More than a Headache

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Loretta Coureas

RonnieHinton1Ronnie Hinton was doing what came naturally the day he hit the flying soccer ball with his head. It’s a normal action in a fast-paced game where the best players don’t even have to think about their moves.

Ronnie is one of the best. His room at home in Virginia Beach is full of trophies that attest to it. He played for Virginia’s Olympic Development Program team. And he was a stand-out in his senior year at Salem High School. He even received a soccer scholarship to Campbell University in North Carolina.

So the defensive soccer player didn’t take notice of the “head hit” that deflected the ball. But he vaguely remembers having a “little headache” after the game that night.

Two weeks later, during a grueling five-game series with his Olympic Development team in the regional finals at Potomac, Maryland, Ronnie again headed the ball. By the end of the weekend, he was exhausted and began throwing up on the trip home. He drank water, thinking dehydration was the cause. “His head hurt him so much, he took some ibuprofen and drank more water, but he kept throwing up,” his mother, Sandra Hinton, recalls.

When they returned to Virginia Beach, the family went to the nearest emergency room. “It was Memorial Day weekend and it was awful hot,” Sandra said. “They treated him for dehydration, but we weren’t convinced that was the cause.”

Neither was his primary care doctor. Pediatrician Steven Stolz knew the signs of something more serious. He sent Ronnie for an MRI and made arrangements for the Hintons to take him to the Emergency Center at Children’s Hospital.

Ronnie’s scan revealed a subdural hematoma on the left side of his brain, an indication of a closed-head injury. The hematoma represents an accumulation of blood within the brain which may have leaked over a period of time after a blow to the head. The teen and his family were shocked. “You can’t possibly know how many head hits he’s had in his life while playing soccer,” his mother said.

At CHKD, pediatric neurosurgeon Petr Ruzicka studied the images and Ronnie’s history. He decided to admit Ronnie to the hospital for close monitoring. “In Ronnie’s case, it had not yet developed into such a severe hematoma that would require surgical intervention,” Dr. Ruzicka said. But the surgeon worried that it may have been a second injury.

If the hematoma enlarged over a period of time, which was a possibility, Ronnie would suffer more severe symptoms, such as severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, lethargy and even stupor. So regular CT scans helped his medical team know his status daily. “It took time,” his surgeon said. “This is not a quick healing process.”

Ronnie spent the next two weeks in the hospital. “It wasn’t bad being in the hospital, but I had to miss the end of my senior year in high school,” he said. Even the friends who visited him at CHKD couldn’t help him erase the disappointment he felt at missing his graduation.

Child life specialist Jeane Liburd understood. Her job at CHKD is to make life as normal as possible for patients. So when Ronnie’s graduation day arrived June 13, Liburd decided to help make sure he got his diploma even though he couldn’t leave the hospital.

RonnieHinton2She made arrangements for a small ceremony at the hospital when she learned that Ronald Hinton Sr. visited Salem High to see what the school could do to help make his son’s graduation day memorable. To his delight, Salem vice principal Ann Shows was soon on her way to CHKD to bestow the diploma on his son.

Liburd sprang into action. By that afternoon, the scene was set in a family lounge near Ronnie’s room with some of his friends and soccer teammates, plus relatives and hospital staff who had been quickly invited. Ronnie’s mom helped him slip his graduation gown over his hospital clothes and escorted him to his own private graduation ceremony. Vice principal Shows gave an appropriate flourish and presented Ronnie his diploma while cameras flashed.

But that wasn’t all. Liburd knew that Virginia Beach Public Schools were doing live webcasts of graduation ceremonies so military parents deployed throughout the world could witness their children’s graduations. She called the CHKD audiovisual department and asked video technician Pravash Mukherjee to make that service available to Ronnie. Muhkerjee quickly set up a projector and screen and provided the weblink so Ronnie and his family could watch the rest of his class graduate.

“It was great,” Ronnie said. When the Salem madrigal singers performed the national anthem at the live ceremony, everybody at Ronnie’s private ceremony stood with their hands over their hearts.

Later, Ronnie’s party that had been planned at a local restaurant was moved to CHKD, and hospital staff joined in the celebration. Local TV news teams arrived to document the event for the evening news.

“It was truly a wonderful day in Ronnie’s life and ours,” Sandra said. “We will never forget everything the CHKD staff did for us while we were there.”

Within a few days, Ronnie went home with instructions from Dr. Ruzicka to avoid certain activities until his brain completely healed. “It can take several months,” the doctor said.

“I can’t play any sports until Dr. Ruzicka clears me,” Ronnie said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to have brain surgery.”

Dr. Ruzicka says he wishes he could advise all parents to keep their children from playing sports if they have headaches after an injury. “If headaches are persistent, they should have a CT scan and medical attention,” he said. “I advise all coaches to keep their players from the game if they have had symptoms such as headaches after a head injury. It is a very common injury, but not always life-threatening. Players, parents and coaches need to know the symptoms and heed them.”

Ronnie was no stranger to sports injuries. He’s had a separated shoulder, broken nose and other minor sprains. But a one-in-a-million bump to his head made him see the importance of listening to his body. So he’s not taking any chances on full recovery. In early August, he began his freshman year at Campbell University where he expects to be back on the playing field next spring, not a single minute sooner.

Dr. Stolz practices with CHKD Health System’s Pediatric Specialists. Dr. Ruzicka practices with CHKD Health System’s neurosurgery practice.

This story was featured in the fourth quarter 2007 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.

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