Jason Murphy celebrated his 30th birthday last July 26 at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.
His 18-month-old son Owen was recovering from a stroke and Dad was never far away.
Jason’s birthday wish? Good health for his family. Owen had weakness on his left side. Wife Dawn was undergoing chemotherapy after a masectomy. Mother-in-law Nancy Robinson had just had surgery.
A year later, everyone is much better.
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On a late weekday afternoon, Owen cuddled with Dawn on the sectional in the high-ceilinged great room of the family’s Swansea home until Jason got out one of Owen’s favorite games, Don’t Break The Ice.
Blond buzzcut Owen, 2 1/2, and dark-haired brother Blake, 4, sat on the carpet on either side of Jason as he carefully lined up plastic blocks of ice in a frame. The boys chopped with red and blue plastic picks until the cubes fell through. Over and over.
“Again, Dad,” said Owen.
Owen is sick
Owen was diagnosed with strep last July 17. But the family was alarmed when he began vomiting and “walking like he was drunk.” They took him to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.
“They gave him some fluids and a Popsicle and sent him home,” said Dawn, a chiropractor whose business is Belleville Area Chiropractic.
The little guy was lethargic the whole weekend. They returned to the hospital on Sunday and were told he had an abscess from strep and gave him morphine for the pain, said Dawn. Jason stayed at the hospital that night after Owen was admitted.
“We got up to the room at 2 a.m,” said Jason, a soft-spoken guy who is rarely without a baseball cap. “At 6, I woke up and heard him. He was kind of moving around. The doctor came in and said they were going to send him home because they couldn’t find anything. About 7, I went to change his diaper and he wasn’t moving at all. I noticed his lips were purple. He was unresponsive. He didn’t really move.”
But it got Jason moving.
“The first time, I walked out to the nurse’s station and said, ‘You need to send a doctor in here.’”
Seconds seemed to stretch to hours for the scared father.
“I walked back out, and said louder, ‘Right now.’ Within 30 seconds, there were 10 to 15 doctors and nurses.”
“I had just talked to him and he said they’d be home soon,” said Dawn, who had just undergone a chemo treatment.
“As things got crazier, I said, ‘Do I need to call my wife and tell her to come?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What about my parents who are in Florida?’ ‘Just wait.’ Then, they said, ‘You need to call your parents.’ At that point I knew it was pretty bad, but doctors and nurses at Children’s were unbelievable,” Jason said.
Owen was intubated, put on oxygen and rushed into surgery to put a shunt in after it was determined the 18-month-old had swelling on the brain. The shunt takes off cerebral spinal fluid that causes pressure.
“He got his first haircut when they shaved his head for the shunt,” said Dawn.
The diagnosis: a vertebral artery dissection, caused when an artery tears, usually in a trauma situation.
“Later in the day on Monday, they told us he had a stroke,” said Dawn.
“That was pretty upsetting,” said Jason. “Those were the worst two days, that Monday and Tuesday.”
“It was like it wasn’t real,” said Dawn. “We both only went home one night in two weeks. We didn’t want him to wake up and wonder where he was.”
“I was off about a week-and-a-half,” said Jason, whose business, WS Communications, sells two-way Kenwood radios. “I would sit in the hospital room and work from there.”
Family and friends took over caring for Blake, and giving the young parents a break at the hospital.
Out of the woods
“Wednesday was the first decent day we had, when it started going better,” said Jason. “Things stopped getting worse and started turning.”
“He was looking at us,” said Dawn. “They checked his heart, checked neurological signs and did lots of blood work for clotting disorders.”
The Murphys worried about their son’s weak left side.
“The biggest concern at that point was what that level was going to be,” said Dawn.
But Owen was in good spirits.
“Even in ICU, he was smiling more,” said Dawn. “If you said, ‘Is there a pig in here?’ he’d oink. That’s how we would get him to laugh.”
By Friday, he was out of ICU and on the neurology floor. After the shunt was removed, he could start moving more.
“Recovery is different from adults,” said Dawn. “Kids are so young and their brains are evolving. After the stroke, the artery had already rerouted. Every day, he got better. His mobility was still slow.”
Owen resorted to crawling when he got home.
“He would crawl and fall over and crawl and fall over,” said grandma Nancy Robinson, “then laugh and do it again.”
“We had to watch him like a baby,” said Dawn. “We got the baby toys back out. We had to put him back in the high chair.”
With therapy, the sturdy little guy caught up in just a few weeks. Older brother Blake provided inspiration.
“Once Owen came home and watched his brother run around, he decided that was enough for him,” said Dawn. “He wasn’t going to sit there and not be able to play.”
The Murphys may never know what caused Owen’s stroke.
“The odds of it happening again are slim,” said Jason, “but without knowing, what happened in the first place, we aren’t sure.”
According to the American Stroke Society website, the risk of stroke from birth through age 18 is nearly 11 per 100,000 children per year. About half of the children presenting with a stroke had a previously-identified risk factor, such as sickle cell disease and congenital or acquired heart disease. Other risk factors include head and neck infections; systemic conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune disorders; head trauma; and dehydration.
Jason and Dawn are glad they took Owen to the hospital when they did.
“You know your child and you know when it’s not your child,” said Dawn. “Be pushy.”
Doctors advise that Owen shouldn’t play contact sports such as football and hockey. But he can do just about everything else.
The Murphys celebrated Owen’s recovery with a family trip to Holiday World in September. For Father’s Day, they’ll get together with both sets of grandparents.
Life goes on, the same but a little different.
“You realize really what’s important,” said Dawn, who completed her chemo treatment last fall. “You definitely look at things differently. We live in the moment.”
“We don’t sweat the small stuff,” said Jason.
They worry a little more.
“Any time that he’s sick, I still catch myself every night checking to see if he’s still breathing,” said Jason. “I remember him laying there with his purple lips. ... A couple months after he got out, in September, Dawn thought he was walking funny again.”
Off they went to the hosptial.
“They were good to us,” said Dawn. “He spent the night. They checked him over. We knew he was OK.”
Owen is a lively 2 1/2 -year-old.
“He’s more adventurous,” said Jason. “That’s why he broke his arm last fall (jumping from a chair).”
“Daddy?” said Owen.
“Come and play. I want to play another game. Come in Blake’s room.”
Jason got up to follow his son.
“He’s a good boy,” he said. “We’re lucky to have him.”