Aaliyah Jackson loved the feel of sand under her feet and could hardly wait to play in the ocean.
The 10-year-old Charlottesville girl got her chance last September when her step dance group participated in Virginia Beach’s Neptune Festival parade.
After the parade, the group headed to the beach for a promised day of fun in the sun. Aaliyah couldn’t wait to get in the water, so she waded in to her waist, then threw herself into a wave.
She remembers trying to reach the surface to get air. But Aaliyah doesn’t recall anything else of the drama that unfolded as a strong current pulled her under. Or of the two young surfers who helped the adults reach her and pull her to shore.
No one knows just how long the girl was underwater. But as they pulled her lifeless body from the surf, they knew the seriousness of the situation.
Aaliyah wasn’t breathing. Her face was ashen.
Emergency rescue personnel arrived and performed CPR on the beach. As minutes ticked away, the prospect of her recovery dimmed. But after possibly 25 minutes without oxygen, Aaliyah’s pulse and respiration returned – just barely.
Still unconscious, she was rushed to the nearest hospital where ER doctors wasted no time in calling CHKD to dispatch its mobile ICU. CHKD’s rolling intensive care unit would have to get Aaliyah back to Children’s Hospital as quickly as possible. But even before leaving the other hospital, the critical care specialists at CHKD began directing Aaliyah’s case.
“On the way to CHKD, I was in the ambulance with her,” her mother, Veronica Jackson, said, remembering that agonizing day. “I heard the nurse saying she had stopped breathing again. They didn’t have a pulse. I thought Aaliyah was dead.”
Meanwhile, the pediatric intensive care unit at CHKD prepared for dealing with a child with hypoxic brain injury and pneumonia from the sea water in her lungs. The PICU team was ready for the worst but hoping for the best.
Critical care physician Santa Johnston says that often in a near-drowning case, there is no way of knowing how long the child was without oxygen to the brain. “We treat the symptoms and keep the patient on a ventilator, but we always hope that when the child wakes up there won’t be significant brain damage,” she said.
In the PICU, pediatric neurologist Svindor Toor assessed and monitored Aaliyah’s brain activity for several days. Even with very sophisticated equipment, it is hard to know the extent of damage to the brain, he said.
“After four days in a coma, she woke up and she knew me,” Aaliyah’s mother recalls. “It was a miracle.”
“I was so afraid of losing her that I didn’t even consider what brain damage she might have. But she knew me, and I knew that was a good sign.”
In the days that followed, Aaliyah began to talk. She told her mother that she thought she was in the “dark ocean” while she was in the coma. But she had no idea how she got to the hospital or what she had been through.
Rehabilitation physician Jean Shelton and a team of physical and occupational therapists in the inpatient rehabilitation unit helped Aaliyah regain her mobility over the next two weeks.
Her mother spent her days with Aaliyah in the hospital and her nights at the nearby Ronald McDonald House, just a block away. “Everybody was wonderful to us,” Veronica recalls. “I was so thankful that I could be there while she was getting better. The child life staff and nurses even gave Aaliyah a birthday party in the hospital.”
Aaliyah, now 11, went home to Charlottesville nearly three weeks after almost drowning in the Atlantic Ocean. She returned to school a couple of days later with a whale of a tale about her trip to the beach.
Outpatient physical therapy continued back home until just after Christmas. Today she still has some issues with balance, but is again making As in school and beginning to dance again.
“We’ll never forget Children’s Hospital,” Veronica said. “They helped us turn a terrible thing into something good.”
Drs. Johnston, Toor and Shelton practice with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.
This story was featured in the second quarter 2008 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.