It's nine o'clock on a Saturday night in the middle of an unusually humid August in Los Angeles. My 2-year-old daughter Stella is upstairs sleeping while my wife and I sink into our living room with our 10-month-old son Holton squeezing in some quality time with our DVR.
This is a big moment for us, as an opportunity like this doesn't show its beautiful face too often these days. It's only a matter of time before our little man probably erupts into some type of uncontrollable fit. The clock is ticking and we know it. The reason we know is sadly all too simple.
On December 19, 2014, my 11-week-old son suffered a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) after his skull was cracked and he stopped breathing for an unknown amount of time under the care of his nanny.
Well, that just took a horrible turn, right? OK, shake it off. Let's keep talking, shall we?
The third question people now ask me is, "So, what really happened?" The first is, typically, "How are you?" with a pursed lip head tilt. The second is, "And how's the family?" with a slow but positive head nod. Just so we can get that awkward "I know you wanna know what happened" part out of the way, I'll answer like this: "I'm good, the family is super amazing and we're still trying to figure out what happened that day."
The Cliff notes version is pretty straightforward. I had recently bought Holton a reindeer-themed onesie that was already too small on my rapidly growing man so I had to return it.
So the plan was simple, my wife Angela and I would take off for the mall to return the outfit and maybe grab something to eat before returning home. Our daughter (pictured below with Holton) was fast asleep in her crib. My wife had just fed our son, so we passed him off to his nanny and quickly escaped out the front door. It would be our last moment to be without the kids during the impending holiday break. We figured when we returned home we would give our nanny her Christmas gifts and let her go home early as a bonus.
We pulled into the mall garage, parked and entered the store. As quick as Angela and I separated into different directions is as quick as her phone began to ring. I wasn't paying attention but as she trailed away, I remember her calmly saying "Hello? What? What are you telling me? Hold on." She stopped and yelled for me from about 40 feet away. I walked over, grabbed the phone and once I heard what the strange woman on the other end was telling us, there was no confusion. "Hi, Eric. This is Kristen from the front desk [of my apartment building]. Your son is on his way to UCLA hospital right now. He wasn't breathing."
Holy. Shit. The earth stopped spinning. I heard and, more importantly, understood her perfectly. Without pause, I just took off out the store and back to the mall's garage. Angela followed in hot pursuit.
We jumped in the car and with my engine roaring I flew around the garage like I was a professional driver. Once we hit the street, all rules were off.
I quickly made my way to the closest freeway. I had never been to UCLA Medical Center but I knew it was in Westwood. I sped down the freeway's shoulder probably pissing off hundreds of holiday commuters along the way. I kept thinking, "Some asshole is going to purposely pull in front of me and I'm going to ram him out of the way." Happy to report, there were no assholes on the road that day except me.
My wife was understandably panicked as she screamed at her mom on the phone. I felt mentally frozen. I couldn't comprehend my son being hurt. I assumed whatever was wrong would be OK once we arrived.
I called the building's receptionist back as I raced down the side of another highway. I asked her if our nanny was mentally able to watch my daughter. She informed me that Stella was OK (although shoeless), playing in the lobby of our building—but that our nanny was in no condition to be watching her. She promised to watch our daughter until we got someone there to take over. My wife called one of her close work friends who rushed over within minutes.
Like magic, we found ourselves exiting off the freeway and heading down Wilshire. We guessed our way to the front entrance of the hospital. We skid to a stop in valet parking and jumped out, running in with our eyes wide open.
We were mad lunatics now sprinting through the quiet, marbled lobby of the hospital. Without stopping we would yell out, "Where's ER?!" and people would just quickly point. Doctors, nurses and custodians instinctively got out of our way, as they've probably seen this routine a few times before.
We made it to the ER lobby and a nurse greeted me with a clipboard and some paperwork. I asked if my son was even here before I filled anything out. She went to find him. As she left, my wife and I were storming around the ER lobby, yelling at each other for no reason. I called my father and told him what little info I had, before breaking down. He yelled in a tone I've never heard before. He was terrified by the insanity he heard coming through the earpiece. I wanted someone to tell me this was a horrible joke or there was a mix up. That never happened.
As our patience grew nonexistent, a security guard finally approached me and said, "Your son was brought here, and a doctor is going to come out to speak with you soon." He didn't say my son was OK or alive or anything—this was basically a death sentence. I slumped onto a bench and waited, with tears soaking my face. I can't say what Angela was doing at this time because I was shut down. All my energy was used up and I was 100 percent positive they were going to tell me my son was dead.
A doctor never came out. Instead, it was a hospital social worker. This felt even worse. She calmly invited us into another part of the lobby that was more private. As we lifelessly made our way over, I thought of nothing but bad news. She sat us down and told us our son was in stable condition. She said when they arrived at our residence he wasn't breathing and EMT had to fully resuscitate him on the drive over. "He was blue," she said.
We made our way back to his room and finally laid eyes on our boy. He was crying but things seemed OK for a few moments. Healthy babies cry, right? I clearly remember an ER doctor looking me in the eyes and saying, "He's going to be OK." That's all I wanted to hear. It was the first and last time a doctor would ever say that about Holton.
As we celebrated Holton still being with us, we realized something was off. His eyes were jetting up and he was making strange guttural noises. His hands were slightly contorted. None of this was too exaggerated but it was enough that we knew it was bad. After ten minutes of pleading with varying ER staff members, a doctor finally walked in and called it like it was: Holton was having seizures. They quickly rushed him away from us and escorted us back to the lobby.
That was the last time we saw him awake in 2014.
So what happened? Holton's nanny told varying tales about the afternoon's events that led to my son being placed in a medically induced coma. She told the receptionist who actually saved Holton's life one story, she told us another version and she told the police a different version from the previous two. They aren't dramatically different but the details—and it's all in the details—are different throughout. I'm not comfortable sharing her story, as I don't believe it's the truth. Too many odd inconsistencies so I'm not going to validate her lies by repeating them. Instead I will just tell you this fun fact: After Angela's friend showed up to watch Stella, our nanny just left. She didn't stick around to speak with the police. She didn't race over to the hospital to join us in our frightened misery. She didn't even call us to ask how Holt was doing. Instead, she went home and basically hid.
Later that night, when we finally got to see our son again, he was out cold. EEG wires covered his head and two PICC lines entered his body. A catheter, a breathing tube, a feeding tube all invaded his tiny frame. There were two unsuccessful IO needle scars and enough IVs to scare a heroin addict.
I remember the attending doctor on the PICU floor telling me on the next day that the correct meds usually can control the seizures within a few days. "It's just a matter of time before we create the right cocktail of meds," she went on to say. We were optimistic. Then day five came and that same doctor told us she's never heard of a patient with seizures last more than nine or ten days, so to hang tight.
As the days clocked by, I continued to aggressively search the Internet for information on head trauma in infants but couldn't find anything relatable. I was learning nothing about how to help my son and it hurt. I felt insignificant. I felt like I had failed my child in so many ways.
Ten days in and Holton's seizures remained unstoppable. I began to break down. I wouldn't leave his bedside. I remember spending an entire day holding his lifeless hand as I sat next to his bed with my head sunken into his mattress. Doctors and nurses came and went but I never looked up. I was empty. I had nothing to give. I truly wanted to die.
But the reality is, I didn't die. And neither did Holton. The doctors finally got his seizures under control an astonishing 12 days later on December 30. As of the writing of this article, he's not had another event since.
We've had to deal with a lot of sadness, anger and frustration over the last eight months as we do our best to bring Holt back to some version of himself. But with everything I just described, it's hard to not be thankful to be able to spend a boring, quiet Saturday night at home catching up on DVR'd shows.
Holton is far from out of the woods but he is out of the hospital and that seemed impossible only a few short months ago. He's not hitting his milestones but we're doing our best to give him the therapeutic support he needs to get him where he's supposed to be. The stark truth is, we don't know how far he'll progress but we're hopeful that one day he'll regain a quality of life as close to normal as humanly possible.
I understand now that our son will never grow to be the man he was born to be, but that doesn't mean he won't grow to be the man he's meant to be.
We had nowhere to go to find out what to do. I found a few websites that offered vague, broad-stroke info on TBI patients but hardly any info on children, let alone infants. When the proverbial shit hit the fan, there wasn't a place that offered authentic and raw advice. No global organization to walk scared, confused parents through an impossible situation. And truthfully, that made things worse. So now, eight months later, I want to be that voice.
I have a lot to share about my son's accident, his recovery and his eventual triumph. I'm going to write about things I would've loved to have known while overcoming this horrendous family tragedy. I want other families to find inspiration in Holton's battle. My hope is that his amazing story of recovery, including how our family handles everything thrown our way, will help others out there dealing with something similar. The way I see it, my son—the Incredible Holt as he's now known—is an inspiration. Not just to his parents and immediate family, but to anyone who is fighting an impossible fight. Every day Holton is with us is a day that almost never happened.
So, that's the start of his story. My wife and I are heading to bed now. Amazingly, Holton fell asleep in his crib thirty minutes ago without making a peep. We'll count that as one small win in the right direction.
If you'd like to learn more about my son, Holton, please follow his story on Facebook at The Incredible Holt Road to Recovery.