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Lost and Found: Grace’s Story with Dr. Anderson

Dr. Anderson with patient Grace and her mom Valentina
Left: Grace with her mom, Valentina, two years after surgery. Right: Dr. Richard Anderson with Grace and her mom.

Grace lived in South Jersey with her father, Andrew, a medical student, and her mother, Valentina.

One day, when Grace was about 18 months old, the family drove to Connecticut to visit friends. The friends didn’t have young children, so Valentina and Andrew knew the house wasn’t baby-proofed and they’d need to watch Grace closely.

Valentina noticed the stairs as soon as they came into the house. “I was very concerned when I saw them,” she says. “They were really, really steep, like those old kind of stairs—very narrow and very high.”

Andrew and Valentina were vigilant, making sure the door to the stairs stayed closed, making sure Grace was always with one of them. But in a split second, Grace managed to slip away from them both.

“It was one of those moments where I thought that Andrew was with her, and he thought she was with me … We heard a ‘bonk’ and I knew.”

Sure enough, Grace had climbed the stairs, fallen down, and hit her head.

They had no way of knowing how high Grace had climbed or how far she had fallen, but Andrew had been in the brain trauma rotation in medical school and knew exactly what signs to look for.

He immediately checked Grace’s pupils to see if they reacted to light. He checked behind her ears to see if the skin was purple, which would be a sign of bleeding beneath the skin from a skull fracture. He asked Grace to walk and to say what few words she knew (mostly “woof”). Grace was crying, but otherwise she seemed to be all right—Andrew couldn’t find any of the worrying symptoms that would mean Grace was bleeding into her brain.

Andrew and Valentina were uneasy, but they were reassured by the lack of any obvious symptoms of brain trauma. But about halfway into their four-hour drive back to South Jersey, Grace suddenly began to vomit. Both knew that nausea and vomiting after a head injury were signs to find a hospital immediately.

They were in the middle of their drive, and didn’t know what hospitals were nearby or where to find them. In a panic Andrew tried to use their car’s GPS system to find a hospital, but as Valentina remembers, “The GPS stopped working. It was one of those experiences you can’t explain. The GPS suddenly didn’t want to work!” Andrew and Valentina weren’t sure where they were, or where to go.

The couple figured out that they were near Manhattan, so in desperation they got off the highway to see what hospital they came across first.

That hospital was the Columbia University Medical Center/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian. “We literally drove into the hospital,” Valentina says. “Suddenly there was this big sign that said Children’s Hospital.”

Grace was seen immediately. Valentina says they looked at Grace’s pupils, and then, “It was like a movie, where suddenly everybody’s iPhones are out and people are moving.”

Even as the medical team jumped into high gear, Valentina remembers how caring they were. “They were really, really amazing. They had such a generous amount of information for us. There was so much gentleness and respect toward us.”

Valentina was able to stay with Grace during her CT scan, which showed that Grace had severe bleeding in the space between her skull and her brain. She needed surgery immediately. There was so much blood that it had pushed her brain toward the left side of her skull, crushing the left side of the brain. Valentina and Andrew were cautioned that it was a very serious situation; Grace’s life was on the line, and if she lived, there was a real possibility of permanent brain damage.

As they wheeled Grace into surgery, Valentina said to her, “Good-bye, Gracie, I love you, and please come back to us. Please stay here.”

Then Andrew and Valentina settled down for a two-hour wait, wondering if they would see Gracie alive again, and if so, whether she would have any lasting disability.

But fate in the guise of a broken GPS had not only led Grace and her family to a top-notch pediatric hospital, but also to one of the leading pediatric neurosurgeons in the country, Dr. Richard Anderson.

Since Grace’s situation was such a serious emergency, Andrew and Valentina did not get the chance to meet her surgeon beforehand. Their first contact with Dr. Anderson came in the wee hours of that morning, when he walked out of the operating room to tell them that the surgery was over and Gracie was going to be just fine.

“I said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ So I hugged him, and he said, ‘You will be able to see her in about half an hour.’ We jumped up and down like kids!”

What struck Valentina most about Dr. Anderson was his confidence. She knew that the ER staff and the medical team had been very worried about Grace—and so was Andrew, who had seen many cases of brain trauma in his studies. But “the ease that Dr. Anderson had” comforted her, she says. “He said ‘It’s fine, she’ll be back to normal in two days.’”

And she was. As Dr. Anderson predicted, Grace was able to leave the hospital two days after her surgery, with no lasting effects from her injury. “She’s doing great! She’s in preschool three times a week,” says Valentina, adding that Grace has a particular flair for language and uses words far above the vocabulary of most preschoolers.

Today Valentina is thankful that their GPS broke and led them to Dr. Anderson. “The GPS just went nuts, and it’s like we were taken to this place. In my opinion God took us there,” she says.

Dr. Anderson is so courageous to do that job. It amazes me that somebody opens up a human brain and puts it back in a way that it’s healthy, then closes it up and that’s it.”

“I think he’s very courageous.”

Since Grace’s experience, Andrew and Valentina make it a point to share what they’ve learned about head trauma. Valentina says she gets calls from parents asking for advice when their kids hurt their heads, and Andrew used Grace as a case study in a presentation on pediatric head injuries. They remind parents of the signs to look for, including:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • One pupil larger than the other
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Discoloration behind the ears
  • Difficulty walking
  • Changes in behavior
  • Nausea or vomiting

They also stress that, as in Grace’s case, sometimes those signs aren’t apparent right away, and the most important thing a parent can do is be observant and ready to take action.

Valentina is glad that when it was time for them to take action, they found themselves in the right place with the right doctor. “It was all what I would call grace, because it was a miracle.”

Learn more about Dr. Anderson on his bio page.

patient journey

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