On March 24 at around 2 p.m., life changed irrevocably for 13-year-old Peyton Willis and his family.
Soaring down a steep hill on Basich Boulevard in Aberdeen with his older brother Dalton and two friends, the eighth grader fell off his skateboard.
One of the friends called Peyton’s mother, Danielle Pattison Willis, to say her son was unconscious, breathing and bleeding. She raced to Grays Harbor Community Hospital, beating the ambulance there.
Willis watched the boulevard from the emergency room. “It seemed like forever,” she remembers.
She saw the ambulance pull up and learned that her son’s skull was fractured and he was bleeding from his ears. He was put on a breathing tube. She boarded a helicopter that would transport them to the Level 5 Trauma Center and neurosurgeons at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“He was in very critical condition,” she says. That first week, there were a couple of brain surgeries, a probe was inserted “to monitor the pressure on his brain.” He was in a coma.
The doctors were blunt. “They told us it was hard to say what to expect.” Willis said. They were not sure he would open his eyes again or what he would be like if and when he did. They told his parents “’if he does pull through then the Peyton you know is gone.’”
“But he is NOT,” she says fiercely. “He is a fighter.”
Today, Peyton Willis talks, walks and even cracks jokes.
The “main injury that he is recovering from is his brain injury. The injury Peyton has is called Diffuse Axonal Injury and that is why he is in therapy,” Willis explains.
“Miracle” is a word thrown around too often. In Peyton Willis’ case, it is a word that fits the small steps of recovery. Call them little miracles, if you will. “Peyton really is a miracle,” she says.
Though incremental, “there has been so much progress in such little time,” his mother says. Danielle says she and Brent Willis, Peyton’s dad, “split up in 2009 and we’re great friends.” They have been commuting from Aberdeen to care for their youngest son.
Danielle Willis consults a notebook she has kept intermittently throughout the ordeal she calls an “emotional roller coaster.”
On April 18, Brent Willis was visiting at Ashley House for Kids in Olympia where his son had been moved. Willis excused himself, telling Peyton he had to leave the room for a minute. Peyton replied, “OK.” As he was leaving for the day, the father told his son he loved him. Peyton spoke in halting words, “Dad, I love you.” They were his first words since the accident.
“We didn’t think we’d ever hear his voice again,” says his mother.
He awoke from the coma for good a few days later. His first words to his mother were: “I love you. Where am I?”
At first, Peyton Willis spoke a few words a day, “not a whole lot,” says his mother. Sometimes, he struggles to find the right word. “He speaks much better now, a lot of it is normal.”
He remembered more and more about family and friends and asked after his uncle Randy Willis’s dog, BJ, a Boston Terrier.
He was moved to Children’s Hospital at the end of April to begin therapy. When he first arrived, he couldn’t walk or sit up. He was fed through a tube.
“Now he is walking with no assistance … eating like nothing even happened,” his mother said. He has grown, too, now measuring close to six feet tall with his shoes on. He likes to call those less height-endowed “Shorty.”
“There has been no loss of a sense of humor with that kid. You know he’s still a jokester,” says his mother’s close friend and housemate, Crystle Running. The humor “comes out more every day,” Running adds.
Sentences are more fluid, he can pick out pictures. He does well in math, struggles with other subjects. It is hoped he can return to school one day.
Challenges remain. He is blind in his right eye and has hearing loss in his left ear. The bad scrape on his right knee is still healing.
“There is a lot more work to do, a long road ahead of us … years,” said Danielle Willis. Doctors say it is hard to say how much more he may improve, she said. Yet, he has defied the prognosis before. “He does something new every day,” she said.
The journey has been easier thanks to friends and family. The Willis family is grateful for the love, prayers, support and donations shown by friends, family and residents of Grays Harbor. They were stunned that more than $19,000 was raised at a fundraiser organized by friends at the Hoquiam VFW and online, Willis said.
Though Brent Willis’s insurance through his employer, Les Schwab, covers many costs, there are many that are not, Willis says when asked. She is grateful to both their employers who allowed them time off so they could care for their son. She works as an office manager for father and son Dr. Frank Rupert and Dr. Stephen Rupert.
Both parents told their sons to wear helmets — they often didn’t, she says. Doctors informed her that even if Peyton had been wearing a helmet, his injuries would have still been severe in a fall of that kind going an estimated 20 mph. His brain “shifted and twisted, part of the brain stem was severed. They cannot repair that part,” she said.
Co-workers of her brother-in-law, Ken Sheppard, at Milgard Window &Doors in Fife. recently held a barbecue and raised funds for 134 helmets donated to students at Miller Junior High on Wednesday. Dalton, 17, spoke at the assembly. “I was told that one of the firemen said he had never been to an assembly where the kids have been so quiet and actually paying attention. Sounds like it went great,” Willis said Thursday.
On May 31, the patient was allowed to leave Children’s for the day as the extended family gathered to celebrate Peyton’s 14th birthday at Warren Magnuson Park in Seattle.
Peyton will continue occupational, physical and speech therapy for a long time after discharge.
He cannot be left alone. His mother will cover Mondays, Brent Willis is off on Tuesdays. They will use the funds raised to help defray the cost of a home health care for Peyton on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, she said.
The bright orange markings that delineate where Willis fell on Basich Boulevard have faded to pale white. He has no memory of the accident.
Over the spring of his long journey, her son often said, “’I want you to take me to where you go.’” Now he says, “’I want to go to Aberdeen.’”
Last Friday afternoon, Peyton Willis came home.
Donations are still being taken by the Peyton Willis Fund at the Bank of Pacific.
Erin Hart, 360-537-3932, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DW_Erin