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Pa. famiy prepares for holiday in hospital

December 23, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

BALTIMORE - Billi Ruppenthal is determined to have a traditional Christmas for her family.

This year's Christmas tree stands on a dresser in her 12-year-old son's hospital room at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Her son, Alex Munson, a seventh-grader at Southern Fulton Jr./Sr. High School in Warfordsburg, Pa., collapsed at school on Oct. 18 after complaining of head pain and dizziness.

"We're not going to let the holiday go by without us. I couldn't imagine it not being Christmas for my kids," she said by phone from Baltimore earlier this week. "It will be just like in our living room; there will be presents under the tree."

Southern Fulton school nurse Kelly Morton said Alex was already paralyzed on the left side when she reached him after he collapsed. "I knew it was a very serious matter," she said.

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Morton accompanied Alex to Washington County Hospital, where a CAT scan showed bleeding on the right side of his brain.

Alex was airlifted to Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, where doctors found that irregular blood vessels in Alex's brain had filled with blood and burst, Ruppenthal said. They performed surgery to remove most of a blood clot that had formed, she said.

Two days later, Alex suffered a stroke and was returned to the operating room, where the right side of his skull was removed to allow room for swelling, she said.

After the second surgery, Alex was put into a pentobarbital-induced coma for three days. When the drug was stopped, Alex remained semi-comatose.

The right front part of Alex's brain was injured by the bleeding, and the back part was injured from the stroke, Ruppenthal said. "But the doctors can't say that the functions of those parts of his brain are gone. In a child, other parts of the brain often take over. Every child is different, the doctors told me."

Recovery will take a lot of time and therapy, she said, and the doctors don't know how much function Alex will regain.

On Nov. 16, Alex opened his eyes and kept them open for almost an entire day. He was moved out of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit two days later.

On Nov. 30, Ruppenthal said, Alex was moved to The Kennedy Krieger Institute for rehabilitation. He has begun to do many small tasks such as turn his head to the right or left on command and nod his head to indicate yes or no, she said.

Alex's siblings, Rachel Munson, 15, and 8-year-old Dallas Ruppenthal, and stepfather Brian Ruppenthal, will join him and his mother to celebrate "Christmas morning in his room. Santa Claus is coming here this year," Billi Ruppenthal said.

Alex's father, Gary Munson of Hancock, took two weeks of vacation from his job to spend time at the hospital with his son. "He's coming around, from what we had two months ago," Munson said from Alex's room Wednesday night.

While Alex cannot move much, or speak, he is often attentive and "understands everything," his mother said.

She added that she had no inkling that anything was amiss with Alex's brain. "On Oct. 18, he got up, he felt great, he got ready for school, he ate breakfast - which he doesn't usually do - and at noon I got a phone call."

Kennedy Krieger Institute is attached to Johns Hopkins, and specializes in rehabilitating patients with brain injury and cerebral palsy, Ruppenthal said.

"The family visits Alex, and he knows they're in the room," she said. "He looks at them, and responds yes or no to questions. Ninety-nine percent of his answers are correct."

Alex receives various therapies every half hour all day, his mother said. "He has physical, occupational, behavioral, recreational, speech and language therapies," she said. "It's a lot of stimulation for his brain."

In early December, his mother was delighted when Alex moved his legs slightly when asked to wiggle his toes.

Alex is on prayer chains across the country, and has received cards and letters, she said.

Local churches also have been helpful, she said. "One church has some carpenters who are going to help with renovations to the house."

The family plans to bring Alex home on Feb. 1, 2005, because of insurance concerns. He will continue his therapies at home, his mother said.

Morton is organizing a Basket Bingo fund-raiser to help with Alex's medical bills. The school's Junior Honor Society will assist with the event.

"The students have been very supportive," Morton said. "They understand what happened. They ask about him and send him cards."

Beta Sigma Phi's Sweetheart Ball will be held Feb. 12 at the American Legion in McConnellsburg, Pa., from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by contacting Iris Hendershot at 717-294-3160 or Inez Eddy at 717-485-5930. All proceeds will benefit Alex Munson.

For updates on Alex go to: www.caringbridge.org/pa/alexm

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