A Force Called Anakın

Powell River teen recovers from severe brain trauma  
by Mary Frances Hill

Nearly two years ago, when Anakin Fretts almost lost his life in a car accident, his parents Daniel Fretts and Joleen Dew lived in anxiety and fear. How would they deal with the care of their son after a traumatic brain injury stole his ability to speak, see and move?

Today, they light up at the mere mention of their son’s name, and marvel at how he’s pulled through his ordeal so well, and with his sense of wonder intact.

“He talks to us about the origin of life,” says Daniel. “He’ll come out of nowhere and say, ‘Did you know the universe is expanding at the speed of light?’ The other day he asked me, ‘Do all the planets orbit in the same speed around the sun or do they go in different speeds?’”

That thoughtful imagination is pure Anakin – and illustrates the ways in which a brain so seriously damaged by a severe traumatic event can respond to treatment and rehabilitation.

Dr. Douglas Cochrane, Anakin’s neurosurgeon at BC Children’s, says that to treat severe traumatic brain injuries like Anakin’s, specialists focus on managing secondary injuries, such as inhibiting brain swelling and repairing skull fractures. The doctor credits Anakin’s strong support system – his family and caregivers and therapists at BC Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children – for giving the teen the fortitude he needed to recover.

The accident transformed the lives of the entire family.

On September 21, 2014, Anakin was a passenger in a car with family friends, out on a much-anticipated camping trip on Lasqueti Island. The driver lost control and the car crashed, leaving Anakin with a severe traumatic brain injury.

He suffered from severe diffuse axonal injury, which causes lesions in white matter tracts over a broad area. The trauma caused incra-cranial pressure, hematoma, skull fractures, meningitis and hydrocephalus. The injury left him unable to walk, talk and breathe; he struggled with double vision and light sensitivity, hearing loss and a serious adrenal deficiency. Specialists installed a ventricular peritoneal shunt, a tube that travels to his abdomen, to relieve pressure on the brain from hydrocephalus. 

Before the car accident that nearly stole his life, Anakin was a popular kid in Powell River. “Everything came easy to Anakin,” says Joleen. He was bilingual, athletic, and an avid reader who’d consume a novel in one sitting. He’d earned a junior black belt in karate and regularly goofed around with his little sister Arwyn, 5.

Three weeks after his admission to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at BC Children’s, Anakin showed signs of his brain’s fierce ability to heal: he removed himself from his ventilator, under the watch of BC Children’s intensive care team.

Anakin arrived at Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children in late November and came under the care of Dr. Tamara Zagustin and her therapeutic team. Occupational therapists, physiotherapists and specialists in speech, aquatic and recreational therapies helped restore his abilities to express himself.

“A brain within an environment that facilitates the right stimulation at the right time has the best opportunity to develop to its maximum potential,” says Dr. Zagustin, a pediatric physiatrist formerly with Sunny Hill’s Acute Rehabilitation program. “After a brain injury, that is what rehab facilitates; this can only be achieved when you have optimal medical management to facilitate neuro-recovery.”

During Anakin’s time in the PICU and at Sunny Hill, Joleen and Daniel rejoiced in small victories: Anakin’s first smile, his first step. At Sunny Hill, he graduated from a wheelchair to a walker, and gradually redeveloped his speech. Seeing these positive signs, the couple was eventually able to let go of their fear.

“Thinking about the future made us scared, desperate and panicked,” recalls Daniel, who also gives credit for Anakin’s recovery to hormone replacement therapies. “But Anakin’s heart continued to beat; he survived the odds and continued to live. When we held his hand it was warm, and he smiled at his name. So we said to ourselves, ‘We are happy with this. We are happy with now.’”

Drs. Cochrane and Zagustin point to the support of Anakin’s family in his recovery.

“True, Anakin has ‘grit’ and strength, and a desire to return to normal, but he needed his family to rekindle the desire for recovery,” says Dr. Cochrane.

Anakin was able to return to school in March – but not before he took on a few chores.

Joleen and Daniel laugh as they recall the day Daniel looked out to the garden outside the family home, only to see his son occupied with some work.

“As soon as he could walk, Joleen had stuck a weed- whacker in his hands.”

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