A teen hockey star suffered a life-threatening stroke, took on the near impossible struggle to regain function and is now back to his school work
Nothing about Wes Schlauch's story is ordinary, starting with his size. At six feet, five-inches, the varsity hockey player was by far the biggest patient ever admitted to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem, PA. What brought him there was equally uncommon for a 16 year old -- a stroke that felled him like a giant oak tree one fateful February afternoon in 2010 in the living room of his parents' Breinigsville home.
Then there was the ventilator. Wes needed it to breathe when he arrived from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The medical challenge put the Good Shepherd pediatric team to the test because Wes was their first ventilator-dependent patient. Special equipment and round-the-clock respiratory care was required. But the team pulled out all the stops and no one -- not Wes, his family or his caregivers -- looked back.
Wes spent nine months in the pediatric unit. When Wes was admitted in March 2010, the only thing he could move was his eyes. But inside that tall lanky frame beat the heart of an athlete. It would serve him well in the fight he was facing against an opponent tougher than any he'd encountered on the ice.
"Getting him to Good Shepherd, I felt like we were going to Oz," recalls Wes's mother, Meg. "We put such faith in Good Shepherd. The staff there is so warm and caring. They went above and beyond. They became like family to him."
Today, Wes is back at school and doing well. "I'm great, really good," says Wes, the words coming a bit slow and stretched out, but always plentiful. "I've been super, super, super, super busy. I have no time for anything."
His playful spirit makes it hard to imagine the nightmarish scene that unfolded inside his family's cozy house. Meg arrived home with plans to bake a quiche, one of Wes's favorite dishes, to find him lying unresponsive on the floor. Wes could neither talk nor move voluntarily. His body was twitching and he began vomiting profusely. Meg dialed 911. "Stroke," she says, "was never even on the radar."
And why would it be? Stroke in teens is relatively rare, affecting roughly 1 in 9,000 every year, according to the American Stroke Association. And Wes was in the best shape of his life. A varsity ice hockey standout at The Hill School in Pottstown, PA, and a top lacrosse player, he had just finished doing 30 push-ups, a small part of his daily routine of physical fitness. He'd even played two hockey games just a couple days before.
But during another game, about a week earlier, Wes was checked by an opponent and bent over, his head pushed down and wedged between his leg and his shoulder by the other player's hockey stick. Wes was sidelined for the rest of the game and recalls having a headache for about 15 minutes. Then, he felt fine and went home, apparently none the worse for the on-ice incident.
Several days later, Wes worked out at home, took a shower, then came downstairs. "I was feeling tingly all over. I was stumbling in the kitchen and then I was on my knees," he says, pointing to the spot on the living room floor. His head narrowly missed hitting the edge of the stone fireplace.
Wes was rushed to a hospital in Philadelphia for life-saving surgery to remove a blood clot in the basilar artery at the base of his brain stem. His father, Rich, was in California on business when he got the call about his son. "I was getting on the plane to come home and when they closed the door, I knew nothing for the next six and a half hours about his condition. It was agony," he says.
At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a neurosurgeon threaded a slender catheter up Wes's leg to his brain and dissolved the clot. Wes spent the next 55 days at CHOP, rigged up to a complex matrix of life-sustaining medical equipment including feeding tubes and a ventilator to keep him breathing.
"They didn't tell us until we left CHOP that they didn't expect him to live beyond the week," Rich says, his eyes tearing up. "But we never doubted that he'd make it. That just wasn't an alternative. He's too stubborn."
When Wes arrived at the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit, he had shed 60 pounds off his original weight of 220, and could only blink his eyes. Not only was he the largest patient ever admitted, he was the staff's first ventilator-dependent patient since the unit opened in July 2009.
"He brought a new set of challenges to a unit that was still growing and maturing," recalls Jamie Zanelli, a pediatric nurse. "His medication regimen and his tube feeding schedule were hectic. His incredible height and his inability to move any extremities summoned at least two to three staff members each time he needed repositioning...He appeared comatose much of the time, sleeping and resting with his eyes closed."
The decision to admit Wes with all his medical complexities and challenges was a testament to the staff's expertise and commitment. Critical to Wes's progress would be weaning him from the ventilator.
It took three months, but the Good Shepherd inpatient pediatric team with support from a respiratory therapist at Good Shepherd's Specialty Hospital, did what it set out to do. "As we started the weaning process, just breathing was work for him," says Sarah Barnabas, physical therapist. "There were days when he couldn't tolerate anything else because it was all he could to do breathe."
Six days a week, Wes went through a rigorous schedule of speech, physical and occupational therapy. His indomitable spirit came through in a very small but significant way.
"His first movement was his left big toe," says Laura Zagacki, occupational therapist. "We capitalized on that. I put an adaptive call bell by his foot because he couldn't use the regular call bell, and it helped strengthen his movement." From there, the accomplishments kept coming.
"One of the biggest milestones was after a few weeks when he was able to hold up his head," says Laura. "I was amazed and excited that he built some strength up. But we knew he was a fighter and something about him wanted to try harder."
From the beginning, Wes set goals - getting in and out of bed on his own, standing, feeding himself. He reached them all and so much more.
"Wes just had a drive that was above and beyond," says Sarah. "We'd tell him what to do and he did it 150 percent to his ability. It makes you appreciate the things you can do in your own life so easily that he had to fight tooth and nail to get back."
On December 23, 2010, with use of a walker, Wes ambled out of the pediatric inpatient unit to loud applause and cheers. "The Mayor," as he was nicknamed, was celebrated at a hockey-themed party. Tears mingled with cake and laughter and hugs. Wes had found another family, and the bond between him and everybody who worked on the unit -- from caregivers to housekeepers and security guards -- was titanium-strong. "I think they are awesome," says Wes, "and I credit everyone for saving me."
Wes is currently continuing outpatient therapy at Good Shepherd. He is back up to 220 pounds. "I'm on a diet," he laughs. "I'm losing serious tonnage." He enjoys spending time with his sisters, Maggie, 21, and Betsy 23, going to the movies, eating out, and of course, attending Philadelphia Flyers games. He also has joined a new brain injury support group for teens that meets monthly at the inpatient unit.
Wes wants to get well enough to drive and is interested in becoming a rehabilitation doctor.
"I like to work hard," he says. "I have things to achieve."