Family Corner

Darren’s Injury, Atlantic City Medical Center & Thomas Jefferson University Hospital July 23, 2004

“Cast of Characters”

  1. The Templeton Family – Cynthia, John, Darren and Arianne
  2. Friends on the Boat – Joe and Gail Recchia, their daughters Katherine and Lauren and another friend
  3. Cynthia’s Mother – Mildred Harris
  4. Betty Beckley (Cynthia’s college roommate and close friend) works at Atlantic City Medical Center, and her husband Rick
  5. Ralph and Lucille – our very dear friends
  6. Jill and George – Ralph and Lucille’s daughter and her husband

It was an overcast, gray day at the Jersey Shore, not ideal for summer activities but good enough to do something other than sit in the house. After a morning of routine errands, friends came over and we took our pontoon boat and waverunner out into the Bay. We anchored at the “sandbar,” a popular place to hang out and have fun. With 4 adults and 5 children/young people on the boat, there was a lot going on. While my daughter and a friend were enjoying a ride on the waverunner, Darren was jumping into the water from the boat. For some reason, he dove in, and I continued to watch him, never taking my eyes off him. At first I thought he was joking around, but I quickly realized something was terribly wrong. With a rapidly changing tide, he had hit his head on the bottom, breaking his neck at the fifth vertebrae. We would later learn he had a C5 spinal cord injury, words I had heard in the past, but knew nothing about. My husband and his friend Joe reached him quickly, but now the water was over their heads. A quick thinking firefighter on a boat nearby brought them an inner tube to hang onto.

My frantic call to 911 resulted in 2 policeman arriving, taking a small boat from the nearby beach on Long Beach Island to rescue Darren, his father and our friend. A speedy ambulance took them to a school yard a few blocks away.

Meanwhile, I took the waverunner back to the house, speeding all the way, even in the “no wake” zones that led back to our house. As I ran into the house, stripping off my bathing suit as I went and yelling to my mother to get into the car, I had no idea what the next few hours would bring. We sped to Long Beach Island, asking a policeman near the beach where the ambulance went. He said “get in, I’ll bring you there.” I left my poor mother sitting there, not knowing what to do or where to go.

I arrived at the school yard to see a helicopter landing, ready to take Darren to Atlantic City Medical Center (ACMC). I called my friend Betty who worked at the Medical Center, told her what happened and asked her to meet me there as soon as she could. We took off as soon as Darren could be arranged safely in the helicopter, and I can honestly say I have no recollection of that flight whatsoever. I do remember Darren saying “I’m sorry, Mom,” but I wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. I had no idea what lay ahead.

At the Medical Center, they whisked Darren away very quickly, and left me by myself. The EMTs from the helicopter came and sat with me until the hospital chaplain arrived. He stayed with me until my friends arrived, and eventually John, Arianne and my mother came too. I have no concept now of how much time had passed until we were all together.

Eventually, John & I were called in to speak with the neurosurgeon who examined and stabilized Darren. I remember he told us Darren broke his neck. I am not sure if the words now so familiar to me were used – spinal cord injury, paralysis. Things were quite a blur and if I tried to say exactly what happened, I’m sure I’d be wrong.

After learning that the Medical Center’s head neurosurgeon was on vacation, our friend Joe recommended that we speak to “someone” for a second opinion. Darren needed surgery – who should do it? Should we stay where we were or go somewhere else? Like a light bulb getting turned on, John thought of our good friend Ralph whose son-in-law was just completing his fellowship in spine surgery. We spoke with Ralph, but Jill and George could not be reached until almost midnight. When they were told what happened, they packed bags and drove through the night to arrive at ACMC.

After examining the x-rays and MRI’s, George made phone calls and decided Darren should be moved to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia where Doctor Alan Hilibrand would perform surgery to stabilize his neck. The accident happened Friday and Darren spent that night at ACMC. He was airlifted to Thomas Jefferson on Saturday (a second helicopter ride I don’t remember, but was lucky enough to have the same EMT staff as the day before), and was operated on Sunday morning. People began arriving on Sunday to be with us during his surgery. We took over the family room on the ICU floor, but were soon sharing it with another family whose loved one had also had an accident.

After surgery, Darren was in ICU for 10 days. Being a huge fan of Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France event, Darren was determined to watch Lance cross the finish line to win his 6th title. When asked about it later, he had no memory of watching it. And although he was quite interested in knowing all of his “numbers” on the beeping monitors, he doesn’t remember that either. Friends and family came to visit, bringing food, gifts and hugs. None of us really knew what was to come, but we had plenty of support from our family, our friends, our town of Kinnelon and from strangers, too.

An insensitive social worker told me very harshly that Darren would never walk again. My friend Cindy, a nurse, nearly took the woman’s head off after hearing that. We said that Darren was never to be told that, but that didn’t last long. An all knowing doctor said “he needs to know” and proceeded to tell him, much to my dismay.

A few things that stand out in my mind from the time at Thomas Jefferson – that Ari never wanted to leave Darren alone while he was awake, and a nurse named Antonio. Ari would be by his side until he fell asleep at night, and would be back in the morning before he woke up. While most of the parents I speak to now stayed in the rooms with their loved ones overnight, we did have a hotel room nearby and went there every night to get a few decent hours of sleep, or at least tried to. Crying myself to sleep seemed to be the only thing that worked at the time, which continued for a long time afterwards (and still happens occasionally as I write this 7 years later). One night, Darren was not falling asleep as usual, and Ari insisted on staying. Knowing what was going on, he pretended to be asleep so we could leave. I did not know this until long afterwards! Antonio was our favorite nurse, always anticipating what Darren needed and taking such good care of him. I worried less when I knew Antonio was working. He was the one who would get ice chips, or some juice, a little fruit, whatever would help Darren feel more comfortable. I think of him often.

During our stay at Thomas Jefferson, it was determined we needed to find an in-patient rehab hospital that specializes in spinal cord injury. Living in northern New Jersey, it was automatically assumed we would move Darren to Kessler. My sister, Michele, did a ton of research for us, and printed out what she thought would be helpful. We sifted through the papers, spoke to several different people and decided that Shepherd Center in Atlanta would be the best place for him. After 10 days at Thomas Jefferson, we arranged a medical jet to transport us to Atlanta, GA. This ride I remember – Darren on a most uncomfortable stretcher, and the three of us – me, John and Ari – crammed into a back seat meant for 2 people. It was noisy and I have no idea how long it took to get from Philadelphia to Atlanta, but we arrived to a waiting ambulance that took us all to Shepherd Center.