Mass. teen re-adjusts after brain injury from skateboard accident
DRACUT, MASS. >> For Becky Ayotte, a mother of four boys, ages 8 to 18, the life-altering afternoon of Sept. 2 started out like many others. Eldest son T.J. was at work, 14-year-old Nathan was at football practice, and 8-year-old Garrett was playing outside the Ayotte's Tanglewood Drive home with friends.
Her husband, Tom, was at work as a plumber for the Dracut School District.
Fifteen-year-old Jaccob came upstairs from his basement bedroom with his favorite skateboard in hand.
"You try to keep them safe, but as soon as they leave the house, you don't know what they're going to do," Becky Ayotte said. "Especially teenagers. You try to teach them right. But as soon as they leave, the helmet comes off.
"He said, 'Mom, I'm going out on my longboard with my friend.' 'OK. Have fun. Be safe,' I told him, 'and no man left behind.' That's my motto -- that they always stay together when they're out there."
Minutes later, while running on the treadmill, she got the call from Jaccob's friend: Jaccob had been seriously hurt falling from the skateboard on Old Marsh Hill Road, the steepest road in the neighborhood.
He was not wearing a helmet.
"He's done it many times before," she said. "He owns a helmet, but when he leaves the house ... He was 15 when it happened, you have to give them some form of leeway.
"It was a bad accident. It's a hard lesson to learn."
While hurtling down Old Marsh Hill atop the skateboard at an estimated 35 mph, Jaccob's front wheel struck a manhole cover, launching the board vertically, with Jaccob crash-landing head- and face-first on the right side of his skull.
Sprinting to the scene uphill, Becky Ayotte found the skateboard far down and off to the side of the road from the prone body of her son, who had fractured his entire face, including breaking his nose. Worst of all, as Tom and Becky were soon to learn from an team of medical specialists at Lowell General Hospital and Tufts Medical Center, Jaccob had suffered a brain injury that would plummet him into a coma lasting 23 days.
For those three weeks in September — as Jaccob lay hospitalized with the right side of his skull removed to relieve the pressure from his swollen brain — doctors dutifully avoided offering any potentially false hopes to the Ayottes that Jaccob would ever walk, talk or eat normally again, the Ayottes recalled.
"Their answer to our every question was, 'It's TBI' — traumatic brain injury," Tom Ayotte said. "So they couldn't say what the outcome would be."
In the beginning, they didn't give him much hope, especially the doctors in the intensive-care unit, because he had so little brain activity.
Protocol required the hospital staff at Tufts to offer the Ayottes papers to withdraw Jaccob's life-support, if it came to that. Through the monthslong ordeal, Jaccob's mother remained the most optimistic person in the ambulance and hospital room.
"I told them from the get-go my son would be fine," she said. "I told them he was in the ambulance coming here and a big old rainbow popped out of the blue sky. I said those are all my angels looking out after my son. ... You have to have faith."
On Sept. 25, Jaccob awoke from his coma to the realization that the right side of his skull was in medical storage. By Oct. 3, his breathing tube was removed, and Jaccob was communicating and eating again.
Which soon brought the Ayotte family to recognize this hugely ironic and tragicomic fact: Not only is Jaccob, who doctors feared may never talk again, talking again, but their once quiet and typically reserved teenage son has undergone a personality transformation reminiscent of the late comedian Robin Williams.
That is to say, Jaccob can barely stop himself from talking, commenting, joking, laughing, hugging, kissing and commenting to family members, friends and strangers alike these days.
As his medical caretakers can also attest. "I had one doctor named Dr. Nutini, and I called her Dr. Martini," Jaccob said. "There was a Dr. Miller, who I called Dr. Miller Lite. And I had two student nurses, one named Patrick, who I called 'Patricia' or 'Peppermint Patty.' He liked that. And another guy named Craig Rush. I called him 'Crush."'
"Right now, Jaccob has no filter," Becky Ayotte said. "He'll be walking into the mall, and he'll shout, "I like ponies!' And maybe he'll want to kiss someone."
Jaccob tried to hug a worker at Discount Madness because he thought the man looked like "Santa's uncle," his mother recalled.
"He's like a 165-pound child," Tom Ayotte said. "But we're doing better. It's just taking time. He'll be all right."
Upon hearing his mother tell of finding him lying in a pool of blood, Jaccob says: "Worst pool I've ever been in."
As his parents recall their dour September conversation about possibly ending his life-support, Jaccob again interjects.
"What? You were going to pull the plug on me? Dad, I can't believe you passed that opportunity!" he said, again making his family laugh.
"Oh, my God. I knew that was coming!" Tom Ayotte said.
The end result is that their son has suffered permanent damage to the frontal lobe of his brain, governing emotions and learning ability. His rear brain lobe was also severely damaged, and he still has swelling in his brain stem and a blood clot in the back of his brain stem that doctors are monitoring closely while hoping it will dissipate eventually, Tom Ayotte said.
Tom and Becky Ayotte expressed gratitude to the Dracut community for aiding them through their 3-month hospital vigil. They are also thankful to Jaccob's great-aunt for setting up Jaccob's GoFundMe account, www.gofundme.com/elsblg, to defray the enormous medical bills, and to the owners of the Owl Diner in Lowell, who have pledged to give Jaccob 100 percent of the proceeds of the 2015 Owl Diner Charity Golf Tournament in mid-May.
They said no words could sufficiently thank their son's team of therapists and doctors, including those who reattached Jaccob's right-side skull section using 70 staples on Dec. 9. He keeps the staples as souvenirs.
"He got his skull back right before Christmas. That was his Christmas present from his doctors," Tom Ayotte said. "And we got the best gift we could have asked for. We got our kid back."
There was also one other wondrous pre-Christmas gift the Ayottes received during their traditional holiday trip to the mall in Salem, N.H., that they will never forget, Becky Ayotte said.
While waiting to have their annual photo taken as a family with Santa, ahead of the Ayottes in line stood a young man holding the hand of his 2-year-old daughter. The man and his daughter, who seemed transfixed by the sight of the ever-animated Jaccob in his wheelchair, noticed the family's black T-shirts bearing the words, "Learn from yesterday and live for today" on the front, and "ccstrong" on the back, and asked Tom and Becky Ayotte about it.
"We told him the story," Becky Ayotte said. "Then we got up to Santa Claus and had our pictures taken, and when I went to pay afterward, the clerk told us: 'Oh, no, no. The man already took care of it. He bought your whole package."'
The man and his daughter had slipped away before they could properly thank him or get his name, the Ayottes said.
"You always hear all these bad things about people," Becky Ayotte said. "There's so much good, if people just take a moment and look at it."
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