'Miracle child' survives multiple brushes with deathFARGO - In 2005, doctors didn’t know if Tanya Holbrook would live. As she lay in a hospital bed, they thought the then-6-year-old would be blind and paralyzed. But today, while she does have some difficulties with her balance and vision, the Fargo girl looks and acts like any other 14-year-old.
By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM
FARGO - In 2005, doctors didn’t know if Tanya Holbrook would live.
As she lay in a hospital bed, they thought the then-6-year-old would be blind and paralyzed.
But today, while she does have some difficulties with her balance and vision, the Fargo girl looks and acts like any other 14-year-old.
On Jan. 2, 2005, the girl’s life changed forever. Holbrook was at Skateland with some friends, taking turns scooting under the limbo bar. Fifteen minutes later Holbrook started complaining of a headache.
At first her mom, Vicki Jahner, didn’t think much of it. Jahner and her oldest daughter both suffered from massive migraines, she said.
Then Holbrook started throwing up.
“I just knew she needed to see a doctor immediately,” Jahner said.
Jahner took her daughter to what is now Sanford Children’s Southwest Clinic, carrying her daughter’s limp body in her arms. They were soon rushed by ambulance to the medical center in downtown Fargo.
Holbrook remembers skating, but she doesn’t remember anything else, she said.
It turns out Holbrook had a cerebral vascular accident, Jahner said, describing it as being like an adult having two aneurisms at once.
Jahner said doctors have no idea what caused it.
Holbrook went into surgery about an hour after arriving at the hospital.
Seventeen hours later, she had a stroke.
“I was just freaking out,” Jahner said. “I was worried, scared. I didn’t know what to think, what to do. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep.”
Holbrook wouldn’t leave the hospital for more than three months after enduring eight surgeries and six staph infections, Jahner said.
“She had so much going on that her body was in so much turmoil,” Jahner said.
Jahner, a single mother, lived at the hospital during that time and her son and oldest daughter stayed with a family friend, she said.
Holbrook didn’t wake up after her first surgery, Jan. 2, until the following month, Jahner said.
Following the stroke, Holbrook suffered through a series of infections and consequential surgeries. She would occasionally open her eyes and try to talk, but she could barely talk and she couldn’t see, Jahner said.
The pressure from fluid on her brain had damaged Holbrook’s optical nerves, Jahner said.
Holbrook couldn’t move her arms, either, and doctors thought she would never walk again, Jahner said.
“She had to learn to do everything over,” including eating and swallowing, Jahner said.
“I went months not knowing if she was going to live or die,” Jahner said.
By the end of March, doctors knew she would be able to walk, talk and see. She also started using her hands and holding small objects while she was still in the hospital.
“It was wonderful,” Jahner said. “We didn’t know to what extent she would be able to do things, but she proved everybody wrong.”
Holbrook started doing physical, occupational, and speech therapy while still in the hospital and finally went home April 15.
Holbrook was able to travel to Florida and Washington, D.C. as the 2006 Children’s Miracle Network child. While in D.C., she met President George W. Bush.
She was also able to swim with dolphins in California, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Today, Holbrook is legally blind. Her left eye can only see color, and her vision in her right eye is 20/300, Jahner said.
Holbrook wears glasses and has to use special eye drops because her eyes cannot make tears.
In school, she sits at the front of her classrooms and uses magnifiers or large-print books.
Because she has no feeling in her fingers, she uses speech recognition software to use a computer.
She has a lot of damage on the left side of her brain, so it’s hard for her to learn new things and she doesn’t have a good memory, Jahner said.
It also takes her longer to process and come to terms with changes in plans, Jahner said.
Holbrook has an individualized education program to help with her learning challenges and goes to RTI (Response to Intervention) classes, which help with learning disabilities.
She also goes to North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind in Grand Forks five times a year.
Holbrook has a lot of balance issues and will sometimes trip or run into a wall. She has sprained her ankles multiple times.
“It’s a pain,” she said. “Seriously, I can’t stand it. I’ll be walking and my legs will go one way while I’m trying to go the other way and I’ll get yelled at for not going the right way.”
Holbrook goes to physical therapy sessions every week where she works on her balance by practicing activities like catching balls while standing on a suspended platform or passing beans from one cup to another while walking on a small plank on the floor.
Shauna Lonski, physical therapist with Sanford Children’s Therapy, has worked with Holbrook for almost six years and said while balance will always be a challenge for Holbrook, she is improving.
“It’s very inspiring to see how far she’s come and to know there can be such a change when provided with some therapy services,” Lonski said. “To continue working on things that can improve her quality of life, independence, and safety is very important to me.”
Holbrook’s experience in 2005 wasn’t her only brush with death.
In September, doctors discovered a cyst wrapped around her right ovary that was completely black from a lack of oxygen.
“If that would have burst inside of her, she could have died,” Jahner said, adding that doctors were able to save the ovary.
“She’s just amazing,” Jahner said of her daughter. “To come out of everything she went through and she’s just got this awesome spirit of kindness and sees the good in people all the time. I’m honestly the luckiest mother in the world.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526