It's a routine millions of parents go through: taking the kids to the playground after school. Back in 2008, Vicki Dienst - wife of WNBC-TV veteran news reporter, Jonathan Dienst -- was at St. Catherine's Park on the Upper East Side with her three children, when she noticed something was terribly wrong with her oldest son, Jared -- just 7 at the time.
"He sat down and was holding his head," Vicki remembers. "That's when his eyes started rolling to the back of his head." Jared, now 10, recalls "I started walking like a penguin." What the family didn't understand at the time was that Jared Dienst was having a childhood stroke.
Vicki picks up the story:"...he probably was about 50 pounds, and I just sort of threw him over my shoulder... and I just kept telling him, 'Stay awake! Stay awake!' " Meanwhile, husband Jonathan was getting ready for the 6 p.m. newscast at 30 Rock. (Rockefeller Center) Jonathan is generally a cool customer in breaking news situations. But, "cool" went out the window, when he got the "breaking news" about his oldest son, facing the fight of his young life at New York-Presbyterian, Weill-Cornell Medical Center, on the East Side. When a worried Jonathan got to the hospital, he had a hard time processing what was happening to his little boy.
"His face was drooping, his speech was slurred... (he) was literally like a frankenstein, trying to make two steps." Jonathan flipped back into reporter mode and wife, Vicki, turned to her analytical skills as a litigation attorney to tackle what was before them. According to Jonathan, "We went through the list: Is it a brain tumor? Was he poisoned?" Vicki adds, "I was thinking seizure, possible dehydration."
Jared had a CAT Scan; it showed nothing. Then, a team of neurologists ordered a MRI, (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to visualize detailed internal structures. Six hours after Jared landed in the emregency room doctors finally had some answers for his worried parents. They found that a piece of a clot blocked a specific blood vessel in Jared's brain. Dr. Barry Kosofsky, Chief of Pediatric Neurology, says strokes in children aren't an everyday occurrence. He says when dealing with kids, a stroke is "not the first thing you think of...," adding it occurs in "about one in every 10,000 children."
Jared was not out of the woods. Then, a colleague of Dr. Kosofsky's tested his "memory" skills. According to Jonathan, the neurologist said to Jared " 'the barn is red.' She paused for a few seconds and then asked him " 'What color is the barn?' " "He couldn't answer," an emotional Jonathan recalls, adding "my wife and I were sitting there watching. We gasped and froze. We couldn't believe... here's our child, a very smart kid, a great athlete. Now, he can't walk. He can't even name the color of a barn!"
So, the doctors figured out the problem, but only had theories on what could've caused the aforementioned clot in the first place. The couple began scouring their memories for a clue -- any clue. They wondered about Jared and his brother in the back of the car, singing and wildly bopping their heads up and down to a song from "High School Musical," just a few days earlier. "Any theory what happened?" Jonathan trying to find a concrete answer to Jared's problem. "It could be a stretch on the vessel that caused a clot, a dissection," Dr. Kosofsky replied. Then, there was this possibility - floated by Jared himself: "Two weeks before, I was playing baseball, and I tripped."
Then, came another one of those make-or-break decisions Jared and his parents had to make, post stroke: should he enter a rehabilitation center for therapy full-time? Or should he live at home and be rehabilitated on an out-patient basis?" "They felt, if we watched him very, very carefully at home...that he could probably come home."
Jonathan and Vicki got an up-close and personal look at what they'd be facing via YouTube, where they saw the efforts to walk by a toddler named Brooke, who had a stroke as a baby.Vicki remembers: "He (Jared) had to learn how to walk again. How to use his left arm. He had to learn how to speak properly." But one of the hardest, most frustrating things Jared had to re-learn was baseball, the memory making him sad... "I couldn't throw the ball."
Jonathan jumped into action, tossing around a tennis ball with his son. That drained both of them emotionally. "He broke down crying... and it was heartbreaking to see. Here was this child trying so hard to battle back, and yet, it was gonna take more time. And it was painful for him, painful for me," the emotional Dad says thinking back. Jared is playing ball again. But, what it took this avid Mets fan to get back into his favorite game, still gets him choked up -- even now. "He would say things like 'I want to have another stroke, to undo this stroke,' " Vicki says.
During the summer of 2008, Jared spent hours a day in rehab, doing things like finger exercises. He returned to school in September. By the fall of 2009, he was back on the baseball diamond. "It was my first time pitching, and I threw like, all strikes!' The memory causing him to light up.
Fast Forward to 2011. Jared is now a 5th grader, and is back to not needing a whole lot of help with his homework. "The younger the brain, the better the likelihood of compensating for that problem, because the brain can repair itself, and better when you're younger," Dr. Barry Kosofsky explains. Jared says his friends at school and a favorite teacher also helped him to recover. "...James, Jacob, Johnny, Alex and Ben, and my teacher, Mrs. Beamus... they're nice to me," he says smiling. "They don't, like, make fun of me."
Vicki now sits on the board of the National Stroke Association. She says in a lot of situations involving pediatric stroke, people go home, waiting to see how the child is the next day."...not a good idea. We learned, you know, 'time is brain.' And it's been a huge message for us to convey," she says. Jonathan says his wife deserves all the credit for saving their son, adding "she certainly saved the life he now has.... She is the hero in all of this. She trusted her gut."
(Reporting By Mary Murphy)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun