Head-injured boy heals from coma to video play

December 26, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Eyes riveted and thumbs a popping, 7-year-old Brandon Cantrell hooted with excitement as he guided a video-game hero through a labyrinth of tunnels and alleyways. He was a master of the game, and knew it.

Last Oct. 2, it appeared doubtful that a high-tech Christmas gift would mean anything to him.

That day, while riding his bicycle, Brandon collided with another child and tumbled to the pavement. As was his custom, he wasn't wearing a helmet. The left side of his skull was the first thing to strike the asphalt, and he lapsed into a coma.

LTC A MedEvac helicopter flew the Baltimore youth to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where neurosurgeons repositioned the skull fragments that had angled inward on his brain. He had suffered a serious blow to the left side of his brain, the type that can wipe out mental and physical capabilities in an instant.

After several hours, a worried surgeon left the operating room and delivered a grim prognosis.

"He told us he'd be pretty lucky if he made it at all," Brandon's father, Cliff Cantrell, said yesterday.

In his rowhouse in Baltimore Highlands, Mr. Cantrell recalled how he left his son in the hospital one night, distraught over the accident that had turned him from a playful boy into a still picture of helplessness. The boy would lie in bed with his eyes open, recognizing no one, neither saying, nor doing anything.

Once home, Mr. Cantrell pulled a black-and-white photo off the wall and took it upstairs to his room. In the picture, a 5-year-old Brandon sat on a wrought-iron railing, flashing an innocent grin.

"I was pretty much in tears. He was laying in the hospital bed with all those IVs, bandages all over his head. It was pretty unbelievable, just two kids riding bikes. . . ."

Remarkably, Brandon awoke from his coma on the 11th day after the accident. He was saying "mommy and daddy," and playing with a soccer ball that someone had placed on his bed. Shown a red Ninja Turtle, he correctly identified it as "Raphael."

On the 12th day, he was eating apples and requesting chocolate doughnuts. A few days later, he was transferred to the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, which specializes in the rehabilitation of youngsters with serious medical conditions and injuries.

A team of psychologists and occupational, physical and speech therapists got to work right away.

"We had to hold his hand while he walked, or he would just trip," said Mary Anne Lewis, an occupational therapist. "He was very uncoordinated."

But in a few weeks, "he was playing soccer with the physical therapist and working on computer activities with a speech therapist. He worked on some simple cooking skills, made some Christmas cookies."

He was discharged after a few weeks, but got daily outpatient therapy and attended a school the hospital runs for recovering children. After Christmas vacation, he will attend the Transitional Head Injury Program for brain-injured children operated by the city school system, the only one of its kind in Maryland.

A large surgical scar zig-zags across his head. It starts at his forehead, arcs to his left ear, swings to his crown and then drops down the back of his head.

"How many stitches?" Mr. Cantrell called to his son.

"Sixty; it hurt," came the reply.

"Right now, he is 100 percent physically," Mr. Cantrell said. "The problems he's having are with his concentration and attention span."

He has trouble remembering instructions, and he can get angry and stomp his feet when he doesn't get his way, Mr. Cantrell said.

Yesterday, Brandon celebrated Christmas morning at his father's house, where he received a helmet -- hard plastic on top of foam -- along with the video game and a remote-controlled car.

Later, he joined his mother, Margaret Cantrell, at her home in Hampden.

;/ Awaiting him there was a shiny new bicycle.

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