IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Toddler is OK after being pronounced DOA

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: Sara Staker found her 16-month-old son Bronson underwater in the bathtub with no heartbeat. But after an experimental procedure and a 13-day coma, the tot is not only alive, but shows no neurological damage.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Bronson Staker is a typical 18-month-old — which is to say, he wasn’t interested in what Mom and Dad were talking about with a stranger. Bronson was far more interested in fussing and squirming and grabbing his father’s cell phone and pretending to talk into it and doing all the delightful things that toddlers do.

None of this would be remarkable except for one fact: Six weeks ago, Bronson was dead.

That is not an overstatement. Bronson is not a a child who briefly lost consciousness after choking on a piece of candy. There’s no other way to describe his condition other than that one uncompromising word: dead.

Fatal distractionBronson’s mother, Sara Staker, had been bathing him and his 2-year-old brother in late January in the family’s Salt Lake City home. Momentarily distracted by one of her other two children, Sara briefly left the bathroom. When she came back, Bronson was facedown in the water, showing no signs of life.

“It was horrible. It was the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Sara told TODAY’s Lester Holt Friday in New York. “There was no question in my mind that he was gone. He was white, his lips were blue. His eyes were rolled back.”

Sara called 911 and started CPR on the lifeless little body. Bronson did not respond. First responders arrived and continued revival efforts. They, too, failed to restore a heartbeat.

When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Bronson was pronounced DOA — dead on arrival.

Still, he was taken to the ER, where doctors took over resuscitation efforts. After 40 minutes, they finally restored a heartbeat while a ventilator pumped oxygen into Bronson’s lungs.

Experimental procedure
Now comes the miracle part of the story — the reason Bronson and his parents, Sara and Matt Staker, were sitting on a couch in TODAY’s New York studios, telling their story to Holt.

The doctors told Matt and Sara that there was a high likelihood that Bronson had suffered serious brain damage during the long period that he was clinically dead and his brain was deprived of oxygen. They said there was an experimental treatment called therapeutic hypothermia that might improve his chances of recovery. It would involve lowering Bronson’s body temperature to 91 degrees, almost eight degrees below normal, and putting him in a coma to reduce brain swelling. He would be maintained in that state for almost two weeks, and when he was warmed up and revived, he probably would not be the same boy they knew.

“We asked them, ‘If this was your own child, would you do it?’ They said, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ ” Matt told Holt.

The Stakers told the doctors to go ahead. Bronson was hooked up to more tubes and wires than his parents could count, covered with a blanket filled with chilling fluid, and put in intensive care. All his parents could do was look at him lying in his coma day after day, the tubes and machines breathing for him.

“It was excruciating, because every fiber of your being as a mother wants to hold your child, especially when they’re hurting,” Sara said. “You want to hold him and hug him and wrap him in a blanket and keep him warm.”

She said he was cold to the touch and puffy from all the fluids being pumped into him. “It was just excruciating,” she repeated.

As the day grew nearer when Bronson would be revived, doctors and therapists and rehabilitation experts advised the Stakers on what they could expect.

“We had been told we would probably take home a 16-month-old newborn,” Sara said. “We had been told probably it would be months of rehab, maybe even years.”

They were advised to get physical and occupational therapy equipment for their home and be prepared for a six-month regimen. “We were in it for the long haul,” Sara said.

Awake and alertThirteen days after Bronson died and was brought back to a cold and comatose existence, the doctors warmed his body and allowed him to regain consciousness. Sara entered the room and looked at him. He looked back and recognized his mother.

“I walked in the room and the lights were on. Immediately I could see that he was tracking and connecting and looking from one nurse to the other. When I walked in, he lifted his chin and I could see that he knew who I was,” Sara said.

This was beyond where anyone thought Bronson would be. And although he was weak, it was evident immediately that the tot was defying the odds. By the end of the day, he was standing up on his own. A day later he was walking. Two days later, he walked out of the hospital.

“Everything was there,” Matt said. “He was weak because he was lying down for [13] days, but all his cognitive [functions], how his brain works, it was still there.”

The doctors had given the Stakers a list of milestones that Bronson should reach in the first six months of his recovery. He hit them all in two days. A month later, he shows no signs of any damage. If anything, he’s learning vocabulary faster than he was before the accident, his parents report.

Sara, who has kept a blog of Bronson’s recovery, said it has taught her and Matt to believe that miracles are real. It’s also taught her something about life.

“The lessons we learned are innumerable,” she said. “Life is just so fragile. As parents, we’re so busy and we try to multitask things. It’s really easy to get distracted by the things that aren’t the most important things, and the things that are the most important suffer.

“I hope that we’ve learned those lessons.”