Safety First Or Last?

Standing there in the ER next to a neurosurgeon surrounded by the energy of the nurses and technicians who all seemed to be giving me a knowing nod of understanding, I translated his information into the question, “He’ll die?”

Dr. E. Scott Connor drilled a hole about the size of a silver dollar in my son’s head, drained the blood and cranial fluids, replaced the cranium jigsaw-puzzle piece, and then covered it up with the titanium disk.

I found myself somewhat bemused. Skater after skater arrived at the park in the same fashion. They roll to a stop, reach into their backpacks, and reluctantly put on their helmets.

Is “accidents happen” an age-old explanation for foolishness, or simply a fatalist’s explanation for the way the world works? Either way, personal philosophies, ideologies, religions, and other mental preparedness all begin to fade when you’re standing in front of the MRI image of your child’s brain and even to you comes the recognition that something is wrong. “What is that?” you ask yourself, knowing that it’s not supposed to be there. This experience, not one I would wish upon anyone, is shockingly fresh, and all too real for me to fully accept.

“Uh, that’s the blood clot, there?” I asked as I touched the screen.

“Yes.” Economy of response. Midnight was approaching, and the neurosurgeon had arrived within minutes of being called by the hospital’s trauma team. He was calm and assured. While I pondered the video-monitor’s images he slid into his lab coat. Doctors and nurses were swirling in my wake as I turned.

“So what’s the alternative to the surgery?” There’s an alternative to everything, right? Acupuncture. Yoga. Something.

“He’ll die. In fact, he’ll die within hours.”

I tracked back to the image on the screen. It turned out my wife and I were looking at a cross-section image, as if a sedimentary layer had been lifted from our son’s brain. In the temple region was a dark cloudy mass “about the size of a golf ball,” the surgeon was explaining. “The bleeding is continuing,” he said. “The fracture of the skull is in this region.” And I realized he was touching the side of my head just above and forward of my ear. The fracture of his skull? His skull is fractured?

“His skull is fractured.” The whole experience was beginning to get away from me. This is our child you’re talking about, right?

He and I had been snowboarding two weeks ago. Diamonds. Double diamonds¿he, not me. Surfing. Skateboarding. Baseball. Dad and son stuff.

Standing there in the ER next to a neurosurgeon surrounded by the energy of the nurses and technicians who all seemed to be giving me a knowing nod of understanding, I translated his information into the question, “He’ll die?” Before he could answer, in that moment of hearing my own voice speak this absurdity, I began to accept the urgency of the doctor’s message. I was back. It was real time.

“When? When do you do the surgery?”

“Now. They’re getting the OR ready as we speak.”

“What do we do?”

“You and your wife can follow us to the … ” and then it all started. The motion. The saving of a life. The movement of dozens all focused on one task, on one young man. They were going to save this life, our son’s life.

Brain surgery. Craniotomy. There it was, “Colin Fitzpatrick” at the top of board. Number one. Colin Fitzpatrick. Brain trauma. OR. Dr. Connor.

When you arrive at the ER with brain trauma you go to the top of list. Runny noses, lacerations, abrasions, fevers, and even non-life-threatening gunshot wounds are down the list. There’s our kid, number one, at the top of his class. Magnitude. It all began to sink in. From that moment on we were going in a new direction. Our lives were at the top of the list, and things would never be the same.

It all worked. One-hundred-percentecovery seems to be where he’s headed. Although just yesterday I think he began to realize that his head has taken on a new shape. That it might take some time for his melon to adjust to the titanium plate. That the swelling might not be swelling, but more the shape of his future. How many points do you take away for a reshaped head¿99-percent recovery? Or maybe 99.45-percent?

Dr. E. Scott Connor drilled a hole about the size of a silver dollar in my son’s head, drained the blood and cranial fluids, replaced the cranium jigsaw-puzzle piece, and then covered it up with the titanium disk. A half-dozen screws to keep that in place, and he’s good to go. Just like that. I had set up a work station in the hospital’s waiting room. It’s not like childbirth. They don’t let dads into the OR when their child is having his brain opened up. I was keeping busy externally with paperwork, but the slow internal workings kept returning to the central core of what this was all about¿”He’ll die.”

The kid in the operating room had been one of the first to skate Powell Peralta’s SkateZone in the early 90s. At one point Team Manager Tod Hastings, Katie Cusimano, and I all had our offices out there, and I was supposed to be responsible for what went on. I was, after all, the principal. Colin and his buddy Kelly Robertson would roll around the course, and sitting in the hospital waiting room I specifically remembered setting up a video shoot with Stacy Peralta and Craig Stecyk while the ten-year-old Kelly and Colin skated the indoor dreamscape. Kelly rolled up behind Stacy and attempted to ollie over the funbox’s hip. He didn’t pull it and found himself on the cement, sliding with his face turned toward the ceiling. Stacy quickly asked, “Hey man, are you all right?”

Kelly glanced back with an unassured, “Yeah.”

Then Stacy added, “Maybe you should get a helmet.”

Ten days have gone by since the surgery. Stitches are out. Swelling has gone way down. Realizations. Time for internal travel. Maybe you should get a helmet. Indeed, but the story of this surgery, and the story of this recovery, begins with a shortcut, not a backside ramp trick or an attempted ollie over a funbox. Not a snow-draped tree, nor a semi-submerged reef. Not a curb. Not a handrail. A shortcut.

When the doctor had first contacted from the emergency room I thought he called our home by mistake. It might even have been a prank. “We’re about to perform emergency brain surgery on your son, and he thought you might want to know … ”

This is what happens when your children become “adults.” Colin had his twenty-first birthday only days before, so the doctor didn’t ask or seek permission. This was to let us know.

That was the worst part. The drive to the hospital. “What the hell? What happened? How did it happen? Did he say how it happened?” I love my wife and mother of our children, and I hated not being able to answer her questions.

“I don’t know. He didn’t say. I don’t know if he knows.”

The shortcut was between A and Z. The shortest distance. One end of the alphabet separated from the other by a creek. Sandstone boulders piled naturally along a creek bedlined by eucalyptus trees. Scamper down, scamper up, and you’re home. “I grabbed a root sticking out of the bank … I thought it would hold me … it was a big root so I pulled myself up and I think I was at the top, but it just came out of the dirt, and I felt myself falling back … ”

A root? A creek? “Maybe you should get a helmet … “

The patient is doing fine. He really is. He’s a wonderful person, and we’re glad he’s alive. The conversations have been incredible. The irony. Yesterday I was sitting at Skater’s Point, Santa Barbara’s ever-popular public skatepark. I found myself somewhat bemused. Skater after skater arrived at the park in the same fashion. They roll to a stop, reach into their backpacks, and reluctantly put on their helmets.

Across the street from the park are several eucalyptus trees. The creek empties at the beach beside the park. “You just don’t know!” says Chris Rock. And you don’t. We don’t. I don’t. The MRI image flashed before me. Safety? Helmet laws? Regulations? I don’t know, I think I’ll start wearing a helmet 24/7¿it’s either that or eliminate the shortcuts, cut back on all activity, and just repose.

Maybe not. Probably not. Okay¿not. Where’s my board? I have to get outta this chair and go do something.

and reluctantly put on their helmets.

Across the street from the park are several eucalyptus trees. The creek empties at the beach beside the park. “You just don’t know!” says Chris Rock. And you don’t. We don’t. I don’t. The MRI image flashed before me. Safety? Helmet laws? Regulations? I don’t know, I think I’ll start wearing a helmet 24/7¿it’s either that or eliminate the shortcuts, cut back on all activity, and just repose.

Maybe not. Probably not. Okay¿not. Where’s my board? I have to get outta this chair and go do something.