CHICAGO — The Becker family’s life changed in an instant.
It was just like any other Sunday in October. Fred Becker took a break from mowing the lawn to talk to his neighbor, and as usual, his then 7-year-old daughter Katie Becker joined the conversation.
Moments later Katie began to sway. She ran inside, squealing: “My head hurts. My head hurts all over.”
Seconds later, Katie fell to the floor, nearing death.
“I thought she had been stung by a bee,” Fred recalled. “By the time I made it inside, she had collapsed.”
Katie was suffering from a ruptured brain arteriovenous malformation. AVM is an abnormal connection between arteries and veins within an organ, according to Dr. Elliot Roth, medical director of Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Patient Recovery Unit and Ability Lab.
An AVM is congenital, meaning it dates to birth. An AVM can develop in any organ but most occur in the brain. Some people can go their entire lives with one and nothing happens. For others, the effects can be severe.
Of the 800,000 U.S. citizens who suffer a stroke, about 20,000 to 40,000 are caused by AVM.
Roth said blood naturally flows from the heart through veins and arteries where it’s dispersed into capillaries throughout an organ. Organs accept the fresh blood and use the same capillaries to disperse unwanted blood.
However, an AVM is a place where the veins and arteries are directly connected inside an organ without capillaries.
“At first, this doesn’t sound so bad but what happens is the blood vessel wall can become weak and break causing blood to spill into the organ, putting pressure on an organ like the brain and cause a stroke,” Roth said.
Unless patients have a CT scan or MRI, there is no way for medical professionals to diagnose AVM before blood vessels slowly break open or suddenly burst.
In Katie’s case, they burst.
“We thought about what we could have done differently and there is nothing,” explained Katie’s mother, Jill Becker. “Thankfully, everyone did everything right that day so she could live. We’re grateful for that.”
The struggle ahead
It’s been months since Katie was flown by helicopter to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria for emergency brain surgery. Doctors say the majority of the AVM in her brain has been removed with some complications.
A blood clot had formed, preventing spinal fluid from draining properly. Also, a portion of her right eyelid had to be surgically shut because the AVM injury is preventing Katie from voluntarily blinking. Both are relatively quick fixes when compared to the struggle ahead.
Brain injuries vary from person to person, case by case. For Katie, the electrical impulses in her mind aren’t firing properly, meaning her brain is working similar to that of an improperly installed light bulb. Sometimes, the electrical connections hit and action takes place, but usually she struggles to perform the simplest tasks.
Consequently, Katie cannot breathe voluntarily. Her mind cannot reliably send the signals needed for her to use the muscles in her neck to keep her head up. Nor can she wiggle a single finger reliably, or have the natural instinct to swallow or make a noise.
However, over time and with hard work, Katie’s mind can be retrained. She’s currently a patient at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where she receives around-the-clock care and undergoes therapy sessions with many small successes.
“The entire prognosis depends on severity and location,” Roth said. “It’s possible to have a full recovery. For others, they may have severe problems.”
“Do you want to pet Georgia?” RIC occupational therapist Liz May asked as the big, fluffy Golden Doodle laid its head in Katie’s lap.
Katie quickly darted her eyes upward. That means “yes.” Down is “no.”
She then concentrated really hard and her hand slightly opened, just enough to barely run her tiny hand through the dog’s black coat.
“We’re waiting for the big steps,” Jill said. “We get a lot of little steps. And with each little step something comes back.”
The plan is to get Katie to do regular things like pet the dog or brush the dog, all of which exercises and teaches her motor skills.
Mental exercises are important as well. Despite her condition, Katie can perform in the classroom.
For example, when it’s time to work on math flash cards, Katie must be given options of answers to choose from given her only means of communication is “yes” or “no.” RIC staff says she does well in reading and math, but her favorite subject, just as it was before her injury, is art.
Inside Katie’s room are a number of construction paper letters and color drawings her classmates made for her. But at the center of the collage is a large white paper with streaks of colors spanning top to bottom. Katie painted it recently, by her own hand, with help from a sling to keep her arm up.
“We want Katie to make it back to the best that she can be,” Jill said. “I think that’s what every parent wants for their child.”
Love for Katie
After the occupational therapy session with “Georgia,” Fred and Jill carefully moved Katie’s breathing tubes and a monitor. Fred then scooped Katie up in his arms and delicately placed her in a special wheelchair for the next session of her rehabilitation.
He gently kissed her forehead before she was taken to a nearby room for school work.
Jill and Fred both wear rubber bracelets imprinted with “Love for Katie.” On that day, Fred wore a bright blue T-shirt with the same slogan.
It’s not easy for either of them, nor their family. But their love and admiration for Katie is made evident when they say words such as “can’t,” “never” or “impossible” no longer exist.
For them and everyone else on the fifth floor of the RIC it’s not a matter if, but when.
“A complete recovery isn’t unheard of…that’s what I will fight for,” Fred said.
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.