from his room, clutching his head in pain.

The night is etched into her memory and she recounts the details as if they happened yesterday.

"I thought he had fallen," Rochelle Clark said when she heard Thomas, then 16, stumbling into the living room late in the evening of Nov. 28, 2007. "He was screaming, holding his head, saying 'Make it go away.'"

Nauseous, Thomas staggered into the bathroom where his parents found him unconscious on the floor. They called 911 and emergency workers quickly responded to the Clark's Ira Township home, hurrying Thomas into the ambulance to take him to the hospital.

While being transported to Mount Clemens General Hospital he coded and had to be revived.

The family gathered at the hospital in the early morning hours, waiting for news about Thomas' condition.

The results couldn't have been worse. The teenager was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a bleeding onto the surface of the brain, which in Thomas' case was caused by a brain aneurism.

His father, Pat Clark, still fights back tears as he recalls a doctor giving him the grim prognosis: There was nothing that could be done for Thomas.

"I said to (the doctor), 'So there's no hope?'," he said. The doctor conceded there was always hope, but the Clarks detected the unconvincing way the words were delivered.

"He didn't have to take our hope away," Pat Clark said, shaking his head.

Long Road to Recovery

Not willing to give up on Thomas, family members found a surgeon who was willing to put a temporary shunt into his head to relieve the pressure and bleeding caused by the subarachnoid hemorrhage. When conferring with doctors, the family commonly refers to it as a brain stem bleed.

The surgery concluded just hours after Thomas was admitted to the hospital. It was a success.

"What if we had just taken (the doctor's) word for it," Rochelle said. "Then I wouldn't have my son."

Thomas was transported to Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit where he started on his long road to recovery. And it has been a long road.

Rochelle and her daughter, Chelsea, 14, routinely spent the night at the Ronald McDonald House in Detroit to be near the hospital. Pat would stay in Thomas' hospital room, sometimes crawling into his hospital bed to calm his son's fears, telling the teen to pretend they were on a camping trip, rather than in a sterile hospital room.

The seriousness of Thomas' condition affected his entire family.

"My nephew was a wonderful boy before this happened to him. He was so filled with life, a joy to be around," Thomas' aunt Laurie Fullerton said.

She added that it was very difficult for her young children to see their cousin in that condition. "My daughter and son love their cousin very much and it was so hard to have to tell your 6- and 9-year-old that their cousin might not make it," she said. "I still remember the day my kids picked up a football to take to Thomas at the hospital. They said, 'This will make him wake up because Thomas loves to play football.' My heart broke to see the pain on their faces."

For the Clarks, it's been one potentially devastating setback after another. For many, this would have taken a toll on a family's faith.

"Sometimes it's difficult to soak in a diagnosis like that and then try to adapt to it," Forest Hamlin, one of Thomas' nurses at Children's Hospital, said. "The way they've adapted to it, the way they communicate with him and interact with him, it's loving and it's very motivating as far as giving hope to other families.

"Really, sometimes we see families that kind of feel dismayed - downtrodden when something like this happens...this family, the Clarks, they were actually the ones that were saying 'No, we're going to work (hard), we're going to make this happen.' That mentality is a real catalyst...Obviously, it made a world of difference. They motivated Thomas. He is doing better because of them."

Consider some of the things doctors told the family:

-They said Thomas would probably be blind, but it was later discovered the brain stem bleed had not damaged the optical nerve and that his vision would be fine.

-They also told them Thomas would need permanent use of a respirator. Today, he breathes without the aid of a machine.

-And then there was the news that Thomas had suffered permanent brain damage and likely would never speak again. His parents recall their awe on the day, four months after the brain stem bleed, when Thomas spoke again.

"Pat went over and sat next to him, adjusting some blankets," Rochelle said. "Thomas turned his head to the side and said 'What are you doing?' Then he said it again."

Thomas then looked at Rochelle and said, "Hi, Mom."

Coming Home

Thomas lies in his bed, his hand resting on the family dog, Peppy, who's nuzzled up protectively beside him. Above him, pennants and posters of Detroit sports teams are tacked to the walls - typical decor for a teenager.

His sister Chelsea helps to feed him lunch, but he frequently takes the plastic fork to feed himself - another sign of the remarkable progress the 17-year-old has made in the nearly seven months since suffering the brain stem bleed.

After having spent three months in the hospital, Thomas was finally released Feb. 19.

Hamlin remembers seeing Thomas that day.

"When I went to walk them out it was amazing," he said. "I was helping him to his wheelchair and he stood up, and if you knew what he was like in the beginning - he was helping me do it, it was amazing. Just to be able to see that change, for me, was mind-boggling. Just to see him support his own weight was amazing."

Thomas has made an incredible recovery and continues to exceed expectations working to improve his mobility and speech through therapy.

"Every goal he sets at therapy he has surpassed," Rochelle said.

Doctors have determined that Thomas' brain is healing. They have also assured his parents that he will now make a full recovery - a far cry from what they were told after he was rushed to hospital that November day.

The Clarks credit the exceptional care Thomas received at Children's Hospital and the strength and support of their family, including their eldest son, John, 19. The family also credits Thomas' recovery to their faith.

"He's a miracle," his aunt Maureen Harvey said. "I had my church friends praying for them; anyone who would listen. I know prayer does help and so do Pat and Rochelle. They called everybody, there was a real support."

New Challenges

A thin piece of plywood sits on the curb in front of the Clark's home. They use it to transfer Thomas' wheelchair from the asphalt in the parking lot onto the sidewalk.

The family has been waiting since November for a permanent access curb to be installed - just one of the many new hurdles the family now faces.

In March, Pat received word that his workman's compensation payments would stop. Since suffering three herniated disks in his back during a work related accident in 2006, while employed as a custodian with the Clintondale School District, Pat has been unable to find work and relies on workman's compensation payments to support the family.

Now they face a shaky financial future.

Bills are piling up: rent, groceries, utilities and other day-to-day expenses.

Rochelle is uncertain about whether the family will be able to keep up payments on their van, which they use to accommodate Thomas' wheelchair.

"I don't know what we're going to do," Rochelle said. "We need the van for Thomas."

With gas prices on the rise it is an extreme struggle to fuel the family van to transport Thomas to and from his thrice weekly therapy sessions at the Stilson Specialty Center in Clinton Township, about a 40 mile round trip from their home.

"It's getting pretty scary," Rochelle said.

Still, they push through the daily stress and uncertainty of their finances to care for their son, acutely aware of how close they were to losing him.

"Looking back, that he was able to get out of his bed to come tell us there was a problem, had he not been able to get out of his bed..." Rochelle stops, unable to finish her sentence about what could have happened if Thomas hadn't alerted his parents to his pain the night he suffered the brain stem bleed.

"Everything from the get-go was a miracle. He was meant to be here - he's just a miracle," she said.

Contact Assistant Editor Lisa Gervais at (586) 716-8100, ext. 301 or

I know this is not a typical artcical but i though it made sense...

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