When Joshua Bell, 20, prepared for his very first day of work, his mom Heather Bell filmed it. Like any mom, she felt thrilled to see her son employed. It felt even sweeter because when the Bell family adopted Joshua, doctors weren’t sure if he’d even survive his toddler years.
“Doctors said Joshua would not be an adult. BUT look at him! He’s starting his first job,” the text on the video reads. Since posting the video three weeks ago loads of people started following Just the Bells10 to get updates on Joshua.
When Bell and her husband, Luke, met 18-month-old Joshua, they noticed he just sat on the ground. They learned that when Joshua was only 2 weeks old, his birth father shook him when he cried, which caused brain damage and broke both his heels.
“He wasn’t walking, talking, couldn’t feed himself, still using a bottle, couldn’t communicate,” Heather Bell, 50 of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, told TODAY Parents. “I said to the social worker, ‘Oh my goodness, who is that?’”
Bell said she wanted to adopt Joshua and the social worker seemed stunned. The Bells adopted seven of their eight children.
“She’s like, ‘You know he was shaken and he has severe brain damage,’” Bell recalled. “I’m like, ‘Well I don’t care. I just really need to be his mom.’”
The picture that doctors painted sounded bleak. They didn’t know if Joshua would ever walk, talk or eat on his own.
“He had brain bleeding in the front. He had brain bleeding in the back,” Bell said. “He was basically paralyzed on his left side. He couldn’t move.”
And, he was having grand mal seizures.
“When he came to us he was just really struggling because he was on such strong medicine,” Bell said. “We immediately started working with him.”
Doctors couldn’t tell the family much. They couldn’t say if Joshua would walk, talk or eat on his own. And, they also didn’t know if he’d survive.
“They actually gave us no hope for him to even grow up as an adult. It makes me sad to think about it ,” she said. “They just could give us no answers.”
But Bell felt determined. She taught him sign language so he could say words such as mom, dad, happy, sad, please, and thank you. Soon, he started eating food and they taught him to crawl. Though he developed his own way of doing it at first.
“He sat on his back. He had no strength in his core so he kind of scooted himself along,” she said. “We had him crawling within three or four months and then in about another three or four months, we had him walking. Then he started to talk.”
Only about 20% of babies who are shaken die from the abuse, Dr. Elizabeth Rosner, a pediatric intensivist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY Parents. Those who survive often require a lot of medical intervention. Doctors now refer to shaken baby syndrome as abusive head trauma. The jarring of the baby’s body causes much of the damage.
“It’s a brain injury because the vessels in the brain are fragile and the acceleration/deceleration force that they get from the shaking can cause bleeding in the brain, sometimes a loss of oxygen and strokes in the brain,” Rosner told TODAY Parents. She did not treat Joshua. “They have way less (muscle tone) and they don’t have that neck stability. They can have injuries to their neck and cervical spine injuries that cause paralysis.”
That neck mobility is what makes shaking a baby so devastating. Babies who undergo traumatic abuse need medical attention immediately, though not all will need intensive care support. Parents or caregivers often put off treatment or give few details of what happened. But x-rays and scans help doctors to determine what occurred.
“They’re pretty typical injuries,” Rosner said. “If there’s bleeding in the brain, chronic or acute bleeding, then that leads us to suspect (abusive head trauma).”
Rosner encourages parents or caregivers to walk away from a crying baby when frustrated or asking for help if they feel too overwhelmed. Even with medical treatment, many children face lifelong health complicates and require ongoing care.
“The majority are going to have some kind of lingering effect. It, again, depends on how severe the injury is,” Rosner explained. “If there’s a significant portion of the brain that’s injured then they’re going to have lifelong issues to deal with whether it’s developmental delays as they are learning to walk, motor impairments, speech impairments."
While Joshua gained skills, he still experienced seizures and he couldn’t feel pain very well. Bell would find a trail of blood and that’s how she learned if Joshua was injured. He also forgets what he’s doing mid-thought. He has some cognitive delays, but he excels at artistic and mechanical pursuits. Last year, he taught himself how to ice skate after watching his siblings play hockey. He also plays violin and banjo and paints.
“It’s just amazing. He works harder than any of my kids,” Bell said. “When we were told that he probably wouldn’t even be this age, it was hard because I still think to myself, ‘Is he going to wake up in the morning?’ Because he’s the age that they didn’t think he’d live to.”
Bell shared several updates on Joshua’s job as a grocery bagger, all with his blessing. Though he doesn’t want her coming into the store too much.
“He’s like, ‘Mom, you’re embarrassing me,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘OK, honey I’ll stop.’”
But he loves the job. He tells his family about who visits the store and what kind of things he did. He hasn’t received his first paycheck yet but when he does he wants to take his parents to dinner and buy “hockey gear.”
“I’m going to let him blow his first check,” Bell said. “He deserves it.”
But she and her husband want to help him learn to budget in the hopes that he can move out independently to a rental house the family purchased. Joshua sees his older siblings living on their own and realized he too wants some independence. Three weeks into the job, Joshua is already crushing it.
“He’s just a joy to be around and this is really good for him because it gives him something that is just for him,” Bell said. “He sees people are really supporting him so that’s probably a contributing factor to how well he’s doing.”