There was a trail of blood around the house that led to the basement. He recalls pacing back and forth, trying to take care of a wound. He had blacked out at some point, but he remembers his dog vigorously licking him to get up and answer the door.
Christopher’s memory and speech still aren’t what they used to be, but they’ve been steadily getting better. He turned 21 years old in 2019, and the year has been one of recovery and rebirth. He continues to make constant progress, and he hopes that someday soon he may yet return to his electrician’s apprenticeship and get on with the rest of his life.
Christopher’s family’s memory, on the other hand, is sharp and focused. His father remembers the day of September 6, 2018, vividly. It was an otherwise ordinary day coming back from work, but when he got to his front door he found himself annoyed that his memory had apparently failed him that morning. He had forgotten his keys and had to ring the bell several times before the door was finally opened. Christopher stood in the doorway, bloodied and dazed, while his father was shocked and horrified at what he saw.
They said that the kitchen floor was covered in blood, as if someone had poured two gallons of blood onto the floor as readily as if it had been milk. Dog paw prints were also found next to the imprint of where a human body had lain.
Christopher had suffered an apparent gunshot wound to his head. Somehow, he had maintained some semblance of consciousness and managed an entire flight of stairs from the basement to the first landing, walked the entire length of the first floor and then another flight of stairs up to his bedroom before coming back down to open the door. Police found bloodied prints around the walls, blood in both bathrooms, and blood all over the first and second floor. And then there was the kitchen — that was where he must have passed out.
Ebony, Christopher’s mother, read intently about the University of Chicago and its Level 1 Adult Trauma Center. The program had been discontinued for nearly 30 years, then had been opened again just a few months prior, on May 1, 2018, after spirited advocacy from community stakeholders. It had a neurotrauma/neurointensive care unit that was staffed 24/7 by specialized physicians, surgeons and nurses, and had a dedicated helicopter transportation network that covered a 200-mile radius. It had already treated almost 1,000 patients in those first four months since its opening (and would go on to treat nearly 3,000 in its first year of operation), many of whom had suffered gunshot wounds and other kinds of penetrating trauma. And most patients admitted with brain trauma had similarly suffered penetrating wounds. Ebony knew that being transferred there was potentially lifesaving for her son.
Christopher was first taken to a local community hospital where his right temple was noted to have a 3x5 cm wound with exposed brain matter. Ebony was summoned emergently. She recalls the first phone call from the hospital:
“We need you here right away. Your husband and your son are not in [any] condition to really make decisions ….”
“And I said, ‘excuse me?’ Ebony said. “They were like, ‘just get here.’”
That was when they mentioned that they’d be flying Christopher to the University of Chicago. The flight paramedics initially reported finding Christopher alert, but his mental status later deteriorated and he required endotracheal intubation before transport. A head CT scan at the University of Chicago demonstrated Christopher’s penetrating injury along with multiple areas of bleeding in his brain: small right frontal and interhemispheric subdural hematomas, right parietal subarachnoid hemorrhage and multifocal small hemorrhagic contusions. As a result of these injuries, Christopher’s brain was becoming overwhelmed with edema — every ridge and groove was swollen, and one hemisphere was starting to shift over and compress the other. As the swelling continued to increase over the subsequent 24 hours, the build-up of pressure was threatening to cause further brain damage, and Christopher’s medical team decided that it was imperative to place invasive monitors that would detect changes in his intracranial pressure and brain oxygen levels.
Christopher’s parents were not enthusiastic about these invasive procedures at first.
“My husband and I were not going to let them drill … a bolt in his head. I said no, my husband said no,” Ebony said. “The doctor said, ‘Listen, you love your son. I'm not just doing my job. He needs this. We need to check the pressure in his brain, the swelling. Do you understand the injury?’And I didn’t understand the injury because it was my son. I read [all about] it on the news ... but [that was] not my son. I just know he’s injured and he's going to make it, I think. And he said, ‘No, we have to do this. I need you to sign.’ He was not leaving until this got done.”
“It was one of the things that saved his life, gave us hours on his life [when each minute was critical],” Ebony continued.
Christopher’s neurointensive care stay had many ups and downs, and he was in a coma for what seemed like forever. Part of this was purposefully done by his medical team when his intracranial pressures stayed at dangerously high levels despite standard treatments. He was put in a medically induced coma for about two weeks, and his body temperature was also cooled to slow his metabolism. Then, once his high intracranial pressures had subsided, he underwent a series of reconstructive surgeries to repair his complex craniofacial injuries, performed as a collaborative effort between multiple surgical teams.
His mother was with him constantly, and the sight of his body lying there unconscious made her wonder about people and coma in general: “Are they there? Can they hear? Can they comprehend?”
Eventually she concluded: “They're there!”
He mentioned “alarms” and “lights.” He said it felt like forever … he knew they were trying to stop it, but it wouldn't … It just wasn't quick enough. When people examined him and shone bright lights into his eyes to check his pupils, he said it felt hot, and it felt pretty good. He said it was soothing for him. It gave him comfort, the light. And when people got in his face or they talked, it gave him comfort.
Christopher’s family was beset with emotion throughout the ordeal but felt lucky to have had the support to cope with everything that was going on around them. Ebony was especially thankful for a particular chaplain with whom she formed a deep bond.
“This lady, I can't recall her name,” Ebony said. “I don't remember much of anyone's name anymore. It was such a trying time for me, but she sat with me 19 hours … I was having a breakdown probably three weeks in, and I asked them to page her. She was off. They did get in contact with her. She came in that night, and she prayed with me.”
The medical team also played a vital role in keeping Ebony going through the long, hard weeks. “It was the communication with the doctors, the understanding and the patience of the doctors and the nurses,” she said. “I have found that the … key is love and support, patience and listening to the physicians, even though you're [the] mom. They know what they're doing. It makes sense if we step back, step away from the situation and really look at it and take our time, and try to take ourselves out of it emotionally.”
Finally, Ebony’s spirituality and beliefs helped tie everything together.
“I'm spiritual, I'm not religious,” Ebony said. “But if God kept [him] alive, they gave him two days, four days, seven days. And then they said he had a fighting chance after the seventh day. If He brought him this far, he was going to make it.”
He talked about understanding he couldn't move and feeling cold. Some days he said he was just tired. He was there but too tired to respond. Other times, it was just tranquil. He was just floating and felt at peace — calm, like he was in limbo.
Ebony remembers all the effort put in by the nursing and medical staff taking care of Christopher, trying to get him to wake up. There was “all this support [that] gave him the courage to survive and to try and to raise a finger. Every day the nurses were coming, [saying] ‘Chris, wiggle your thumb. Show me your feet.’ They would talk to him [with every interaction]. ‘Chris, we're about to give you your 12 o'clock medicine.’ So just the talking to him and [also encouraging] me to talk with him while he was in a coma, [to] stimulate him—but not so much. It all worked. It kept his mind going. He remembers those things. He remembers me putting a doctor out of his room because he was speaking negatively.”
Then, on October 1, 24 days after he first arrived in the ICU, Christopher was noted to have followed his first command. Every day thereafter he started doing more of what was asked of him, and he was able to be transferred to a rehabilitation facility on October 11, a little over a month after he was first admitted to the hospital. He has since then made a remarkable recovery and continues to make steady progress receiving outpatient rehabilitation at Shirley Ryan.
Christopher is still trying to piece together memories after the fact. He distinctly remembers some of the first annoyances on recovering consciousness. “I really wanted to scratch this flap, but I couldn't. It was really itchy.”
Other memories seemed dreamier and more abstract. He remembers not being overly afraid of dying, because at some point his memories were visited by an unlikely pair. “When I was in a coma, I was floating in darkness. And Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie came to me and said you're going to be OK.”
But most importantly, Christopher knew his family and loved ones helped him push through. And he knows there are others out there like him and other families going through similar crises.
“Just make sure that you have a very strong supporting foundation,” he says, “Family, friends or whoever is close to you. And for me, that was my mother and father, and my dog. And I know [they] wanted me to get better.”