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Toddler is OK after key lodged in his eye — and brain

The image from the CAT scan of little Nicholas Holderman’s head is enough to make the strongest person shudder. A car key is stuck to the hilt in his right eye, the shaft penetrating into his brain.

When Nicholas’ parents look at the image today, all they can think is one thing: “A miracle.”

Staci Holderman, Nicholas’ mother, presented the evidence for that belief to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York. Less than three months after her youngest son fell on the key, the 20-month-old toddler was fussing on her lap, showing no sign whatever of any lingering damage to either his brain or his eye.

Nicholas has recovered so completely, the family is now able to joke about it by challenging any and all to look at Nicholas and guess, “Which eye was it?”

Staci’s husband, Chris, joined her on the show along with the family’s two other boys, Isaac, 8, and Caleb, 5, to talk about the accident and their personal miracle.

A cry of alarm
The family, who live in Perryville, Ky., where Chris is a school principal, had returned from an outing on the evening of Sept. 2 and were preparing to turn in for the night. The boys were bouncing around as they normally did when Chris heard a cry from Nicholas that wasn’t like the normal ones he was accustomed to.

“It was different,” Chris Holderman told Vieira. “I said to Staci, ‘You might want to check on him; I think he hit the recliner.’ When she went in, she realized he had fallen on a key. From there on, it was an emergency.”

Caleb had seen his brother fall, and at first he just thought that it wasn’t anything unusual; boys fall all the time. But, he told Vieira, “when I looked closer I saw that he had a key in his eye.”

The key had punctured Nicholas’ eyelid and looked as if it had also punctured his eye. The parents didn’t dare try to pull it out. Instead, Chris enlisted the older boys to help hold Nicholas’ hands to keep him from pushing or pulling at it.

Meanwhile, Staci called 911. Until Tuesday, she had never listened to the tape of the call.

'We need help fast’“We need help. We need an ambulance. My son is injured very bad,” Staci shouts into the phone on the recording, her voice frantic. “A key has gone through, through his eye. We need help fast. A key has gone through his eye or his head. A key like — that you put in a car.”

“Is he bleeding?” the 911 operator asks.

“Yes. It’s stuck through so far, ma’am, that he can’t …” she continues before the operator cuts in to ask Nicholas’ age.

“He’s 17 months old,” she responds. “We need an ambulance, OK? We need one fast.”

The first responders were almost as shocked as the parents when they saw what had happened. “It was pretty horrifying. Not something I ever want to see again,” Boyle County firefighter Chris Coffman told a local newspaper.

The responders called in a medevac helicopter to rush Nicholas to UK Hospital while his parents and brothers followed in a car. UK is a teaching hospital, and the emergency room was staffed by interns who had never seen anything like it. Unwilling to do something that might cause permanent damage, they called in an experienced ophthalmologist to assess how to proceed.

‘The eye is flat’Nicholas had been crying before the first responders arrived, but he slept in the helicopter. For four hours in the emergency room, as staff waited for experts to arrive, he would wake up occasionally, then fall back asleep when his mom sang him a lullaby.

Nicholas’ eye was flattened by the key and the first report the parents received was that the eye was ruptured and he would probably lose vision in it. Finally, a highly experienced surgeon removed the key in a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes.

When he was done, he told the parents, “It doesn't look like there is any brain damage, but the eye has been ruptured. It looks pretty bad. The eye is flat.”

“We were like, ‘Yep, there’s a key in it,’ ” Chris Holderman deadpanned.

The hospital’s “eye team” was called in to try to save the eyeball so that it would at least look normal, even if Nicholas had no vision through it. As an eye surgeon went to work, the deeply religious parents prayed.

“The doctor comes out 15 minutes later. She busts through the door and she has a confused look on her face, but a happy look,” Chris Holderman told TODAY. “She says, ‘There is nothing wrong with his eye; it is not ruptured.’ When she started looking at it, it just pumped back up.

“Not to take anything away from the doctors, but we thought it was the Lord, and our prayers were answered.”

After a hospital stay that confirmed there was no lasting damage, Nicholas came home with a black eye. Today, he doesn’t even seem to remember what happened.

“You can just watch him this morning and see that he is a normal, healthy 20-month-old baby,” Staci Holderman said.

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