A Hopewell Junction girl who suffered traumatic brain injuries is thriving, thanks to expert care at WMCHealth and the support of family and friends.
By Lisa Cesarano
As seen in the July/August 2019 issue of Advancing Care
Within the span of seconds, a brilliant autumn day became terrifying and nearly tragic for a Hopewell Junction family.
On October 14, 2015, dental consultant Renee Saltzman was watching her daughters Emilié and Ella, respectively 7 and 8 at the time, during their weekly equestrian lessons. Emilié had been struggling to keep an unfamiliar horse under control. Then, without warning, and with great force, she was thrown. Renee ran to her unconscious daughter and found she was not breathing.
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“It was surreal. I just remember thinking that we have to get her breathing,” says Renee, who immediately began administering CPR. Minutes later, two ambulances arrived and advised that Emilié would be airlifted from a nearby school field to Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).
Renee immediately called her husband, Jeremy, who was working in Manhattan, as well as family members who live in Westchester. As Renee and Jeremy raced to the hospital, “our cousins were there to meet the helicopter,” recalls Renee.
A Dire Diagnosis
Emilié was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and associated hemorrhage. She was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where she was placed in a medically induced coma. Staff from the Pediatric ICU, neurosurgery and neurology departments monitored her closely.
“We’re aggressive in treating traumatic brain injuries and preventing secondary injury to the brain,” says Avinash Mohan, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. He performed a ventriculostomy, a neurological procedure in which a shunt (hollow tube) is placed in the brain to help drain fluid and relieve elevated intracranial pressure resulting from a TBI.
Then, says pediatric neurologist Philip Overby, MD, “we placed Emilié in a medically induced coma and life support for several days to monitor for the possibility of worsening hemorrhage, swelling or seizures.”
Without having to manage her daily functioning, her brain would be able to better rest and heal.
While families understandably want to know their loved one’s prognosis as soon as possible, at that point, Overby says, “It was still too early to know.” Dr. Mohan agrees: “The brain doesn’t follow rules. So, you need to wait and see according to each individual case.” He adds, “Years ago, we were far more focused on survival. Today, we are focused on regaining as much previous functioning as possible.”
Finally, 3½ weeks later, Emilié began to wake up. “Awakening is the process where you’re there but not really there, as the brain reconnects and develops new pathways,” explains Renee.
So began a slow but steady recovery.
Not until Emilié was in rehabilitation, however — weeks after her injury — did she start to speak. First, a few words. Within that week, sentences. This was a turning point for her and for her family.
Following hospitalization, Emilié spent 10 months of inpatient and outpatient therapy at a nearby children’s rehabilitation hospital.
While her progress has been great, Emilié continues to follow up with Dr. Overby. “She illustrates the often slow but significant recovery that can occur with brain injuries. However, even with marked improvement, new struggles often emerge. You have to be vigilant with traumatic brain injury because of the ongoing possibility of seizures and learning and behavioral issues,” he says.
A Promising Future
Beyond some balance issues, today Emilié is a healthy, thriving fourth grader who can walk, run, skip and sing her favorite songs. “She’s reading a little bit under grade level,” says Renee, “but, interestingly, her math skills are now really good.”
“I am feeling good,” confirms Emilié, whose favorite cuisine is sushi. “I like hanging out with friends and going to school.” This experience also has clarified her career aspirations. “I want to go to school to become a doctor because I like learning about people’s needs and helping people,” she says.
In the meantime, Emilié and her sister, Ella, are already finding ways to make a difference through “Ella’s Threads,” a nonprofit that donates clothes and care packages to children in long-term hospitalizations nationwide.
Today, the Saltzman family educates and raises awareness about TBIs, CPR education and the importance of wearing a helmet, as wearing a helmet undoubtedly saved Emilié’s life. “I feel the need to help other families going through this,” says Jeremy, who often speaks publicly on his family’s experience. “I want people to understand that even when things seem bad, there is hope.”
Partners in Care
According to Dr. Overby, the Saltzmans have excelled at making the most of their difficult situation. “They were good at many things, but especially enlisting help for their daughter from family members and friends. This is so important because, as a parent, you can really burn out in this kind of situation.”
“Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital practices inclusive medicine,” said Jeremy. ”We were part of the process and were there at all stages. It was an incredible experience.”
While Emilié’s world is now defined by expanding possibilities, for the Saltzman family it’s all about appreciation of the simpler things. Says Jeremy: “Now, we are grateful to just spend time together as a family.”
Visit us at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of Westchester Medical Center Health Network, to learn more. Advancing Care. Here.
Photos By John Halpern