Jaydan Stancil’s eyes and smile grew wide as he wheeled into his hospital room after another afternoon of occupational therapy. There before him, past the bed, the cards from family members and the get-well drawings from classmates, were nearly 100 presents sitting under a small blue and white Christmas tree.
A Spalding basketball, Nerf basketball hoop and Wilson leather football sat among an array of gifts, some wrapped in snowflake-speckled and glittery blue and green paper.
“I want to open the one from Children’s,” he said, referring to Children’s National Medical Center, where he stayed for several weeks this past autumn.
Just three months ago, this Christmas Eve holiday haul was perhaps the last thing Jaydan and his family thought he would see. On 3 October, the boy was hit in the head by a stray bullet while leaving a playground near his Northeast Washington home. He is missing part of his skull from the bullet that pierced his head and remains lodged inside. For days and weeks, it was unclear whether he would live.
“Jaydan has done wonders over the past 60 days,” his mother, Monique Nichols, said in a recent interview, adding that he “has jumped over every hurdle and obstacle in his way”.
Listening to Jaydan, now weeks into his difficult recovery, is like hearing any 9-year-old: he lobbies his mother for junk food and extra time playing Nintendo Wii video games. His smile remains broad and bright when he cracks jokes.
Just last week, he sported a Seattle Seahawks stocking cap as he stuffed handfuls of popcorn into his mouth while watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a half-dozen of his best friends at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, where he’s lived for six weeks.
But the damage the bullet caused to his brain keeps the left side of his body stunted. His left arm and leg remain weak, and his walk is slow and halting: He can’t go for too long without getting tired.
"I saw that pivot!”
On Friday, physical therapist Sara Gassenmeyer wheeled Jaydan toward a device engineers built to help patients who’ve had strokes walk again.
The contraption essentially mimics the weightlessness of being in a pool of water, and Gassenmeyer follows each step while Nichols cheers like she’s watching her son playing sports.
“I saw that turn, Jaydan! I saw that pivot!” his mom screams. “How do you feel? Keep it moving! Pick up that left knee!”
After just a few minutes of Jaydan striding, Gassenmeyer changes the activity: she becomes a baseball pitcher and Jaydan a batter. The therapist tosses a melon-size ball as Jaydan stands with a foam bat, ready to work on his hand-and-eye coordination.
“C’mon, hit it out of the park! You have to have one good one!” Gassenmeyer urges. Jaydan smashes each pitch, a soft toss from a three-foot distance, but each hit means progress.
“I find it amazing,” Nichols said. “I never thought my son would be here at this phase so quickly.”
"There are no limits"
Jaydan neared death many times within the immediate hours of being shot.
He approached death as two DC police officers raced him toward Prince George’s Hospital Center minutes after he was shot near his home at the Mayfair Mansions apartment complex. Later that night, after he was transferred to Children’s Hospital, doctors told his parents that he might not make it.
But somehow, he clung to life, and surgeons removed part of his skull to relieve the swelling on his brain. His first trip to the National Rehabilitation Hospital was cut short by a fever and the possibility of infection, which sent him back to Children’s Hospital in late October.
Later, doctors inserted a shunt from his skull, over his shoulder and into his abdomen to drain spinal cord fluid.
When he returned to the rehab hospital, Justin Burton, a doctor and the director of pediatric rehabilitation, felt “guarded” at best about the boy’s neurological state. The bullet damaged the centers of his brain that controlled his jaw, leaving him speechless and unable to eat. He lost control of his left limbs, and his face was swollen.
The injury left him with no vision to his left side and limited vision on his right, described by doctors as a “cone”. “He could only see and focus on the right side. If it wasn’t in that cone, the world didn’t exist,” Burton said.
Jaydan, who wears a white protective helmet to protect his exposed brain, remains in the acute phase of recovery, and Burton said the youngster has made remarkable daily progress in key areas, showing him that “there are no limits” to his recovery.
“Everything has improved more than I would have expected, and he still has the bullet in his head,” Burton said. “It’s incredible what the physicians at Children’s did — they did a fantastic job.”
Still, Jaydan faces at least one more major operation, expected in early January: partial skull replacement to help permanently protect his healing brain.
Jaydan’s extraordinary recovery has been matched by difficulties for his family. Nichols was hospitalized for a week when doctors discovered she had a tear in her stomach lining.
“It was like I developed an ulcer overnight,” she recalled.
His oldest sister, Emonee Nichols, 23, left her District government job to help take care of two other brothers — Jay, 16, and Sunny, 14 — as they navigate high school.
Sunny was with Jaydan the night of the shooting, but now the two brothers who had always been side-by-side are separated by half a city, hospital walls and daily treatments.
And Jaydan’s mother, who has spent each day with Jaydan or recovering from her surgery, now holds a new fear as he approaches release from the hospital.
“My next fight is to try to find us a better place to live,” she said in a hospital game room where Jaydan was playing Wii basketball. “I need to get my kids out of there. I need my own front door.”
She added that she has largely been helped by donations through the Web site Gofundme, which has a pledge page dedicated to Jaydan; sales of #PrayforJaydan T-shirts and bracelets; and donations from McLean Bible Church and Bethesda Baptist Church, near their home.
Jaydan is ready for a new place, too. About an hour before he opened a few of his presents, he shared his frustration with the long process and the sterile hospital room, which is now festooned with holiday cheer, including balloons in the shape of snowmen.
“I’m tired of being asked how I am,” he said.
Referring to his wheelchair, which he has been using for weeks, he said: “I’m going to throw it when I get out, smash it.”
For family members, it’s that spirit that they believe will get Jaydan through the next phase of his rehabilitation, even as he enjoys the dozens of presents that will be opened Christmas morning.
“Strength comes in every size, every age,” Emonee Nichols said.
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