Mason Payne almost didn’t make it to third grade this year.
But, thanks to the fast actions of his parents, a skilled medical team, and his own tenacity, he survived a life-threatening event.
One morning last month, Mason was splashing in a swimming pool at his mother’s house, cannonballing toward the end of summer and enjoying his 8th birthday party.
By afternoon, his head hurt.
Probably too much sun, a little dehydrated…
At least that’s what his mother, Amy Fair, thought.
But by the next day things had taken a dire turn.
Mason was staring blankly into space, having trouble speaking, drooling, and unable to raise his arm.
Fair and her partner, Josh Turpin, rushed Mason to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where they met up with Mason’s dad, Ray Payne.
“It didn’t even look like Mason,” Payne told Healthline. “The left side of his face looked like it was melting. He couldn’t talk. Mason’s an outgoing, energetic kid, always on the move, and it was terrifying to see him like that.”
Mason was immediately transferred to the University of Kansas Health System where an angiogram indicated that the 8-year-old had suffered a stroke.
A blood clot had broken free, causing complete blockage of blood flow to the basilar artery, one of the most important arteries in the brain.
Within hours, the bubbly kid was experiencing a life-altering event we normally associate with adults.
“Mason had suffered an injury to the left vertebral artery, in medical terms called an arterial dissection,” Dr. Koji C. Ebersole, director of endovascular neurosurgery at The University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline.
“What caused this dissection is unknown, but typical mechanisms involve trauma,” Ebersole added. “Mason did not suffer an obvious trauma that can be pointed to as the cause.”
Life-saving medical procedures
Every minute counts in a stroke situation, so Ebersole and his team moved quickly to perform a life-saving mechanical thrombectomy.
A small, flexible catheter was inserted into Mason’s blood system through his femoral artery.
Because it is so unusual for a child to have a stroke, pediatric-size surgical tools don’t exist, and Ebersole had to use existing adult-sized instruments for the delicate operation.
“Then aspiration was applied to the stroke catheter, creating a suction force. In a way, it can be thought of as a highly specialized, small, delicate vacuum hose,” Ebersol said. “The vacuum hose sucked the thrombus out in its entirety. Blood flow was immediately restored.”
After surgery, Mason’s family was able to see him in the ICU.
“He squeezed my hand — he knew me,” Ray recalled, his voice cracking with relief. “His speech was pretty slurred and he kept saying ‘oopsy-daisy,’ as if he were apologizing for not saying words right.”
By the second day in the hospital, Mason could sit up, complete sentences, reach for his food, and feed himself. By the end of his hospitalization, he was trying to run down the hospital corridor.
“It’s like he was living in dog years, progressing really fast,” Ray said. “What might take an adult months or years to do, he was doing in hours.”
Mason’s life was saved because he received immediate, skilled medical care, but he gets credit for his remarkably fast recovery.
The blond fireball was in the hospital for less than a week and back at school 10 days after his stroke.
“A child’s ability to bounce back from sudden, significant health events can often be astounding, particularly where the brain is involved,” Ebersole said. “Our goal was to identify the cause of the stroke and treat it if possible. Fortunately, that part proceeded exceptionally efficiently. Thereafter, it is up to the patient to see what kind of recovery can be made. Mason did outstanding in this regard.”
“Mason is determined and competitive,” Ray added, “and he really hates to lose.”
And that gung ho drive shows up when he plays basketball and baseball.
Strokes are uncommon in children
“It is rare for children to have a stroke,” Dr. Colleen Lechtenberg, medical director of the Advanced Certification Comprehensive Stroke Center at the University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline.
The American Stroke Association estimates the odds are 11 per 100,000 children per year.
“But,” Lechtenberg added, “stroke in children may be more common than we realize because it is often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Stroke is among the top 10 causes of death in children, and more than 60 percent of survivors will have long-term disability.”
“If something good can come from this whole horrible experience,” Ray said, “I hope this will help parents and doctors learn to recognize the signs of a stroke before it’s too late. I hope what happened to Mason will help some other kid down the line.”
Identifying the symptoms of a stroke
The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association suggest the acronym FAST:
- F: Face, sudden weakness or drooping of one side of the face
- A: Arm, sudden weakness of one arm
- S: Speech, sudden slurred speech or difficulty understanding or making language
- T: Time, time is of the essence. Call 911 immediately.