Blood clots nearly tackle football player

August 25, 2010

The last clear memory Bubba Layne has is his knees hitting the ground.

He only knows the rest — the ambulance ride, the emergency room, the next 10 days at Children’s – by what his mother, Etta Layne, has told him. She arrived at the football field five minutes after he collapsed during conditioning drills in May.

"I work right around the corner; so, I got to the field right after it happened," she said. "The ambulance was already there and techs were working on him. I could see his chest and that he couldn’t breathe. I asked the ambulance to take him to Children’s, because they had saved my daughter." Bubba’s older sister, Taylor, had a pulmonary embolism at age 13. Etta thought Bubba had the same thing. "Sure enough, I was right."

Pulmonary embolism caused collapse

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the heart. In Bubba’s case, a clot in one of his legs broke off and traveled up the blood stream before dividing and plugging the two main arteries in his heart.

As soon as he arrived at Children’s, he had to be placed on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) – a machine that takes over the functions of the hearts, lung and kidneys – because he couldn’t breathe on his own.

Dr. Janna Journeycake

"He was as close to 'near death' as you could possibly get," said Dr. Janna Journeycake, director of the Bleeding Disorders and Thrombosis program at Childrens’s. "He literally would not have lived if they had not put him on ECMO initially. He was that compromised." The staff was up front with Etta and her husband about Bubba’s condition.

"It was a pretty grim diagnosis," Etta said. "I don’t think anyone thought he was going to make it. They kept telling me the percentages, like about 80 percent of people in Bubba’s situation don't pull through. But I just kept trying to be positive and say, ‘Well, 20 percent of the people do pull through then.’"

Heart surgeon Dr. Kristine Guleserian justified Etta’s optimism. Although the odds were against it, she was able to remove both clots from Bubba’s heart.

But Bubba’s story unfortunately doesn’t end there.

Escaped clot leads to stroke

"The next morning when Bubba started to wake up from the surgery, we noticed that he wasn’t moving his left side at all," Etta said. "So, they ran more tests and found out he had suffered a massive stroke and that he had a bleed in his brain and massive swelling."

A piece of the blood clot in Bubba’s heart had escaped undetected to Bubba’s brain and caused the stroke. As dire as Bubba’s situation was when he first arrived, it was worse after the stroke.

"We didn’t know if he would ever have a functional life even if we were able to keep him alive," Dr. Journeycake said. Bubba had part of his skull removed to relieve the pressure on his brain. No one knew for sure how he would respond, but the chances of him recovering were slim.

"We were actually considering taking him off of support," Etta said. "He had been through so much, and we didn’t want him to be in pain any more. But two of the doctors sat down with us and took about an hour to tell us that it was too soon and that we didn’t have to make those decisions yet.

"They were so caring. You could just see it in their faces. They really cared about him."

So, they waited.

Bubba beat the odds

Bubba was in a medically-induced coma for five days after the second surgery. His vital signs were kept stable with the help of machines. It seemed likely that he would never be able to walk, speak or eat on his own again.

Little by little, though, he showed signs of progress.

He could only do a thumbs-up for ‘yes’ and a finger down for ‘no’ once he began waking up. But within a couple of days, he was able to use the sign language he learned in school to signal for ‘water’ and ‘mom.’

He initially couldn’t move his left side at all, but he slowly regained movement in his left foot and, later on, in his left hand. Lastly, he regained the ability to speak.

"When he said ‘momma’ for the first time, it was the best thing I had ever heard," Etta said.

Not only surviving, but thriving

Bubba went through several weeks of physical therapy before returning home at the end of the summer. He amazed the staff at Children’s by walking on his own before he left.

"I’m not surprised that he survived," Dr. Journeycake said. "We did everything within those first 24 hours to keep him alive. What is very surprising is how functional he is."

Bubba will have to take blood thinners indefinitely and come to Children’s every three months for check-ups with Dr. Journeycake. And he likely will never be able to play football again.

However, he should regain his strength and ability to run again. He may even play soccer, depending on his physician’s approval.

But he’ll never remember all of the specifics of his time at Children’s. He doesn’t need to. He understands what happened without the memories.

"They saved my life," he said.