Dillon S's Story
Marie Smith was careful. Whenever she and her 6-year-old son ventured out together in her Ford Explorer, she listened for the reassuring click of his seat belt before backing out of the driveway. What she didn't know, until last November 11, was that a seat belt offers only so much protection for a small child.
Marie and her two sons, Christopher, 18, and Dillon, 6, were on the I-17 freeway when she lost control of her vehicle. It rolled three times, and one witness saw a duffel bag fly out of a side window and land on the pavement nearly 60 feet away. Concerned that its placement on the road might cause another accident, a woman scurried over to move it.
But the "duffel bag" was in fact a child - Dillon, too small for his seat belt, had slipped out and now lay on the road, not breathing. Kneeling beside him, the woman began rubbing him gently until she heard a small gasp for air. He was soon airlifted to Phoenix Children's Hospital. (Christopher sustained only minor injuries.)
Dan Smith was stunned by the first sight of his 6-year-old son in PCH's Critical Care Unit. Dillon's skull was fractured in three places, one eye socket was crushed, a leg was broken, and a three-inch gash stretched from the center of his head to his forehead. Road rash and bruises covered most of his body, and he was vomiting blood.
"I couldn't believe it, "Dan said. "I didn't think he was going to make it."
Marie, meanwhile, lay in another hospital, also critically injured. Dan wouldn't see his wife for three days, making the decision he knew she would choose - to stay with their son.
"He needed me more than she needed me," he said.
Though a CAT scan showed considerable pressure inside Dillon's skull, a Critical Care doctor assured Dan that his son would have no permanent brain damage. But Dan was concerned that Dillon did not seem to respond to anything.
"The doctor was pinching him all over, but he just laid there, "he said. Two days later, Dillon woke up for just 30 seconds - long enough to follow Dan's simple instructions to hold up one finger and then squeeze his hand.
"That was kind of the turning point of the whole thing for me, " Dan said. "It made me feel he was going to be all right."
But it was a fitful night. Dillon suffered seizures almost every hour, arching his back and thrashing around in his bed until his skin was raw. Doctors told Dan that Dillon's behavior was normal for a child with a head injury. A tube in the boy's head helped relieve excess pressure on his brain, and within a few days he was well enough to move to the hospital's General Pediatrics area. Three days later he transferred to the Subacute Unit, a place for children who don't need the acute care offered by the hospital's other inpatient units, but who are not yet prepared to go home.
Still suffering from brain trauma and some muscle deterioration, Dillon was unable to walk, talk or hold himself up.
"It was basically like having a baby all over again," Dan said. Therapists worked to help Dillon regain movement and begin speaking again - difficult, because the breathing tube that had sustained him in Critical Care left his throat raw. On Thanksgiving Day, Dan made a joke and heard his son laugh for the first time since the accident. Suddenly, everything became funny.
"He started laughing at everything I did," Dan said. After that, progress came quickly. Dillon began talking - saying only yes or no at first, then hours later speaking in small sentences. Dan set a goal that seemed unlikely at the time: "We're going to be home before Christmas." Dillon was discharged December 22.
After recovering from her own injuries, Dillon's mom began sharing the family's story as a warning to other parents.Though the law states that a child 5 years old may wear only a seat belt, children weighing between 40 and 80 pounds should be in a booster seat for full protection.
"The law neglects to inform parents that your child will slip out of a seat belt if your vehicle rolls," Marie wrote in a recent letter to parents. "No child is replaceable, nor should they suffer needlessly like my son did. Please get your child a booster seat and have them properly strapped in so that this tragedy will not happen to you."
The article closes with her name and a simple reminder of the motivation behind the warning: "For Dillon's sake."