Gardner toddler lucky to survive ordeal

12/28/2012 7:05 AM

12/28/2012 7:07 AM

GARDNER – Christian Hernandez, 18 months old, is walking briskly around his family’s living room, clutching his favorite blanket as it trails behind him like a cape.

At this age, he’s constantly moving around, his parents say.

About a month ago, as Thanksgiving approached in the Hernandez home in Gardner, the family was waiting for a call. After months spent wondering what was wrong with the toddler’s eye, they’d discovered that when they’d found him months before, screaming, holding a metal meat thermometer in his hand, it hadn’t been just a scratch.

Now they waited to hear whether an unlikely household accident could be met with a just-as-unlikely fix.

It was September when Francine noticed that Christian’s left eye seemed unusually pink. She took him to the doctor, who said the boy had pinkeye and prescribed eye drops.

After that didn’t clear things up, they headed to an ophthalmologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

She was stumped, too. After three scans of Christian’s eye and brain, she had the problem: a fistula.

It was rarely seen in children.

A few days later, they found Koji Ebersole, an endovascular neurosurgeon at the University of Kansas Hospital. By now it was November.

Ebersole was skeptical of the Children’s Mercy diagnosis – a carotid cavernous fistula – until, when held a stethoscope to the boy’s neck, he could hear blood rushing.

The problem is almost never seen in children, the doctor says.

“He’s the happiest little guy,” Ebersole said. “That’s why nobody could suspect that he was harboring something so insidious and dangerous.”

That sound in his neck was enough to make Ebersole order an angiogram. The test confirmed the suspicions.

“I asked, ‘Did this young child have something sharp go into his eye?’ ” Ebersole said.

Back in July, doctors at the emergency room had said it was just a scratch. Christian’s 15-year-old sister had seen him running with something in his hand when he tripped and shrieked.

When Francine ran to find him, he was standing, crying, with a couple drops of blood on his toes. She saw a scratch under his eye. In his hand was a metal meat thermometer.

His eye began to swell quickly, so they headed to the emergency room. The ruling from a doctor there: a scratch, and a black eye.

“That is what everybody would have thought,” Ebersole said.

But as Francine told him about that day, he began to piece together what had actually happened.

When Christian fell, his head had slammed down on the upturned thermometer. It pierced the skin under his left eye and penetrated the skull about 2.5 inches.

It poked a hole in the carotid artery, which caused it to bleed inside his skull.

What’s remarkable, Ebersole says, is that it missed his eye, nerves, other blood vessels, the brain itself.

If it had struck the artery in another spot, Christian likely would have died that day. But it struck a compartment in the brain called the cavernal sinus. The blood flowed into another vessel and ran down his neck – the cause of the rushing sound Ebersole could hear through his stethoscope.

“I thought it was one in a million,” Ebersole said.

Still, the situation was serious: If the hole in the artery was not patched, then within a few weeks or months the blood could no longer be contained. Christian would likely collapse suddenly into a coma.

Finally, the Hernandez family knew what the problem was, and that it could be fixed. By the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the family was at the University of Kansas Hospital at 6 a.m., ready for Christian to undergo surgery.

It took until midafternoon, but they got word: He was OK.

Ebersole says he’ll require some regular checkups, but he expects Christian to live a normal life with no problems resulting from the accident.

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