This is a tale that’s not easy to tell. It’s a tale of heartache, frustration, anger, and fear. It’s also a tale about awareness, love, and understanding. This is the story of when Jake got hurt at the hands of another child. Initially, we were hoping that maybe we could help impart a lesson from our tragedy, but in thinking it over, maybe it’ll just be cathartic for us to tell it.
Disclaimer: There is an image below that may be disturbing to some readers. Be warned.
To set the stage: Jake was in elementary school (3rd grade). Beth was in her office, and I was working at the hospital.
We’re not going to discuss the child that hurt Jake. Partly to protect this child’s privacy, but also, that in the long run, it’s not about this kid. I will only mention that the child has autism also, because it has bearing on the story. We will call this child X.
Transitions are tough for all kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and for X, this is no exception. X was leaving one class, and having a hard time doing it. X, in a fit of rage, slammed one of those 2” thick, solid wood fire doors found especially in old schools. My Jake was leaving his (different) class at that same time, and had his hand on the door frame as he made his exit. Jake, too, was being trailed by his 1-on-1 ed. tech/support. Jake’s hand was caught between door and jam. His hand was smashed and blood was everywhere.
Of course, Beth was called. She recalls the phone call as the principal saying that Jake’s hand had been shut in a door, and that she should come. She could hear the clipped tones of people talking in the background, but didn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation. I was paged overhead, and told that Jake had been hurt, and an ambulance called. I called Beth who said she was almost there, and she’d call back with a report. It was only then that she realized something very bad had happened. She was unaware of the ambulance call. I was to remain at the hospital, because they were likely coming to me anyway.
Beth arrived, and did a remarkable thing. She stood outside the office, half knowing/half not knowing what she would see, took a deep breath, and opened the door. She really didn’t want to face whatever horror was behind that door, but knew she had to. She also knew that her reaction in front of not only these people, but her hurt and scared son, would set the tone. She entered to find a teacher holding Jake with a blood-soaked cloth over his hand. She knew she needed to look. Beth was trying to figure out how to control her panic for Jake’s sake when she was shown what was under the cloth. After the cloth was removed, Beth kept a straight face, but dropped to her knees to comfort Jake at his level. There was also a Dixie cup with a piece of finger under it with a gel cold pack on top. Stop and picture that for a minute. Your partially verbal child is wounded, nobody knows how to calm him, and you walk into the middle of it, trying to put on a brave face for your scared son.
Thankfully, Captain Pete showed up driving the ambulance. We’ve known Pete and his wife Sue (also from the ambulance crew) for years. Jake is very familiar with them both. Beth was so relieved to know that someone we knew and trusted was involved. She actually said, “Oh, Pete! Thank God!” Pete took over, got the two of them loaded into the ambulance, and headed for me. The ambulance ride was a blur. I talked to Beth, who filled me in on what we knew (not much), and I tied up some loose ends, and headed to the Emergency Department. Half the staff was standing by the door – they had heard a kid with autism was coming in with a missing finger trauma. I remember one of the nurses looking to me with a “What are you doing here?” look on her face. She quickly connected the dots and asked if it was Jake. I replied in the affirmative.
When they arrived at the ER, Jake was mostly catatonic. There’s a special place kids with autism go when they need to escape. Jake had gone there. He was hardly responsive. He was lying on the stretcher, with his mother in long sitting under him. I climbed on too (to support her, mostly) and we watched as they began the examination of our boy. We had to get Beth something to eat. She’d been preparing for a small procedure that day and hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. She was too shaky to be of any use to anyone. The X-ray confirmed that he had broken the most distal bone in his ring finger. The piece of finger we still had was useless. I threw it away, not without a weird feeling in my stomach at the act. His index finger was torn nearly through, but was hanging on by a small piece of flesh on the palm side. It had ripped through at the base of the fingernail, which was still attached to the hanging piece.
It seemed like forever before anyone thought to get Jake some pain meds. He wasn’t writhing in pain as much as he’d just gone “away.” Once we got some IV meds into him, he sprang to life as if reanimated. He was suddenly like some hyper kid on overload. The tricky part was waiting for a few hours to perform the procedure. He had eaten breakfast, it was still early in the morning, and we had to sedate him to try and repair his floppy fingertip. It was tough getting him to lie still with an ice bag over his hand.
This accident had affected more than just us. The Special Ed director showed up at the hospital and sat with and supported the family that had come to gather in the waiting room. His 1-on-1 aide, who at the time was also his aunt, came and offered love and support, too. Later on, his Special Ed teacher showed up carrying his Nintendo DS, so he could have something to do while we waited for surgery.
Beth had to leave the room for the repair of the finger. We knew it would be gross, and leave lousy images to float around in our heads after dark. I had put on my clinical face, and was planning on dealing with my emotions later. Also, I wanted to make sure things were done to my standards. I handle the tough wound cases at the hospital, and asked to assist. Once we dried as much blood as we could, we used his fingernail as a makeshift splint in efforts to hold his fingertip on. I was worried because it had been nearly unattached now for hours.
We used Dermabond (a special glue) and lots of Steri-strips (a special tape) to hold everything together. We just padded over the missing piece on his ring finger. To give him some function, we wrapped his index through pinky fingers together, leaving him a thumb for some functional use of the hand.
The really tricky part came after the initial trauma. What do we do? How do we make sure Jake feels safe to go back to school? What about X? Do we seek retribution? If so, from whom?
X’s mom removed X from the school that morning. They weren’t sticking around for the fallout, I guess. Jake was afraid, but not as much as you’d think. We told him it was an accident, and he accepted that pretty well. His big concern was that X never said “I’m sorry.” He kept repeating, over and over, “The boy needs to say he’s sorry.” He knew that’s how accidents and wrongs were made right. The healing process was slow, and took many follow-ups with the orthopedic surgeon. He developed “proud flesh” and needed to have his tissues burned to help them grow properly. Because of the broken bone, he was put on a course of antibiotics. He wouldn’t take medication by mouth (still struggles), so we started with intramuscular injections into his thighs and buttocks. This hurt so bad that he choked down his medicines, so as not to endure more shots. We struggled with dressing changes, and we tried a number of different finger “splints” in efforts to protect his fragile digits. In the end, his index finger healed well, and the ring finger closed over and a nail started to grow again. To this day, if you didn’t know he had hand trauma, you’d never notice.
Retribution. Vengeance. Litigation. Not our style. We did rack up a remarkable little pile of medical bills, however. We didn’t want to sue a kid with needs, and we sure didn’t want to sue our school (they’d been good to us). We wanted somebody to pay. Most of all, we really wanted to make sure we were doing all we could to make sure this would not happen to someone else. We opted to talk to a lawyer about filing a claim against the company that should have protected my son from X. We weren’t looking for lots of money, but some compensation for Jake’s emotional and physical trauma, plus medical bills. We had talked ourselves into the idea that this was OK to do. Our snag came when we found out you really can’t sue a school unless you can show they were very negligent. Also, we couldn’t sue the “company” without also including the school, as the “company” is an agent of the school. The “company” would claim it was the school’s job, the school would blame the “company,” and nobody would lose. The whole thing left a bad taste in our mouths. If this seems confusing, it’s because it was. We weren’t mad at any one person, and maybe that was the worst part. We were filled with such strong emotions and had no target to focus it all on.
How could we, champions of love, awareness, and understanding, seek litigation against a kid with autism, anyway? Would this make us hypocrites? Could we live with ourselves? It’s not entirely the kid’s “fault,” but he should have been better supervised. Is it possible to prevent a meltdown or the lightning-quick actions of an out of control child? If Jake had snapped and wanted to slam a door, could I have prevented it? I don’t know. We decided to drop the whole thing. There was quite a bit of internal struggle. I think it was the helplessness you feel when something bad happens to your child and you weren’t there to stop it, and can’t do anything to make it right. If Jake was neurotypical, maybe we could have explained it to him better. His lack of understanding about the whole situation aggravated our frustration.
Jake felt safe at school, X was gone (and would require a return-to-school plan if the need should arise). I wasn’t privy to the details of this plan (FERPA), and essentially had to just “get over it.” It wasn’t easy, but we recognize that X’s actions weren’t aimed at anyone. X just got mad, exploded, and Jake got some on him.
This has been written for days, and I’ve been trying to pull some sort of lesson, some take home “pearl of wisdom” before posting. I guess it’s this: the school was great; it’s personnel warm and compassionate. The hospital rallied around us and went above-and-beyond to make us feel cared for and safe. Our family showed up with an outpouring of love and understanding. So I guess that even though we sometimes feel alone in our struggles with autism, we are truly surrounded by caring people. We are NOT an island.