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It was like any other fall day in October 2012 when Hudson Cromwell, then 7 years old, was playing football with his brothers in the backyard. Yet when Hudson came back into the house, he was crying and clutching his right arm.
When he bent to take off his shoes, he fell over, which was unusual for the athletic boy.
“He had kind of a puzzled look,” Andrew Cromwell, Hudson's dad, told TODAY. “He went from being fully conscious to totally unconscious. It completely freaked me out.”
A football accident leads to more than a concussion
When Hudson’s mom, Kerry, 39, who's a nurse, arrived, she looked at her son and called 911.
“Kerry said, ‘You know this doesn’t look like a concussion to me,’” Andrew, 41, explained.
When emergency room doctors first examined Hudson, they couldn't uncover what was wrong. But Kerry pushed them to keep looking.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Kerry said. “They did a CAT scan and it didn’t show anything. It wasn’t sitting well with my inner mom and I asked if they could do an MRI.”
But the MRI scans didn’t clear anything up for doctors at their local hospital in Fresno, California.
“The doctor said, ‘It looks like stroke, but kids don’t have strokes,’” Andrew remembered.
Doctors realized Hudson needed specialized treatment and sent him to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Benioff Children’s Hospital. When Hudson arrived, doctors requested an additional MRI and told the Cromwells that children do have strokes and their son had one.
“Stroke was definitely not a first thought,” Kerry said. That's why the family is sharing their story, so other families know what pediatric stroke is and what to look out for.
Pediatric strokes: Uncommon but deadly
According to the National Stroke Association, strokes occur in 11 in 100,000 children (under 18) annually and they are fatal for 20 to 40 percent of cases. For children who survive a stroke, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent have permanent neurological impairment.
The common warning signs of a stroke for an adult (referred to as "FAST") can also be used to identify strokes in kids:
- Face: Does one side of the face droop?
- Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech: Ask the person to repeat a phrase. Is their speech slurred?
- Time: If you observe any of the above symptoms, call 911 as soon as possible.
There are additional symptoms to look out for in newborns, infants, children and teens. Hudson experienced a few of these, like dizziness and loss of balance or coordination.
Doctors remain unsure of what led to the stroke, but they noticed an artery in Hudson’s brain had shriveled closed. They needed to observe Hudson for 72 hours, a critical period in stroke recovery.
"Stroke is a traumatic injury to the brain," Kerry noted. "Just like if you broke your wrist you would have swelling. With a brain, an enclosed skeletal structure ... there is only so much space to swell."
On the third day it seemed as if the swelling had stabilized. Though suddenly, alarms started going off: He had too much pressure in his skull.
“We got to kiss his forehead before they took him and removed the bone flap ... of the left of his skull to allow his brain to swell,” Andrew said.
For the next 10 days, Hudson was in a coma as doctors monitored the pressure in his head. When it lessened, he gradually woke up.
“You wonder after an experience like this who is going to wake up. How much is he going to be the child that you knew,” Andrew said.
When Hudson woke up from the coma, he needed a lot of help. He couldn’t talk, sit up or swallow.
“We had to start from scratch,” Kerry said.
After another week in the hospital, Hudson went to in-patient rehabilitation where he worked on speech, swallowing, walking and other tasks. He struggled to use his right hand and leg, but he slowly improved.
“The first day he was not able to even support himself sitting up,” Kerry said. “He came home … he was able to walk into the house with someone standing next to him.”
Over the past five years, Hudson, now 12, has improved. Though, he still struggles to find the correct words and to use his right hand (he’s now a lefty). His parents sometimes want to shelter him, but Hudson is forging his own path.
“He’s so strong and independent,” Kerry said. “He taught me so much.”
The Cromwells fought for their son and believe it’s one of the reasons why today he’s a happy, headstrong pre-teen boy. They're sharing his story to raise awareness of pediatric strokes and to inspire parents to speak up when it comes to their kids’ health.
“We want to encourage parents to be advocates for their children. Sometimes that means asking more questions,” Andrew said. “Sometimes it means looking beyond what is offered.”