COVID-19 Story Tip: Toddler with Life-threatening Brain Injury Recovers in Five Days at Johns Hopkins


The ongoing spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can be frightening for many families, which may lead some parents to take additional precaution when leaving home with their children — whether it be to get necessities such as groceries, or to go to a doctor’s appointment or obtain emergency care.

For one mother, the decision to seek health care during the pandemic saved her young son’s life.

Noticing that her son was less aroused, hard to wake and unwilling to eat after sustaining a fall and hitting his head, Atheia Penafiel called 911 for help. When the emergency responders arrived, they decided to transport Penafiel’s son to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for emergency evaluation.

Earlier that day (July 10), 15-month-old Alec Penafiel went to see his pediatrician in Frederick, Maryland, for a well-child visit and routine shots. After the pediatrician left the room, Alec’s mother briefly turned away from him while preparing to leave. Alec fell 4 feet from the exam table, struck his head on the floor and began crying. He stopped crying shortly after that, and his mother took him home and laid him down for an afternoon nap.

About five hours later, Alec’s mother was unable to wake him. With stimulation, he opened his eyes but began vomiting. As he became progressively less responsive, Atheia called the ambulance that took him to a nearby heliport, and nearly six hours after his fall, he was flown from Frederick to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. In the emergency room, he deteriorated rapidly and had a dilated right pupil, an ominous sign of swelling or bleeding of the brain, which can be life-threatening.

A CT scan confirmed a skull fracture and a massive blood clot compressing the brain from a torn artery. Alec was taken to the operating room, where Alan Cohen, M.D., director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Children’s Center, and his team performed a craniotomy, and removed the blood clot and stopped the bleeding. After five days, Alec made a dramatic recovery and was discharged from the hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery.

Atheia Penafiel says she is excited her son is at home in her arms, and that he can enjoy his favorite activities like walking, playing on his swing set and being in the swimming pool.

Cohen, other Johns Hopkins Children’s Center physicians and the Penafiel family are available for interviews.

For information from Johns Hopkins Medicine about the coronavirus pandemic, visit For information on the coronavirus from throughout the Johns Hopkins enterprise, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Johns Hopkins University, visit