CATHLAMET — While high school is a tumultuous time for any teenager, it’s been especially challenging for Beau Carlson.
Since suffering a life-threatening brain injury during a Sept. 7 football game, the Wahkiakum High School sophomore has undergone two emergency brain surgeries and lost part of his skull. But through it all, he’s retained his sense of humor and is able to retell his story lightheartedly.
In fact, the 16-year-old is quick to crack jokes about his health and recovery. Even while he was in the hospital, he kept his family, his friends and his nurses laughing.
“I was trying to keep on the bright side of the story,” Beau said. “When everyone laughs, it helps relieve the stress.”
Beau has been home since Halloween, after doctors released him from Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. He moves a little slower than usual, and he wears a helmet to protect his head when he’s up and about, said his mother, Leihanna Carlson.
The family decided to waive his first semester of school, so Beau spends most of his days at home. His mom tries to take him on outings, like to the grocery store or for walks around town, at least once a day.
But long periods of stimulation wear him out and often leave him with headaches, so a sign on the door asks visitors to come in quietly, and his family has covered some of the living room windows with blankets to darken the house.
The family is finally starting to find a “new normal” in their daily lives, Leihanna Carlson said.
Beau is not done with operating rooms, though. His mother said in four weeks they’ll touch base with the doctors to try and schedule her son’s third surgery, which will replace the part of this skull they removed in the first procedure.
“If we can get out of that last surgery without infection, that’s a very big deal,” Leihanna Carlson said.
In the game against Adna, Beau suffered from a subdural hematoma with a midline shift. The impact jerked his brain 3.4 millimeters to the right of its natural center line, causing life-threatening swelling and bleeding.
The injury disrupted life for his family. It was especially difficult while Beau was in the hospital, and his father and siblings traveled between work and school to visit him. His twin brother, Brody, spoke to the strangeness of attending classes at the high school while Beau was in the hospital.
“It was hard. Every corner you went around in the hall, it was ‘How’s Beau doing?’ ” Brody said. “You can’t not tell them, but it was hard to keep saying what was going on. Every week it was something different.”
Beau’s journey to recovery started with a Life Flight to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle the night of his injury. Neurosurgeons removed the right side of his skull to relieve the pressure caused by swelling. In what his mother describes as “miraculous,” Beau was up walking and talking a few days after the emergency surgery.
“All the neurosurgeons said this is not typical,” Leihanna Carlson said. “Beau should have been in a coma. Beau should have had a hard time getting up. Beau should have had symptoms of a stroke victim with an injury like this and the severity of it. He just sort of recovered, and there’s just no explanation for it.”
His humorous nature endured injury and the surgery, and he poked fun at his brothers and sisters whenever they’d visit him in the hospital.
“He was lying in the hospital bed and he opened his eyes a little and said, ‘Wow, you’re still ugly,’” said Cooper Carlson, Beau’s younger brother, laughing at his memory of the first thing his brother said to him after surgery.
He spent time in Harborview and Seattle Children’s Hospital before returning home about three weeks after his surgery. However, just three days after Beau got home, he started having extremely painful headaches. He ended up at Doernbecher for treatment of an infection in his brain.
“We had thought it was a beautiful thing that Beau got to come home for his dad’s birthday,” Leihanna Carlson said.
“But then, bam, two days later I was back in the hospital,” Beau said.
Doctors tried treating the infection with antibiotics, but eventually decided surgery was necessary to remove the bacteria. It was his second surgery in just more than a month.
Beau spent another three weeks at Doernbecher recovering before doctors sent him home. His mother said coming home the second time was almost more difficult than the first.
“I was so nervous at first if I skipped any step or missed any beat, it would be relapse 101 all over again,” she said.
However, a sense of normalcy is starting to return now that Beau’s been home for more than a week without any major hiccups, his mother said. On Wednesday, doctors told the family there were no more traces of infection in his brain, and they removed the intravenous line used to pump antibiotics to Beau’s heart and brain.
The family recognizes Beau’s recovery is not over yet, though, and Leihanna Carlson emphasized that there’s still a long way to go before total relief can set in.
“There’s no hurrying through this,” she said. “A year from now he could be back to the closest version of himself possible ... or he could have lifelong deficits he has to learn to live with.”
Beau will always have to think about the health risks of his actions, his mother said.
“He’s a 16-year-old kid who still has a lot of life left to live and a lot of things to experience. Every time he goes to do something, he will have to think about it,” Leihanna Carlson said. “(Doctors) aren’t going to tell Beau he can’t ride a skateboard, but is it really wise that he go downhill with a helmet on to ride a skateboard? Is it really going to make his quality of life that much better?”
When asked if it life under this new lens would be difficult, Beau, ever the jokester, quipped, “Difficult to not ride a skateboard? I don’t even ride a skateboard now.”
On a more serious note, he added, “It’s stressful in some ways, but some things mom stresses about, I don’t stress about as much.”
For now, Beau said his goal is to recover by baseball season. He hopes he’ll be well enough to play his favorite sport this spring — or at least cheer on his teammates from the dugout.
Of course, that’s only possible if his neurosurgeons give him clearance, his mom said.
“I’m hopeful he will be able to play. That is is favorite sport, it is his love,” Leihanna Carlson said. “I would hate to not let that be an option for Beau, but ... it’s going to come down to how Beau recovers from this next surgery.”