Sitting with LiAna Patterson, her mom, Debbie, and dad, Rob – who happens to be Medical Director of the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart – you would never know she suffered a traumatic accident less than a year ago.
LiAna is bright and confident, with a cool maturity beyond her years. A graduate of Pensacola High School’s International Baccalaureate program, she is set to attend the University of Florida’s Honors Program in the fall – on a full National Merit Scholarship. After the accident, her parents weren’t sure they would ever see her walk across that stage – let alone open her eyes, talk or laugh again. (She’s got a great laugh.)
LiAna was unconscious upon impact. In the ambulance, she could not speak or respond to any stimulation. She was in the deepest recorded level of coma, with pupils fixed and dilated. The EMS provider phoned Dr. Patterson and said the words he never thought he would hear: “I think I’m with your daughter.”
As Medical Director, Patterson always tells his staff, “We care for every child as if they are our own.” Everyone – even the EMS teams – are personally trained by the PICU and Pediatric ER for this reason.“We’re training the community to care for our children,” Dr. Patterson said. “You don’t get that if you don’t have a Children’s Hospital.” This time, it was his own child.
LiAna didn’t know her name or birthday. She called her parents Robert Patterson and Debbie Cook. She came in on anti-seizure medication, with a fractured clavicle and wrist, lacerated spleen and broken pelvis. She was a Level One Trauma Alert – and Sacred Heart is the only pediatric trauma center in the region.
Once in the ER, LiAna had the full benefit of the hospital, with a trauma trained ER doctor, trauma surgeon, and Medical Director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Dr. Jason Foland. “You learn how hard it is to comprehend everything all at once while your heart is breaking. It’s like entering a whole new world, with an entirely different language,” said her mother, Debbie. “But she had everything she needed right here.”
The team knew to stabilize her physical injuries before addressing the brain trauma, because of the risk of internal bleeding. They also knew she would recover faster if she could move – so she underwent surgery the very next day. LiAna’s biggest brain injury was a left temporal contusion with intracranial hemorrhage and areas of ischemia throughout – but, amazingly, no fractures.
“She’s hard-headed,” her Mom jokes. “Takes after her father.” The family relied on humor to get through the experience. They also relied on the extremely specialized team at Sacred Heart. LiAna had access to pediatric physical, occupational and speech therapists from the start, as well as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, pediatric neurologist and child life specialist.
She spent two weeks at Sacred Heart before driving by ambulance from Pensacola to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite – her first memory. “I have a greater appreciation for life now,” LiAna said. “Hearing my Dad talk about it, so many things could have gone wrong in the process. I’m really grateful they didn’t.”
Since the accident, LiAna has undergone months of therapy. She’s had to learn everything again – from walking and eating to calling her parents Mom and Dad. “It was so good to hear her call me Mom,” Debbie said. “It was like she had to grow up all over again. She was dependent on us for everything. She had no memory, and she couldn’t move on her own. As she became more aware, I would ask her, ‘How old are you today? Are you 10 yet?’” Still, their trademark humor keeps them going.
“It’s every parent’s nightmare. It’s scary to let your kids go – and to let them go in a car,” Debbie said.” You have to have faith that it will be OK. Accidents happen. Your whole life takes a little detour.” Today, LiAna is physically fine, but her memory will take longer to regain. The former captain of the volleyball team, she was always very active. The accident took its toll, especially when it came time to prepare for graduation.
LiAna persevered, returning to the rigorous IB program and earning all As. “My advice to other kids who go through something like this is to do what they tell you, because they’re trying to help you,” LiAna said. “My mentality was, ‘It is what it is.’”
Her parents attribute their daughter’s success to her indomitable will, extreme athleticism, high intellect – and access to the ‘best of the best’ care.“It’s medically un explainable – a miracle even,” Dr. Patterson said. “God has plans for her. I can’t explain why she has done as well as she has when so many kids have not.”He continues: “This is what we’ve put so much hard work into. Meeting after meeting after meeting. Why do we do this? Because someday, this could be our kid. We want this for our kid. I always meant it … but I didn’t know how much.”