JOHNSTON– This Sunday, as families everywhere celebrate Father’s Day with the traditional gifts of power tools and new ties, one local family will see it just a little bit differently for the rest of their lives.
“Really, it sounds so cliché, but don’t take your kids for granted,” said North Liberty father of four Brad Zschiesche. “You don’t want to have any regrets.”
His wife Amy, who also had a most unconventional Mother’s Day, agreed.
“Just cherish each moment that you have with your kids and don’t take anything for granted, because life can change in an instant,” Amy said.
For Amy and Brad, that instant came while they were enjoying a family vacation in Minneapolis in March. Upon returning to the hotel room from a morning at the Water Park of America, their six-year-old son Jack began to experience flu-like symptoms; nausea, vomiting and listlessness. In the time it took Brad to make a quick trip to the drugstore for some children’s ibuprofen, they realized it was something much more serious. They rushed him to the nearest emergency room, and within minutes, a CT scan of Jack’s brain revealed that Jack had suffered an aneurism.
After a 19-minute ambulance drive to the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, Jack was rushed into an operating room where part of his skull was removed to relieve cranial pressure, and the hemorrhaging in his brain was stopped. Ultimately, Jack would undergo five surgeries and be put in a medically-induced coma for nearly three weeks to alleviate the effects of the aneurism and keep him sedated so his brain could heal.
The couple and their extended families began to jockey around, staying with Jack at the hospital, taking the other three children back and forth between North Liberty during the week and visits to Minnesota on the weekends, and trying to attend to everyday tasks of getting kids to school and activities, keeping up with the bills and staying engaged with Jack, reading to him, talking to him and encouraging his every move as he underwent days and weeks of medical procedures, therapy sessions and occasional setbacks.
Since almost Jack’s first day in the hospital, friends, neighbors and family began to help, bringing meals to the home in North Liberty for Jack’s siblings, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, sending cards and letters and praying for Jack’s recovery. Amy and Brad found a way to update far-away friends and family on Jack’s progress by writing and posting regular entries on an Internet website called Caring Bridge (www.caringbridge.org/visit/jackzschiesche ).
“There were so many people texting and calling to ask about Jack,” said Brad. “I found out about Caring Bridge and I originally did it to let people know what was going on. Now I also do it so we can look back on all that has happened. It was very difficult (to write) the first couple days.”
Jack’s aneurism was brought on by a condition called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, meaning the blood vessels and arteries in Jack’s brain were essentially tangled. It’s not hereditary, and it’s not uncommon for people to live with an AVM; one in 1,000 people has the condition. However, only one in 100,000 people ever experience serious difficulty because of it.
“It’s that rare of a thing to happen, and it’s not something people should generally worry about,” said Brad. “Unless Jack had had a CT scan or an MRI for something else, we would have never known he had (an AVM).”
That is, until Jack turned out to be the unlucky one in 100,000. Early on, Brad posted this on Jack’s Caring Bridge page:
“One in six simply don’t make it out of– or even get to– surgery and yet here we are. Outside of some shaky first days, we are making baby step forward progress. And I don’t believe for a second that this isn’t a direct result of the prayers of all those who care so deeply for this beautiful child.”
The Zschiesches spent nearly two months by Jack’s bedside while he was in the Minnesota hospital. Every day brought some news of Jack’s progress and journey toward recovery: the day the doctors were able to remove his breathing tube and work toward bringing him out of the coma; the days Jack was able to squeeze fingers, give a thumbs up and eventually open his eyes; his heart-wrenching withdrawal from medications that caused involuntary shaking, pain, itching and agitation; the serious pressure ulcer he developed on the back of his head that required additional surgery; and the happy moments when Jack began to smile and joke and talk and sit up on his own once again.
It was apparent early on that Jack Zschiesche was facing a very long, very arduous journey. Brad indicated so in an early Internet post.
“I would love to come on here and give you all fantastic news every day, but the reality is that we are in for a marathon instead of a sprint. ‘Baby steps’ is what I hear all the other families tell me over and over again. I am thrilled that we have gotten this far. It is a direct result of all the love and prayers you have all shown for Jack. Jack isn’t a big talker, but I am sure he will be doling out many thank you hugs once he is awake and fully healed.”
And Brad and Amy never expressed a doubt that Jack would, indeed, be fully healed.
“He has always been a ridiculously tough kid, and nothing has changed,” Brad said. “It took him a while to get mentally wrapped around the fact he had to work hard to get back to where he was.”
Amy said Jack is smart and strong, a witty and somewhat quiet child, not one to waste words or time.
“He still has that same personality,” she said. “Different parts of his brain have been affected, so we have seen a little change, but overall he is a fighter. He had to get the will to want to get better, to trust the staff here, and he is really making strides. It’s been good to see. We are starting to see more and more of his personality come back.”
On May 7, Jack was transported to ChildServe in Johnston, Iowa’s only inpatient rehabilitation facility, so he could be closer to home as he continues his recovery.
“It’s a wonderful facility, said Amy. “Jack is able to get speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy six days a week. He has made awesome progress since he’s been here.”
In fact, “awesome” is Jack’s favorite word, Brad said.
“You ask him how he feels, and he always says, ‘Awesome.’”
Last week, Brad and Amy were thrilled to be able to post a video of Jack walking on his own.
Because of Jack’s move to the Johnston location, Brad and Amy have been able to return to work and the family has begun to reassemble a routine, albeit a very different routine than any they had known before Jack’s hospitalization. As Jack takes steps toward independence, gaining physical strength and retraining his brain, the Zschiesche family will now begin looking at ways to adapt their home and Jack’s environment for his return, tentatively planned for late June. Jack will likely be in a wheelchair at first, and he will continue to need regular therapy for an undetermined length of time.
In what will hopefully be a time of celebration for Jack’s return, friends in North Liberty have planned a fundraiser to help alleviate medical and other expenses the Zschiesches have encountered over the last few months. The “Jump for JZ!” event will take place Sunday, July 15, from 3 until 8 p.m. at Penn Meadows Park in North Liberty, including food, silent and live auctions, activities for kids, a blood drive and music by a live DJ. Fundraising coordinators encourage the entire community to come to the event and support Jack’s recovery. Monetary donations can be directed to the University of Iowa Community Credit Union: Jack Zschiesche Fundraiser. Item donations for the fundraiser can be directed to: Dave Bibby, firstname.lastname@example.org; Scott or Cindy Rundle, email@example.com; or Sara Ahrendsen, firstname.lastname@example.org . With other questions, contact Julie Vandewater at 319-594-4850.
The community support has already been overwhelming, Amy said.
“Our neighbors have been just wonderful; the whole town has been supportive. We have received cards and letters, and people we don’t even know were coming to our house and bringing meals. We are very humbled by that. We never expected that type of reaction,” Amy said.
Brad said extended family members even stayed with the children at home for a week at a time.
“I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “There are so many things people have done I’ll never be able to repay.”
Brad said Jack’s experience has changed his perspective in many ways, and he wants people to understand that every gesture to help in times of crisis is meaningful.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult for people to take that first step to help; I know it was for me, in the past,” said Brad. “I can’t tell you how foolish it was to have that mentality. Don’t be afraid, because anything you can do for someone will be appreciated. When you do something for someone knowing they can’t pay you back, that’s the nicest and most generous thing you can do for a person. We’ve seen so much of that. Everyone’s generosity has been over the top.”
And their prayers have helped to bring Jack back, he added. To be sure, he and Amy have fought their own battle alongside their son, but Brad deflects any special credit.
“People are always saying we are amazing, but honestly, we are just parents,” he said. “We love our kids, and I am sure anybody who cares about their kids would make the same sacrifices we have made.”
As he looks forward to a Father’s Day spent with his four children, a reflection backward confirms that Brad Zschiesche entertains no regrets.
This post appeared on Jack’s Caring Bridge page on June 9, during an outing with Jack:
“We made a trip to Grays Lake Park in Des Moines where there are many things to do like rent kayak, paddle boats or just fish. I think I know where we will be spending Father’s Day. Funny thing, as we went to park the car I glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed Jack was fast asleep in his chair like so many other times. It truly warmed my heart to see this because it has been months since I have seen this incredible sight.”