Paul Hatcher typically spends New Year’s in northern Arizona, playing in the snow and enjoying time together with his mother, father and two sisters.
But when Paul developed an aneurysm in his brain in December 2010 from a disease called fatal arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, he and his family’s life changed dramatically.
AVM is an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain that causes oxygenated blood to mix with unoxygenated blood.
The condition fatigued Paul earlier this year to a point where he could only focus on schoolwork for about an hour at a time before having to visit the nurse or go home to sleep for several hours prior to physical therapy.
“Just trying to get through a whole day of school was tough,” said Paul, an eighth-grader at Sunset Hills Elementary School in Surprise. “I missed my friends and just wanted to feel normal.”
While his classmates made personalized cards and extended well wishes, perhaps his greatest gift during the 2010-11 school year were several blood drives sponsored by United Blood Services that benefited Paul when he required a life-saving blood transfusion.
The idea for the blood drives was spearheaded by Brandi Tshivhase, Paul’s seventh-grade math teacher. The act of goodwill has been embraced by many in the Sunset Hills community, including students, parents and teachers, and has even continued into this school year.
Tshivhase recalls Paul being in good spirits last year, trying to make light of his situation the best he could while hoping to feel normal and be part of the everyday routine as a seventh-grader.
Around Christmas last year, the family first noticed something was wrong when Paul began complaining about headaches. His mother, Ronda Brown, figured her son was getting sick as her two daughters — Katie, 11, and Kristen, 8 — had developed strep throat around the same time.
When Paul’s eye began protruding outward and swelled up to look like a black eye, the family knew the urgent but unknown medical situation needed to be dealt with immediately.
Through a CT scan at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center, doctors determined Paul was beginning to show signs of AVM, a congenital and hereditary disorder — Brown’s aunt died from it — that doctors said the 12-year-old had unknowingly been dealing with his entire life until last year.
The news that Paul, who’s rarely sick and required surgery to eliminate the aneurysm, was surprising to Brown.
“It was a big shock to the family,” said Brown, a registered nurse at Del Webb. “When the doctor pulled me outside his hospital room and told me about it, I said stop kidding around.”
A screen image of the CT scan confirmed the bad news, and Paul was quickly transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix for further treatment.
To comfort her son and downplay the seriousness of AVM, Brown told Paul the aneurysm he had developed was akin to having a water balloon inside his head.
After the first angiogram was unsuccessful, doctors performed the same procedure again. The aneurysm was still there, and Paul required an emergency blood transfusion.
Doctors didn’t think Paul would make it. For almost a week, Paul was in a coma.
“I remember being told by the doctor, ‘I’m sorry we can’t save your son, but we’re going to try,’” Brown said. “The doctor said he had only seen two such cases like Paul’s in his lifetime.”
Doctors then tried surgery for a third time and were able to clip the aneurysm.
“It was a really rough time,” Brown said of the surgeries. “The doctors kept saying Paul was a fighter.”
He’s not out of the woods yet, Paul is dealing with another fistula in his brain that developed in April and that doctors hope will shrink in size.
Doctors say Paul, who will require an MRI every six months, will most likely be dealing with AVM throughout his adolescence. In the meantime, he’s been cleared to resume his love of playing soccer, basketball and baseball — his favorite — as long as his head stays protected.
For better or worse, Brown said the past year has been eventful and a life lesson in appreciating every day with loved ones.
“I say these were the worst 15 days of my life, but also the best 15 days of my life because I learned so much,” she said of spending time in the hospitals. “You sometimes take for granted having three healthy children, and so you learn to appreciate every day with them.”
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.