Nicholas Wolfson is 7 and doesn’t like to talk about the day he helped save his mother’s life.
It was scary to see her lying face-down in the grass. “Mommy, get up!” Nicholas implored, and he showed her how to push herself up and then he tried to move her arms and legs for her. But she lay there, babbling incoherently like a baby.
Who can blame Nicholas for not wanting to remember?
Debbie Wolfson, who is 44, had often told him, “I will always take care of you.” And Nicholas promised in return: “I will always take care of you.” They would lock their little fingers together and solemnly proclaim, “I pinky-promise you.”
Nicolas worries he didn’t keep his promise that day because he couldn’t get his mother into the house. A pinky promise is a sacred vow.
But Nicholas and his sister, Maya, did something better, and one day their parents believe the twins will understand. Because of their quick thinking, the family will celebrate Mother’s Day with flowers and breakfast in bed for Debbie Wolfson.
Last Aug. 20 began like any other summer day in the Wolfson household. Except instead of a play date with friends, Debbie took Nicholas and Maya to meet their father for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory in SouthPark.
Afterward, Dr. Ken Wolfson left for a meeting and Debbie drove with the twins to a dry cleaner near their home in Olde Cotswold. She vividly remembers details of what happened next, but at the time she didn’t understand why.
“I was starting to have a weird feeling,” Debbie recalled. She nearly hit another car as she pulled out of the parking spot. Then, as she drove along Sharon Amity, she began hiccupping so loudly and violently that Nicholas and Maya laughed. They thought she was being silly.
“I turned left on Woodlark and I felt like the trees were closing in on me,” Debbie said. She was overwhelmed by an excruciating headache. “All I wanted to do was go lay down. I pulled off to the side of the street.”
The pinky promise
Debbie summoned the strength to continue, but drove past their turn.
“Mommy, that’s our street!”
Debbie didn’t see it. She didn’t see the next left either. It was as if those streets no longer existed.
She had suffered a massive stroke on the right side of her brain, which paralyzed the left side of her body and prevented her from processing any information on that side. “It’s called left visual field defect,” Dr. Ken Wolfson explained. “She couldn’t see things on the left side of her body.”
The only way she could get home was by turning right. After an agonizing three-point turn, she finally reached their house. She drove up the driveway and onto the grass.
Maya opened the car door for her, and Debbie fell out.
Nicholas tried this way and that way to get his mother up, struggling to lift her underneath her shoulders, but nothing worked.
“Mommy! Mommy! I pinky-promised you. You’ve got to get up!”
Ken Wolfson, 47, is a radiologist and he’s often so busy at the hospital, he silences his phone or ignores it. What parent hasn’t? But that time, unlike almost every other time when his phone rang in the 13 years he’s worked for Charlotte Radiology, he answered it.
Nicholas was calling on Debbie’s cellphone.
“Daddy! Mommy fell.”
“Is she hurt?”
“Can she talk to me?”
In the background, Ken Wolfson heard Maya scream, “I can’t understand her.”
Ken’s medical training kicked in. He suspected that Debbie had suffered either a severe head injury or a stroke.
“Is she bleeding?”
“No. I tried to get her up!” Nicholas kept saying. “I tried to get her up!”
“Don’t do anything,” his father said. “I’m coming.”
Signs of a stroke
As Ken Wolfson raced home, he dialed 911 and asked for medics to be first responders instead of firefighters. Timing was crucial.
When he arrived, Debbie was still face-down on the ground, grass and dirt beneath her fingernails from trying to claw her way up.
“I’m sorry,” she slurred. “I can’t get up.”
Though the twins couldn’t understand her, Ken could.
Debbie seemed calm, almost matter-of-fact. She is a nurse by training, but she had no idea what was wrong. Ken recognized the signs of a stroke: Her left side was paralyzed, the right side of her face drooped.
He drove ahead of the ambulance to Carolinas Medical Center to alert doctors on the stroke team.
“The faster you can intervene to open up the arteries, the better results you get,” he said. “In the old days, we didn’t have the technology to go inside brains, to open up the vessels. The tissue would die. Now, we have procedures to open up the blood vessels and remove the clot. That preserves the brain tissue. The critical thing is you only have a 3- to 4-hour window to do an intervention.”
At home with a sitter, Nicholas cradled his favorite photographs of his mother cuddling him at the park when he was 2. Tears wet his cheeks. He worried she was hurt because he broke his pinky promise.
Healing, one day at a time
So many things could have happened differently and Debbie might have suffered severe brain damage.
If the twins had gone on a scheduled play date and Debbie had stayed home alone…. If Nicholas had been able to drag her into the house and into bed and she lay there until Ken got home from work hours later…. If Nicholas hadn’t known how to use his mother’s cellphone.... If Ken hadn’t answered….
At the hospital, doctors discovered that a clot had formed in her carotid artery, Ken said, and moved to a smaller vessel in her brain, blocking it completely and setting off a chain-reaction of clotted blood vessels.
Why the first clot formed, they may never know. “Certain trauma can cause it,” Ken said. “Sometimes, the trauma is minor like turning your head hard.”
After three hours, he said, the risks of intervening often outweigh the benefits.
He said neurosurgeon Dr. Joe Bernard dissolved the clots using a mechanical device and anti-clotting drugs. After three days in the hospital, Debbie returned home to a long recuperation. She suffered “ice pick headaches” for weeks, and endured months of fatigue.
Nine months later, she is so healthy and vivacious again that if you didn’t know, you might not recognize the lingering effects. She has trouble concentrating and multi-tasking. Her left hand and leg sometimes feel numb. She is sensitive to hot and cold on that side of her body – the hair dryer stings her ear and her hand feels as if it’s freezing when she holds a glass of ice water.
“There are areas in her brain that are dead,” Ken said. “But the brain will heal itself. It will find alternate pathways. You have to have patience.”
‘The luckiest mom’
Nicholas and Maya are finishing second grade at Eastover Elementary and have only recently begun to talk with their parents about what happened. But not with strangers. It’s still too painful.
Maya put her feelings into words last month when her teacher asked students to write in their journals about a time when they were courageous:
“One day after lunch my mom parked in the driveway. When I opened the door for my mom she fell to the ground. I was tarifid. I cride for about an hour. Good thing my brother new my Dads Phone number.”
Debbie is proud of her children. “They were so brave,” she said.
When she puts Nicholas and Maya to bed, she enjoys snuggling with them. “I just have this feeling go through me that I’m the luckiest mom in the whole world that I have these children. I feel blessed.”
And not just because of what they did the day of her stroke. “I felt like this before it happened,” she said. “It’s almost like I don’t want to let them go. I want to hold on to them forever.”
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