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Working as One to Save a Child’s Life

By Jessica Wall

During the afternoon of April 5, 2017, local meteorologists issued severe weather alerts for Latta, South Carolina. Aaron and Stephani Miles both work with the Latta school system and arrived at home around 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Soon after, the rain and hail began to beat down on their home.

Aaron and his seven-year-old son Brennon stood looking out the window at the hail until the lightning started, so they moved away. Meanwhile, Stephani prepared dinner in the kitchen while four-year-old Conner played in the den with a baseball bat in one hand and Lucky Charms in the other.

Suddenly, the family’s car alarm activated as they heard a thunderous noise. Aaron and Stephani could not believe what happened. A strong gust of wind uprooted a nearby 100-year-old oak tree, which landed directly on their home and both vehicles.

Aaron immediately yelled, “Is everyone okay?” as he looked over the large tree limbs that filled the family’s den.

He heard the cries and screams of Stephani and Brennon, but no sound from Conner. Just silence.

Panic and terror overwhelmed Aaron. “I could not see Conner because of the tree and then noticed our dog, Daisy, making noises we have never heard before or since. I knew if I could get to Daisy, I would find Conner,” he said. Aaron struggled to get into the den, but when he finally did, the sight terrified him even more.

“A large tree limb and trusses from the roof covered Conner’s body,” said Aaron. “I could only see Conner’s shoe and blood pouring out from under the limb.” Aaron called 911. The dispatcher advised him to stay on the phone and not move Conner, but Aaron could feel the tree shifting in the house and knew he had to get his son out.

Aaron ended the call and removed as much debris as possible. As rain poured in through the gaping hole in the ceiling, Aaron mustered all the strength he could and moved Conner from under the tree while Stephani ran to get a washcloth and small towel to stop the bleeding from two gashes on Conner’s head.

Aaron ran out the door with Conner in his arms. At the same moment, the Latta Chief of Police arrived in response to the 911 call.

Conner’s little body shook as he went in and out of consciousness. Just as Aaron reached to put Conner in the police car, the ambulance arrived.

The paramedics took Conner to the McLeod Health Dillon Emergency Department. On the way, Aaron prayed for Conner and everyone involved in his care.

Once there, Dr. Kievers Cunningham, Medical Director of the McLeod Dillon Emergency Department, along with a team of nurses, worked quickly to assess the extent of Conner’s injuries. While Aaron and Stephani anxiously awaited a report on their son’s condition, a couple of nurses brought them dry scrubs to replace their soaked clothing.

A CT scan revealed a fractured skull with several skull fragments pushing into the brain. Conner also sustained an epidural hematoma, a collection of blood between the skull and covering of the brain, which compressed the underlying brain as well as a cerebral contusion, or bruising of the brain itself.

“Every minute counts when a person sustains such a critical injury,” explained Dr. Cunningham. “A hemorrhage increases pressure on the brain, which can lead to irreversible brain damage or death if not treated quickly.

“We intubated Conner to protect his airway and stabilize his vitals while arranging for transport. I explained to the family that Conner would need immediate surgery to stop the hemorrhaging as well as repair the skull fracture.”

Dr. Cunningham then called Dr. William Naso, a Neurosurgeon with Florence Neurosurgery & Spine Center, and arranged for Conner’s transport to McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence.

“Upon Conner’s arrival to the Emergency Department, we activated a ‘Q-1,’” explained Dr. Naso. “This lets the Emergency Department and Operating Room staff know that the patient has a severe life-threatening condition requiring immediate surgical intervention. Dr. Cunningham notified me of Conner’s condition so our team could fully prepare for his arrival. The time from Conner’s arrival to the induction of anesthesia in the Operating Room totaled 11 minutes.

“An epidural hematoma remains one of the most time sensitive neurosurgical emergencies. A delay of even a few minutes might literally mean the difference between life and death. Dr. Cunningham’s early intubation, stabilization and transfer of Conner, Dr. Michelle Huxford’s preparation of her Emergency Department staff, and Dr. Ben King’s efficiency and care as Conner’s anesthesiologist served as critical components in Conner’s good outcome. Our Emergency Department nurses, respiratory therapists, transport technicians, Operating Room nurses, nurse anesthetists, and Operating Room technicians all played important roles in Conner’s surgery and ultimate recovery. Without all these dedicated professionals, Conner may not have survived,” added Dr. Naso.

Conner underwent a craniotomy with elevation of depressed skull fracture and evacuation of the epidural hematoma. Essentially, Dr. Naso and his surgical team removed a portion of Conner’s skull and the large blood clot compressing his brain. They then repaired the fractured skull using a series of plates and screws.

“With Conner’s surgery underway, Bill Early, a Patient Representative in the Emergency Department, led Stephani and me, along with several family members and friends, to the surgical waiting area and prayed with our entire group,” recalled Aaron.

After surgery, Conner stayed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) under the supervision of Dr. Carl Chelen, McLeod Pediatric Intensivist, where his recovery progressed as expected.

After two nights in the PICU, respiratory therapists Sherry Gasque and Heather Heape began the process of weaning Conner off the ventilator. Stephani prayed for this to happen before his fifth birthday on April 13. The PICU team extubated Conner on April 12.

Stephani also describes their main fear as knowing that head trauma can change one’s personality, and Conner has always been the prankster of the family. She and Aaron felt utter relief during one of the first interactions Conner had with Aaron after coming off the ventilator. Since he could not speak yet to show his personality, Conner removed Aaron’s glasses, turned them upside down and put them back on Aaron’s face, then put them on the correct way.

“We cannot express our gratitude for the entire PICU team,” added Stephani. “Dr. Chelen frequently checked on us and explained every detail regarding Conner’s care.

“Josh Murphy, our night nurse, gave Conner a Clemson hat for his birthday, even though Josh pulls for the University of South Carolina. What may have seemed a small gesture to Josh touched us deeply. He showed incredible support and compassion not just for Conner, but our entire family.

“Our oldest son, Brennon, struggled to cope with the accident. He had no home, no familiar car to ride in, and did not know if his brother would be okay. His entire world had turned upside down. When he needed his family the most, we could not be there for him like we wanted. In those moments, even the most ordinary acts of kindness have significant impact.

“Josh always made a point of speaking to Brennon, and the therapists and nurses strived to make sure Brennon felt included and important in Conner’s recovery. The first thing Conner said after getting off the ventilator was not ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, but ‘Brennon.’

“Then, Olivia Whatley, the Child Life Specialist, took Brennon to the Child Life Activity Center and let him pick out a Lego for each family member -- him, Conner, Mom and Dad. Olivia put the Legos together to remind Brennon that even though he could not be with his family right now, they loved him very much. This really impacted Brennon, and he carried the Legos in his pocket long after the accident,” said Stephani.

Conner underwent routine neuro checks in the PICU to assess his brain activity. Aaron prayed for a sign that Conner would be okay and during one of his neuro checks asked Conner to squeeze his hand, wiggle his nose, and wiggle his toes. Aaron happened to capture Conner responding on video.

“No matter what I may deal with in a day, I go back to that video and time stops because at that moment, I remember sitting in the PICU thanking the Lord that Conner knew what it meant to do these things,” said Aaron. “Before that point, we honestly did not know what Conner’s outcome would look like.”

Conner spent a total of 12 nights in the PICU and eight nights on the pediatric floor. During those 20 days, the Patient Representative Aaron met the first night further impacted the family by visiting daily with newspaper in hand.

“Bill will never know how much this kind gesture meant to us,” recalled Aaron. “For those brief moments, he helped distract us from all our anxieties and concerns through simple conversation.”

Upon Conner’s discharge from the hospital, he underwent occupational and physical therapy at McLeod Pediatric Rehabilitation for a few months, where therapists Megan Jones and Doren Craig made an impression on Conner and the family.

Today, six-year-old Conner enjoys all things sports and wrestling. Shortly after the accident, Conner developed an interest in professional wrestler John Cena whose motto is “Never give up.” Now, Conner has an entire John Cena collection.

Conner currently plays flag football but looks forward to possibly playing more sports soon.

Most importantly, doctors believe Conner should make a full recovery. “We have definitely gained a new perspective,” says Aaron. “God has a purpose for Conner, and He left him here to fulfill that purpose.”