Finding Gratitude in the Blink of an Eye
by Sheryl Wilde
“Blink once for yes, or twice for no.”
Heather Van Alstine, Director of Nursing, Mountain Shadows – Riverside, stands at Oliver’s bedside every morning. She leans in, waiting, watching, praying that maybe today will be the day – but Oliver’s eyes don’t move.
She gently takes his hand. “Oliver, can you squeeze my hand?”
When Heather feels no movement, she lovingly touches his foot. “Oliver, can you wiggle your foot for me?”
Just two short years ago, Oliver was a typical, healthy, sixteen-year-old young man. He loved water polo, hanging out with his friends, and playing in the high school band.
Today, Oliver lies motionless in his bed at Mountain Shadows Juniper House.
“Maria, Oliver’s mom, is very involved in his life,” says Heather. “She’s here almost every day. She makes special pillowcases and shirts for him. And she gets us whatever we need. She bought us some special draw sheets to help us roll him over in bed. We need to roll him over every two hours, and he’s a pretty big boy.”
Doctors aren’t certain what happened to Oliver, or how to treat him. His condition is extremely rare. What we do know is that his mother, Maria, took him to the ER for gastrointestinal bleeding in late 2020.
Says Heather, “At some point, Oliver developed pneumonia, then the doctors found swelling in his brain. He’s now had 11 brain surgeries. They removed portions of his skull on both sides of his head to relieve the swelling. He’s had several shunts, which have failed, a skin graft that was rejected, and a titanium plate, which was also rejected.
“Most recently, they took skin from his lower back to repair the wounds to his head. So far, it’s healing really well and there are no complications. It’s been about six weeks – I know that doesn’t seem like a long time, but for Oliver that’s a long time for him not to have any major changes in his condition that require him to go to the hospital.”
Maria is a single mother with another 28-year-old son who has Down Syndrome. She tried caring for both of her sons at home. “I love Oliver and want him at home with me. If I could give him my brain, I would. But I realized I can’t do everything.
“Praise God for Mountain Shadows. I don’t know what would have happened without Mountain Shadows.
“Oliver needs help with everything. Everything. The people at Mountain Shadows love him. When we took him to the hospital, they were calling and asking how Oliver was. They said ‘We want Oliver back in Juniper House.’ That tells me he’s in the right place. That means everything.”
“I see Oliver almost every day,” continues Maria. “I like to touch him, to massage his hands, to touch his head. I really love to do that.
“After a month at Mountain Shadows, it was like my son was alive again. His bleeding stopped about six months ago. He’s producing blood on his own now. His health is getting better. It makes me so happy. They really care about him.”
While there has been improvement in Oliver’s condition, he has a long way to go.
“Right now, Oliver can’t do a lot,” says Heather. “He’s non-verbal and non-ambulatory. He’s not able to express any wants or needs.
“I’ve had patients with brain injury in the past, where, at first, they can’t talk, or walk, or do anything. After about a year or two of working with them, we would begin to see signs, usually it started with blinking. We’ve had a few patients rehabilitate all the way to where they are talking and wheeling themselves around in a wheelchair.
“I’m hoping that for Oliver too. I’m really hoping that will eventually happen for him. It will be a long road, but I’m praying one day he will start to show signs that he is in there. I’m hoping for that breakthrough, as small as it might be. Maybe just one blink, or even a smile. I would take a smile from him.”
As for Maria, she says again, “Praise God for Mountain Shadows. I just praise God my son is alive.”
We will continue to stand at Oliver’s bedside – whatever the future may bring. And, we will be hoping, beyond hope, to see the simple blink of an eye … or even a smile. We’d take that too.
And we would be ever so grateful.
Because we care.