By Mike Brue
GRAND FORKS — Steven Vezina is a character. The 9-year-old’s family and relatives vouch for that.
“He’s a comical person. He’s still comical,” his mom, Traci Jones of Bismarck, said this week.
”A jokester,” said one of his cousins, Lacey Collison of Grand Forks. “He just makes jokes all the time and makes people laugh.”
Family members still laugh at Steven’s moments – such as the time at northwest Minnesota’s Pine Lake when the boy grabbed a small boat ladder, held it like a cane and said, in an exaggerated voice, “I’m an old man.”
“He’s quick. Always has been that way,” said his dad, Mike Vezina, of East Grand Forks, Minn. “He’s always got a response to everything – and it’s right now. He doesn’t have to think about it.
“Very confident kid. Very confident. Even when he was really, really young, he didn’t have any problem going up and shaking your hand and saying, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Steven.’ ”
Mike chuckled at the thought of his uber-social son. “It actually made us a little nervous at times because he’d come introduce himself to anyone.”
Steven remains, for the most part, a busy, bubbly, happy-go-lucky boy. For the most part.
He’s also a boy in a state of adjustment and recovery. And it’s not lost on him.
Sometimes the words escape Steven.
That frustrates the boy in a way unfamiliar to him before Sept. 21, the weekend day that an intense pain — unlike anything he’d ever felt in his entire childhood — overwhelmed him from inside his head.
For Steven – the focus of a Grand Forks fundraiser Saturday in the side room of The Ho Bar & Casino — life has changed some since his emergency brain surgery, a procedure that left a fist-sized gap in his skull.
“Within the last 3 weeks, he’s really been talking about it more — how it’s really frustrating for him,” mom Traci said. “He knows what he wants to say and what he wants to do, but sometimes he can’t do it.”
Post-surgery, Steven has faced different struggles with hearing, balance, eyesight and speech. Yet, he’s returned to school full time and some physical activity, albeit wearing a special protective helmet during the latter.
“It’s been hard” seeing her youngest son grapple with recovery, his mom said, “but I just have to stay strong for Steven.”
Fortunately, Steven Vezina has been strong for himself.
He just started screaming
It was roughly 4 p.m. on that September Saturday. Steven was playing on a trampoline in the yard when it happened.
Steven just suddenly grabbed his head and screamed.
“Steven came in the house screaming, and he’s kind of flailing around the house,” recalled Traci, who was sitting in the front porch when the commotion started. “David came in and said, ‘No, he didn’t fall! He started holding his head and screaming!”
Timing proved critical. “We were just about to take off to go fishing down by the (Missouri) river,” Traci recalled. “That would have led us to around 10 miles outside of town.”
Instead, she and her husband, Daron Jones, grabbed Steven, put him in their car and rushed him to Sanford Medical Center, only about eight blocks away.
Sanford’s emergency medical team put Steven in a neck stabilizer, in case he had been injured in a trampoline fall. An emergency medical doctor noticed Steven’s dilated eyes and ordered an immediate computed tomography (CT) scan of his head.
Signs of loose blood and a rupture were identified in an inner lobe of the brain, a Sanford neurosurgeon told the Jones.
Steven was in surgery within a half hour of his arrival at the hospital. Surgery lasted about four hours, Traci said.
It turns out the rupture was connected to a rare, abnormal arteriovenous malformation, an entanglement of veins and arteries in Steven’s brain that began developing before his birth and bypassing smaller blood vessels known as capillaries. They’re more prone to rupture, although not as likely in a child, Traci was told.
She learned that arteriovenous malformations occur more often in males than females, occur in roughly one in 100,000 people, and result in ruptures in an extremely small percentage of cases. Perhaps 85 percent of ruptures lead to complications, possibly even death, she was told. Many people with arteriovenous malformations have no idea that they exist until problems occur.
“We had no idea what the outcome was going to be until he started waking up,” Traci recalled. Steven began coming out of sedation on the Tuesday following the Saturday surgery, she said. “He had opened his eyes a few times, even while sedated. That was a good sign. That was our little glimmer of hope.”
When Steven looked around his hospital room and tried to say “mom” in a weak whisper, the byproduct of having several days of tracheal intubation to maintain an open airway, Traci recalls that she “just started crying.”
Dad Mike Vezina, who’s carpenter in Grand Forks, recalls the “helpless, panicky feeling” he had when first getting the news that his youngest son was undergoing surgery in a Bismarck hospital. “Really scared,” he recalled. “If I had to sum it up in two words, that would be it. . . . The first time I’d seen him was in pictures that Traci had sent. . . To see him in that hospital bed, that hurt a lot.”
“One of the first thoughts that came to my head, for one, was thank God he was where he was” and not far away from a hospital and family, Steven’s father said.
When Mike first visited Steven at the Bismarck hospital, Mike recalls, his son “grabbed ahold of me and he didn’t seem like he wanted to let go. And I didn’t, either. I was a little nervous. Kind of like (holding) a newborn baby; you feel like you’re going to break him. . . .
“To me, he looked healthy, but you knew something happened. . . . He was acting like someone who just seemed to get his bearings again.”
Steven spent 11 days in Sanford Medical Center. Fortunately, family members say, it didn’t take long for Steven’s character to resurface.
Steven has been back to school full time for about a month. He wears a protective helmet when doing physical things, such as playing in school gym class or riding a bicycle.
“He can have problems with multiple directions,” Traci said. “If you tell him three different things to do, by the time he gets to the second one, he forgets the third one.”
His hearing is almost back to normal after weeks of inconsistently picking up certain tones.
Steven struggles sometimes with word recognition, his mom said: “He pronounces them clearly. He might stutter a bit. Even if he saw and has to say the word, he stumbles on the word – but eventually he’d get it out.”
Steven’s eyesight “gets blurry in and out of fatigue,” Traci said. “That’s going to happen because of pressure on his eyes. Eventually, down the road, he most likely will need glasses, probably just for reading.”
When activity around him overwhelms Steven’s brain, he tends to shut down and withdraw. “Sometimes it’s just too much going on,” Traci said. Steven continues to receive occupational and speech therapy, but his balance has recovered to the extent he no longer needs physical therapy, his mom said.
He’ll return to the hospital, tentatively in February, for surgery to have that gap in his skull synthetically reconstructed.
They are optimistic for his continued recovery. He’s playing video games and Legos again, although they know the sight of him fishing and swimming and knee boarding will be rewards, too.
Perhaps most of all, it’s increasingly larger doses of Steven the quipster and Steven the joker — in that quick, snappy, confident Steven manner — that will mark the happiest recovery of all.
Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.