Teagan's Story: Diffuse Axonal Injury

Pediatric Care in Florida
Teagan attends therapy at Johns Hopkins All Children's Outpatient Care, Tampa
Teagan attends therapy at Johns Hopkins All Children's Outpatient Care, Tampa

Patient Story Highlights

  • Teagan, a 4-year-old girl from Florida, suffered a severe brain injury after a boating accident that also claimed the life of her father.
  • The pediatric trauma team at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital saved her life, but her recovery was uncertain, with the best- and worst-case scenarios both unclear.
  • Despite multiple fractures and cuts requiring stitches, Teagan slowly recovered and is now able to walk, run, talk, dance, and sing again, with her mother advocating for brain injury research and care.

As Tatum's injured little girl flew by helicopter to the hospital, a rainbow arced from the Clearwater Beach, Florida, shoreline to guide her and give Teagan's mother a reason to hope.

Teagan, then 4, had been riding a water scooter with her dad last fall near the Intracoastal Waterway when they collided with a 34-foot boat. The crash jolted Teagan's brain in a way that commonly leads to swelling, often death. A police officer raced Tatum to St. Petersburg, Florida, to join her daughter at the hospital. The rainbow was all she could focus on.

"That drive seemed like a million miles," a crying Tatum says. "I begged God and the universe to engulf Teagan with strength and life."

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

Teagan was in a coma when the helicopter landed. The pediatric trauma team at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital went to work, but with a severe closed head wound known as a diffuse axonal injury, the outcome was uncertain.

“This isn’t a blow to the head,” says neurosurgeon George Jallo, medical director of the hospital's Institute for Brain Protection Sciences. “It’s when the brain moves back and forth in the skull disrupting the nerve cells and tissue. It can lead to swelling and is one of the leading causes of death due to brain injury.”

Tatum had lost her husband in the accident and now Jallo was outlining Teagan's precarious condition. If she lived, she might have cognitive and/or physical disabilities. She might be in a vegetative state. A full recovery was far from certain.

“Dr. Jallo did not sugarcoat anything for us and shared with me the best- and worst-case scenarios for Teagan’s recovery,” Tatum recalls, looking down as she relived the moment.

Tatum's sister, an emergency center and critical care nurse at another hospital, dropped to her knees when she heard Teagan's prognosis.

Healing Teagan

Surgeons inserted an intracranial pressures device into Teagan's skull to monitor swelling in her brain for 72 hours. Tatum could only hold her tiny hand and whisper prayers.

It was the longest 72 hours she had ever endured.

Jallo requested the palliative care team act as a liaison between the family and the medical staff. Child Life Services helped extended family, including Teagan's cousins, understand and cope with her condition.

Along with her traumatic brain injury, Teagan sustained multiple fractures to her arm, elbow, shoulder and skull. She had cuts requiring stiches throughout her body. “It was terrifying to see her head and tiny body swollen during the critical days with tubes, lines, bandages and devices everywhere,” her mother recalls with a shiver.

Slowly, Teagan recovered. Her smile came back. Her physical and cognitive skills returned. She continues to attend physical, occupational, and speech and language therapies at Johns Hopkins All Children's Outpatient Care, but now at 5, she dances, sings and rides her scooter like any girl her age.

"She literally has had to re-learn all of life's major functions," Tatum says. "She went from one-word whispers to full sentences now and is able to express her every need.

“Today, Teagan is walking, running, talking, dancing, singing, eating, learning and loving life again. She is not the exact same child she was, but that is part of the injury and I have accepted that.”

Inspired to Action

Grateful for the care her daughter received, Tatum is an advocate for Johns Hopkins All Children’s and its expanding programs, especially the brain institute.

“As I watch Teagan grow and develop into an exceptional human being, I wish for every parent to have access to the brain injury research and information needed for them to make the best decisions for their own child,” she explains. “I want Johns Hopkins All Children’s to be able to offer the best-in-class pediatric inpatient rehabilitation with a focus on brain injury.”

With Teagan’s every step forward, Tatum takes a leap to help improve brain injury care.

Teagan's Surgeon

Institute for Brain Protection Sciences at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

When your child needs care, you want the very best medical team available. The Institute for Brain Protection Sciences at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, was developed with your child in mind.

We've brought together highly skilled pediatric specialists in neurology, neurosurgery, rehabilitative medicine, psychiatry, psychology, neuropsychology, sports medicine and developmental behavioral medicine to design individualized treatment plans to meet the unique needs of each child.