Sixteen years ago, a little boy was born. Austin was happy and healthy, with a shock of soft red hair, and grew up like any other little boy in the Midwest.
At the time, Austin was related to Brian by marriage; Austin was the son of Brian's brother-in-law, his wife's brother. Brian was a doting uncle with no children of his own, spending time with Austin and watching him grow up.
When Austin was 2, his life changed, and along with that, the lives of everyone around him. Especially the life of his uncle Brian.
"Austin was more than my nephew," Brian says. "He was the first baby that I had ever gotten close to, that I had ever loved so deeply. Austin was teaching me how much I wanted to be a father, to raise and help guide and mold my future children. We were very close."
This next part is hard to read. Bear with me to get to the better part.
One terrible day, 2-year-old Austin was shaken for 30 seconds with uncontrolled rage by his biological mother's then-boyfriend. He was literally shaken to death; when the paramedics arrived, they performed CPR and revived him, and Austin was taken to the nearest hospital. After more than two weeks in a coma, Austin awoke and spent another five months in the hospital with significant brain damage. Ultimately, the right side of his brain was dead.
For more than two weeks, Austin was in a medically-induced coma while he fought for his life. His brain swelled beyond capacity, increasing the inner-cranial pressure within his head. The brain swelling threatened to cut off his brain stem from communicating with his vital organs. The neurosurgeon placed a pressure monitor within his head to both relieve and monitor the pressure within his head. Thankfully, the pressure relief and monitor set-up worked.
While Austin was recovering, Brian and his wife Vickie started taking foster parenting classes, because they knew that Austin would not be returned to his biological parents.
In April of 2001, Austin came to live with Brian and Vickie. They determined that Brian would resign from his job and stay home with Austin full-time. He was now an instant father, the stay-at-home parent of a nearly 3-year-old child with a significant brain injury.
"There wasn't much 'staying at home,' as every day was filled with various therapy appointments, doctors' appointments, case managers, prosecutors, and then some," says Brian.
For two and a half years, Brian stayed home with Austin. After that, Brian became a fireman, taking a schedule that would work around Austin's schedule. Soon after that, Austin's adoption was finalized.
Before that terrible day 14 years ago, Austin was typical by most accounts. He was able to walk evenly, talk as well as any 2-year-old, and use both hands equally. He was happy and inquisitive, explored things eagerly, and enjoyed watching cartoons. He was just beginning to show interest in potty-training.
Now, Austin has no use of his left hand and arm. He has a peripheral blind spot in his left eye. He wears braces on both of his legs to help him walk. He drags his left foot when he walks. He is 16 going on 6; a junior in high school, going on kindergarten. He has undergone thousands of hours of speech, occupational and physical therapies to try and overcome his new disability, and relearn much of what he had already learned in the first two years of his life. He had to relearn to walk, talk, eat and play.
Along his journey, enduring pain and frustration, anger and sadness and even depression and anxiety, Austin has never let it keep him down, says Brian. He has an amazing sense of humor, and almost always has a smile and a laugh for everyone. He doesn't know a stranger, and is often said to have made someone's day with his smile, hugs, and love for people and life.
Austin spends the vast majority of his school time in a functional skills setting, learning daily living skills most of us take for granted. He still can't read or write at all. He has behavior problems that impede his learning. He takes a number of medications for seizure prevention and ADHD. He also endures a number of other medical issues related to his brain injury; hospitalization for elevated ammonia levels and a bi-lateral hamstring lengthening surgery are just the most recent in a series of medical issues he has dealt with and will continue to deal with for life.
He has no use of his left hand, and very limited use of his left arm and shoulder; essentially, the bigger the muscle, the more use he has in that area. Essentially, he has no fine motor skills for his left hand. He has endured a lot of therapy to attempt to regain use of his left hand, but his prognosis is weak.
Austin makes me so proud to be his dad, Brian says. In spite of his significant brain injury, and all it brings to the table, Austin is very polite, caring and engaged with his life. He tries hard to open and hold doors, he always says please, thank you and excuse me. He has a passion for life, and a sense of humor. He never lets his troubles keep him down, and always has a smile on his face.
Austin has three potential surgeries in the next 6-18 months. He has developed a case of hammertoe that can only be fixed through surgery, and is causing him some discomfort while walking. His left leg, the side most affected by his brain injury, is heavily rotated inward and causing him to have a very unstable gait. The correction for that is to cut his femur and rotate the lower leg to the proper position, yet another very major orthopedic procedure. The doctor has told Brian that this is something that can be done later in the future, but doesn't want to prolong something that makes him uncomfortable and unstable on his feet. And third is his contracted left wrist and hand; they attempted to correct this a few years ago, unsuccessfully. This time they will fuse the joint in position permanently.
Brian puts on a brave face for Austin while his son goes through surgery and recovery, but he hurts for him. Brian's Facebook posts are alternately grateful and hopeful, even in the face of so many challenges. Overall, if you followed his personal page, you would see a father who loves his son more than anything in the world.
Last year, Brian was invited to share Austin's story in Terre Haute, Indiana to a group of 200+ professionals from all over central Indiana. This was a training conference on the Period of Purple Crying as developed by the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), and Brian was presented with the Child Award presented by the Children's Bureau of Indianapolis in recognition of his efforts to advocate for child abuse prevention all across Indiana. He speaks regularly on the topic and is an advocate for children everywhere.
Austin doesn't know what happened to him, or why he is different from other kids. He also doesn't question it. He lives his life as he knows it, happily sharing his spirit with family, friends and strangers alike. Even as he struggles to walk these days, he refuses to use his wheelchair, it removes his independence. Austin is the reason I do the things I do. I wouldn't be a firefighter without having gone through this experience with him. I wouldn't be an advocate for child abuse prevention. I wouldn't be an advocate for people with disabilities and their families either.
Here's the part that chokes me up:
And most importantly, I wouldn't be Austin's dad, the most awesome role I could ever ask for.
For more information on Brian and Austin:
Photo credit: Brian Replogle