Eight-year-old Curtis Lahr of Coal Township sits at his piano and plays “Heart and Soul.”
“We got him the piano for Christmas,” says his father Curt. “He loves to play, and he pretty much taught himself.”
His determination to learn to play the piano should be no surprise after the heart and soul he displayed a little over a year ago when he suffered a life-threatening injury.
Curtis, like any other child his age, is a thrill seeker and somewhat of a daredevil, according to his mother Maria.
After a winter storm in late January 2012, Curtis, his parents and his younger brother Cooper decided to take advantage of the new snow and enjoy sledding on some nearby hills.
“They didn’t like the hill I chose,” Maria said. “They found another that I thought was too big, but it was all about the fun.”
Curt made a path for the kids by making the first couple runs. Afterward the kids had their chance to race down the slope.
Curtis made a few runs, but on his third attempt he spun around and went down the hill backward. At the bottom of the hill, Curtis was violently jarred. He immediately called for his mom for help.
“He said, ‘Mom, I hurt myself. My back hurts,’” Maria said. “We were seconds away from our community hospital and we discussed taking him to be looked at, but Curtis said he didn’t want to go and he would be okay.”
Curtis did not complain or show signs of being in pain the rest of the day.
“We came home and everything was fine,” Maria said. “They played video games and actually went back outside and helped their grandfather shovel. He went to bed without issue and Sunday morning he was giving Cooper, who weighs 20 pounds more than him, piggy back rides.”
Sunday night Curtis told his mom that he wasn’t feeling very great.
“A little after midnight he came into my room and said he was having trouble breathing,” Maria said. “Before I even touched him, I could feel the heat coming off him. He was burning up.”
Maria gave him some ibuprofen and made some cold washcloths for his head. She lay in bed with him to comfort him.
“He kept saying he was cold. He was shaking the whole bed,” Maria said. “That is when I noticed he was working very hard to breath. I could see his ribs when he was breathing.”
Maria woke Curt who took Curtis to the nearby community hospital. Fifteen minutes later Maria received a call to get a bag ready, because Curtis was being transported by ambulance to Geisinger Janet Weis Children’s Hospital.
“When we got to the community hospital they initially thought he had pneumonia,” Curt said. “They could see fluid around his lungs and in his chest. The short time we were there, he was getting worse and worse. When I mentioned the sled riding accident, they decided to send him to Geisinger.”
Geisinger emergency room doctors knew right away that Curtis was significantly injured and contacted pediatric trauma doctors who evaluated him immediately.
“He was taken to get a CT scan of his chest and they found a mediostenial hematoma, or an infection and collection of blood around the central area of his chest,” said Richard Lambert, MD, pediatric intensivist. “We admitted him to the PICU and began trying to find what was causing his problems.”
The next day, Curtis began to deteriorate. He went into shock and his organs began shutting down.
“He was in serious condition. Fortunately there were a lot of us around –myself, several of my colleagues, PICU nurses and respiratory therapists,” Dr. Lambert said. “The room was full, everyone just jumped on his case, because he was really at risk of not surviving.”
Curtis was placed on a ventilator and had chest tubes inserted into his chest to drain the fluid that had collected and was causing him trouble breathing. They also had to put a central line into a major blood vessel in Curtis’ neck in order to administer medicines into his system quickly.
“Everything we could do to stabilize a child, we performed on Curtis in the course of an hour or two,” Dr. Lambert said.
Because it was important that everything be done quickly using every precious minute to save Curtis’ life, every procedure to stabilize Curtis was performed at bedside.
“One of the things that allowed us to work in his room was a bedside ultrasound,” Dr. Lambert said. “It is a machine that was funded by Children’s Miracle Network about five years ago, and we use it almost daily. It allows us to visualize where the needle was going in those central veins and even the needles in his chest. This ultrasound let us guide the needle to the right place. It minimizes injuries that might happen if you were doing it blindly. Thankfully we had that machine and we were able to stabilize Curtis.”
His injury was difficult to find and doctors continued to look for answers for his deterioration after getting him stabilized. Finally after running several tests, doctors found the reason for the life-threatening infection.
“He had an apparent tear in his esophagus or trachea that had let bacteria get into his chest and subsequently become infected,” said Richard Scorpio, MD, Director of Pediatric Trauma. “It was difficult to find because it had already healed by the time he presented to us.”
Curtis remained in the PICU for 13 days and was unconscious for most of that time. Through it all the Lahr’s could not say enough about the staff at Geisinger Janet Weis Children’s Hospital.
“They came in every two hours and fluffed his pillows and moved him around so he wouldn’t be cramped or stiff,” Maria said. “He was VIP over there, they took such great care of him. We had doctors stay late or come in early just for Curtis. I don’t think Dr. Scorpio went home the whole time we were there.”
“It was so scary seeing him like that,” Curt said. “I couldn’t wait to hear his voice.”
Eventually Curtis woke and was able to breathe on his own. He had the ventilator removed and underwent a swallowing study to make sure the injury was healed. The next day, Curtis was able to have some liquids and two days after having the ventilator removed, he was able to go home.
For the Lahr’s the entire situation was unreal and they were very thankful for the help the children’s hospital staff were able to provide.
“One little tear caused all of this,” Maria said. “Something that small, flips your whole life upside down in the blink of an eye. If he would have been our age, he would have died. Because he was so young he was able to bounce back.”
“They were amazing over there, everybody from the receptionists to the nurses to the doctors,” Curt said. “It was an amazing place they made as comfortable as they could. They did anything they could to accommodate us.”