Hunter Cole Bresch, Our Little Miracle

By Jody Bresch

“God does work in mysterious ways doesn’t he?” my daughter-in-law, Teonia, said to me, and I had to agree. If Hunter hadn’t come to live with us, what might have become of him? When Teonia and I agreed in June of 2005 that Hunter would come stay with my husband, Mike, and I, little did we know our decision might have a life or death outcome for my rambunctious three-year-old grandson.

This story is about one courageous toddler in a fight for his life and his concerned family who knew something was wrong with him, but who had not a clue how serious it would turn out to be. This is the story of our broken family, and Hunter, our little miracle.

The summer of 2005 was like a gift from heaven for us. After two years during which we had no contact with our grandson, Hunter, my husband, Mike, and I had him staying with us. When Teonia had asked me to keep Hunter on the pretext that I would finish potty-training him, we welcomed the opportunity to spend time with him and become reacquainted.

On the rare occasions we had seen him in the last nine months, we had picked up on the fact that Hunter might have some major developmental delays. Since both my husband and I are teachers, we were more than a little concerned.

In August, the summer of 2004, my mother-in-law, Rhoda, had asked Teonia if she could see Hunter. Much to our surprise and delight, Teonia agreed we could take him to Luke and Ashleigh’s wedding. Luke is our third oldest son. While we were thrilled to see Hunter, we were equally concerned to see him stumbling and falling, his arms and legs seeming not to be coordinated with the movements of the rest of his body, and the extent of his vocabulary seemed to consist of, “Come here,” or “Come on.”

In February and March Hunter began to visit us on weekends and Mike and I spent long hours teaching him to name pictures on flashcards; apple, bear, cat, dog. Hunter seemed to thrive on the challenge and the attention. He sometimes left consonants off the beginning or the ending of a word, but he could say them well enough you could understand him.

When I would ask Teonia what the doctor said about his stumbling and falling, she always said the doctor linked it to the fluid behind his eardrums. Hunter had frequent sinus and ear infections and seemed to be on antibiotics all winter long.

Busy falling in love all over again with this charming, loveable child, Hunter Cole, we didn’t immediately delve into concerns over his lack of coordination and his lack of speech. Then something happened the last Saturday in June of 2005 that brought it all to the forefront of our attention. Teonia wanted to take Hunter to her boyfriend’s family reunion. So early that Saturday morning she picked him up before Mike and I left for the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market in Des Moines.

Edited Thursday, March 9, 2006.

What Happened to Hunter?

I had made arrangements to pick Hunter up from Teonia’s boyfriend, Jesse, when our day trip was over. When Dee, Mark’s friend, and I picked Hunter up at 7:00 P.M. he seemed dazed. He was stumbling around the driveway in front of their apartment jabbering about the hot air balloons which we could see drifting over the Des Moines River that meanders through the center of Ottumwa.

Jesse pointed to Hunter and said, “I don’t know what happened to his head.”

On closer inspection I saw Hunter had numerous red marks and a huge lump on his forehead. It stretched from his left pupil to his right temple, and from his right eyebrow into the soft spot on his forehead. I took him home and called Teonia at work. I asked her to come home and take Hunter out to ER. While Teonia did come home from work, she took one look at him and said he had had much worse bumps than the one he had now, but that she would take him out to ER to get it checked. I was to discover weeks later that she did not do that. Hunter didn’t want to leave with her, but we all told him she would bring him back after he saw the doctor. However, Teonia didn’t do that. She called me at 2:00 A.M. and told me the doctor said he was just fine and that she would bring him over the following morning after his baby sister’s birthday party.

When she did bring Hunter back around noon Teonia told us he had thrown up bottled water that morning. He was listless and lethargic, sleeping a lot for the next twenty-four hours.

Monday morning, Teonia called and said she needed to talk to me. I truly thought she was calling to tell me she wasn’t going to let Hunter stay with us anymore. However, to my total astonishment, Teonia told me she had come to talk to me about Mike and I accepting temporary custody of Hunter. With a huge sigh of relief, I agreed. My husband, Mike is a remarkable man. When I told him I had already told Teonia, “Yes, we will take Hunter,” he simply agreed with the same apparent relief I had felt.

That accident in June, however, marked the beginnings of a decline in Hunter’s physical condition, in his gross and fine motor control, which had already been a problem. Then the last Tuesday in July, Teonia came to pick Hunter up for what I thought was an overnight visit. Instead, she told me she wanted Hunter back.

Things had been contentious between Teonia and Mark since Hunter’s injury. Mark was convinced Jesse had done something to hurt Hunter. Teonia steadfastly denied it. My gut feeling was that Teonia was doing this because she was angry at Mark. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t think I had any legal right to. So I said, “Of course, Teonia, you can have him back, but please remember Hunter has people here who love him too.”

Teonia promised to bring him back for a visit the next day, but that didn’t happen. Later in the week I learned that about forty-five minutes after walked out of our house with Hunter, she took him to the Ottumwa Regional ER and accused our son, Mark, of sexually abusing Hunter.

Mark and I waited for a week and a half for DHS to contact us. We set up an appointment for the following morning. We both willingly answered the social worker’s questions. Then we expressed our own concerns about Hunter’s accident in June and his deteriorating health since then. The social worker immediately began to take action, telling us Hunter would not be in Teonia’s care by bedtime. I started crying. Hunter had already been through so much and now he was heading into foster care. I knew his safety and welfare had to come first and I told the social worker I understood. She told me she would consider placing him back in my home if Mark would move. By 1:00 P.M. in the afternoon, Mark had found another place to live. By 3:00 P.M. Viola, Teonia’s mom, brought Hunter to me with a shaved head. She said he had head lice, that he had gotten it from the son of a friend of ours.

Hunter had only been gone ten days, but we noticed things we hadn’t observed before. With his head shaved we noticed a strange egg-shaped lump on the right-hand side of the back of his head. Hunter had began staggering like a falling down drunk when he would wake up in the morning. This could last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour and a half.

Our social worker made a doctor’s appointment for Hunter on the following Tuesday. Dr. Jay Heitsman ordered blood work, a full body set of skeletal x-rays, and a cat scan of Hunter’s skull. At 6:00 P.M. on Tuesday Dr. Heitsman called with results. The first shock he delivered was that Hunter’s x-rays showed no current or old fractures. I had been so sure that Hunter had had a skull fracture I could barely take this in. His blood work was okay. Then Dr. Heitsman delivered his second shock of the day. The cat scan showed that Hunter had excess cerebral fluid on the brain. His second and third ventricles were flooded.

Dr. Heitsman said he couldn’t answer that, and he wanted another opinion. He was going to make an appointment at University of Iowa Hospitals for Hunter to see a Pediatric Neurologist.

While I didn’t know this, at that same time, Teonia was at DHS with an advocate insisting Hunter be removed from our care. When the social worker broke the news to Teonia that Hunter was seriously ill, she asked her if she really wanted her son handed into the care of total strangers. Teonia decided she did not.

This was a period of time where our family had to put aside some very contentious feelings over these separate child abuse allegations to come together and provide love, comfort and support for a toddler we all cared about and were now terrified for.

I now noticed Hunter was beginning to have shakes and tremors when he woke up in the mornings in addition to the staggering, stumbling, falling he was already doing. When I called Hunter’s pediatrician with this news, he changed Hunter’s appointment in Iowa City to one with a neurosurgeon the next day. Suddenly, fear was the overwhelming factor in our lives. The things we were not being told were more frightening than the things we knew. Hunter’s social worker arranged a special visit for both Mark and Teonia to see Hunter before we went to Iowa City. All she would tell me was that, not knowing what we were going to find, Hunter’s parents needed this visit with him.

My husband, Mike, was at the choiropractor down the street. I drove to the office and told the receptionist I needed to talk to my husband. She pointed to a door down the hall on the left. I’m sure I looked like a ‘wild thing’ when I walked through the door. Mike was sitting on the edge of the examining table, and the doctor was leaning against the sink, arms crossed, talking to him.

“I’m sorry for interrupting,” I blurted out, “but, Mike, I need to talk to you.” Tears were coursing down my cheeks. “I know I told you I could take Hunter to Iowa City for his appointment without you. But I was wrong! I need you there. Pam said Teonia needs to hear what the doctor is going to say about Hunter. We’re seeing a neurosurgeon now, not a pediatric neurologist, and I’m scared!”

Mike just nodded his head and said, “Then I’ll be there.”

The doctor said, “Let me know how much time you’ll need off, and I’ll write a doctor’s excuse for you.”

I cried myself to sleep that night.

Friday, August 12, 2005, a gorgeous hot summer afternoon, we had an appointment with neurosurgeon, Dr. Arnold Menezes, at University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City. The appointment was for 12:30 P.M. Upon arrival Teonia and I had a slight squabble over Hunter’s address when we checked in with the receptionist. Teonia was giving her address as Hunter’s address. For the moment I let her win and tell the receptionist Hunter lived with her.

When Hunter’s name was called for his appointment, Teonia and her mother, Viola, Mark and I went back to wait on the doctor. It was a long and stressful wait. Hunter is not an easy child in the best of circumstances. He wanted to run the halls.

Oddly enough, while Teonia and Mark will cross horns on every other subject on the planet Earth, the one thing they always stand firmly together on is that Hunter will be good, will mind, or he will sit in time out.

The two hours we waited for the doctor Hunter had frequent time outs. He wouldn’t leave his hands off the office computer. He made a game out of jerking the curtains around the examining table and turning water on to wash his hands. The only toy I had brought that entertained him at all was a small battery operated cell phone Luke and Ashleigh had bought him. We all talked on it. We ‘called’ the doctor and asked, “Doctor, where are you? You’re late. Hunter is waiting on you.”

Finally, Dr. Menezes arrived. He’s an impressive man, tall, husky, piercing black eyes, well-groomed black hair, with a slight mid-eastern accent of some kind, and a no-nonsense style of communication. He said, “I hear we have a wild tiger in here,” looking directly at Hunter, but he softened it with a friendly smile.

Dr. Menezes asked us what had brought us to Iowa City for this appointment. Then he asked us about the accident Hunter had in June. Teonia jumped in to tell the story. Part of the story, I had never heard before. Of course, I knew about Jesse’s family reunion at the park, but then Teonia said something I didn’t know. She said Hunter came down the curly slide at the park, came to a stop at the bottom of it, and then fell over the side which is possibly a drop of a couple of feet.

She said some children playing near Hunter brought him over because he was crying. She said he didn’t have any marks on him. It was no big deal. He’d been hurt worse than that more than one time.

I took some pictures out of my purse, handed them to Dr. Menezes and said, “There were marks.”

Dr. Menezes took the pictures from me and looked at the top one. I still don’t know if Dr. Menezes was mad at me, mad at Teonia, or mad at the situation in general, but he got up and stalked out of the room. A few minutes later he returned and put the cat scan pictures I had brought with us up on the light board. He pointed to spots on Hunter’s skull where there should have been clear spaces, where the second lateral ventricle and the third ventricle were. However, he explained to us, these were full of fluid. He used the word ‘mass’ and Viola and I looked at each other.

“Are we talking a tumor?” I asked.

Dr. Menezes said ‘no, he didn’t think so’. It was backed up fluid, and Hunter was going to need surgery. A shunt in his skull would drain the excess fluid and solve the problem.

We discussed the symptoms Hunter had that led up to the discovery of his hydrocephalus, the stumbling, the staggering, falling, the shakes, the tremors, delayed speech. Teonia and I had another disagreement when Teonia said Hunter walked at twelve months. I had seen Hunter at fourteen months, and he still wasn’t walking yet.

Dr. Menezes believed we would see marked improvement in Hunter’s balance, co-ordination and speech following surgery. Dr. Menezes said that Dr. Heitsman had led him to believe Hunter might need an emergency surgery, and he wanted to assure us Hunter wasn’t doing to die or anything if he didn’t have surgery in the next twenty-four hours. It was nothing like that, but that, yes, he had a serious problem that needed to be fixed with surgery. He told us he had an opening in his surgical schedule and could do it the following Thursday. We all looked at each other and mutually agreed. Hunter would have surgery next Thursday.

We were verifying information at the registration desk when Teonia and I had our final showdown of the day. She again gave her apartment address as Hunter’s home address. I told the registration clerk this was incorrect, that Hunter lived with me. Teonia started to argue with me and I replied, “The hospital has to be able to call me, Teonia, send mail to me, because Hunter lives with me at the moment.”

She was silently seething, but she finally agreed.

Hunter was scheduled for a ‘prior to surgery’ MRI on Monday, August 15. Hunter needed anesthesia to keep him quiet enough for the MRI. This meant no early morning wake up drink, no breakfast, only the comfort of loving arms to keep him happy. We juggled him between the three of us, Mark, Teonia and me. Finally, it was time. Mark held him while the anesthesiologist put the gas mask on to put him to sleep. Then we waited and waited.

I had plenty of time for reflection. I wondered how this young woman I had loved like a daughter had come to see us as ‘the enemy’, and I feared it was only going to get worse, not better.

When Hunter woke up we went back downstairs to wait on the doctor. The nurse wanted a urine specimen, but since Hunter wasn’t fully potty-trained yet, I suggested she get us a collection bag. This set Teonia off like nothing had thus far. She simply got up and walked out of the examining room without even bothering to tell us where she was going. My other daughter-in-law, later told me Teonia came out to the lobby raising the roof, saying ‘she didn’t know why they needed a urine specimen’. She collected Jesse, who had been waiting for her out there, and left.

This made no sense to me. Teonia was a CNA. Surely, she knew why urine was tested prior to surgery. It was a routine test, after all.

That night on the drive home I called Hunter’s social worker and told her about Teonia’s bizarre behavior. She was shocked Teonia left almost two hours before we were finished with the appointment. She said Teonia had returned to Ottumwa and stopped to talk to her. Teonia had demanded Hunter be returned to her yet that day. Pam told her Hunter was where he needed to be for the moment and he wasn’t going anywhere now before surgery.

Wednesday, August 17th, the day before the scheduled surgery, Teonia came to my house in the afternoon to visit Hunter. I thought it was a pleasant enough visit. Then that evening I called Teonia to let her know what time surgery would be the next day. I had offered Teonia a ride to the hospital with us the next morning. I do not know what I said that offended her, but she hung up on me. I called her mother to ask her if she knew what was going on with Teonia. Viola told me that Teonia said I yelled at her.

Teonia must have hung up from talking to me and called the social worker, because shortly after I talked to Viola, the social worker called me.

According to Teonia I made her uncomfortable when she came to the house to visit Hunter. Also, according to Teonia, I had yelled at her over the phone. Mark and Mike had warned me not to trust her. The afternoon DHS gave Hunter back to Mike and I, Teonia’s girlfriend had Mark arrested for harassment by 6:30 in the evening. She was still capable of anything to hurt us, and she was going to do it.

I was upset that Teonia could not put Hunter’s crisis needs ahead of her own petty vindictiveness, but I knew I was to have to work around it.

Pam said to me, “Whatever you do, Jody, don’t rock the boat. Hunter is where I want him to be at the moment, and Teonia has the power to change that if she makes a big enough fuss.”

I assured Pam I would bend over backwards to get along with her, and I have.

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