It’s a looming five-year anniversary Kamila Kitzul is loath to ponder.
On Dec. 12, 2012, her eight-year-old son Nicholas donned a hall pass dangling from a non-breakaway lanyard for a trip to the boys’ washroom at Bearspaw School, just outside Calgary’s northwest city limits.
Somehow, the lanyard became tangled on the lock of the bathroom stall when Nicholas fell, choking the Grade 3 student who loved to ski and play soccer.
“He went 10 or more minutes without oxygen,” said his mom, herself a teacher. “It was horrible — I had a perfectly healthy and intelligent boy, and it changed in a matter of minutes.”
After he was found unconscious, he spent the next four months in hospital. Nicholas suffered the most severe form of brain wound, an anoxic injury due to oxygen starvation. “It affects the whole brain, whereas a traumatic brain injury affects one part,” said Kitzul.
It was a tragedy that stunned the province. Three days later, then-Alberta education minister Jeff Johnson suspended the use of lanyards in the province’s schools, later advising boards to find safer alternatives to non-breakaway versions of the device.
As the once-unthinkable trauma began to sink in, Kitzul said the family was told by physicians their son would live, but without any of the capacities or pleasures he’d once taken for granted.
“I was told he’d be a vegetable,” she said.
It was a diagnosis Kitzul and her husband, Grant, refused to accept. The long journey back has included 250 sessions in hyperbaric chambers in Calgary and Red Deer. But the family was soon forced to venture beyond the protective umbrella of Alberta health-care insurance coverage.
Nicholas and his parents have made trips to medical facilities in North Carolina and California, where the boy’s undergone seven stem cell procedures, some costing up to $14,000 apiece. Cells are taken from his hip tissue in a sort of liposuction action, where the fat is separated out, and the active stem cells are re-injected into the boy’s arm.
It’s considered an experimental therapy and not recognized by the Alberta Health ministry, said the mom, whose voice reverts to defiant anger. “It’s been done all over the world for years, but Canada has to do its own research,” said Kitzul.
“I find it very frustrating, but I’m not waiting until my son is 30 years old… I’m going to do anything to get my son back.”
The youngest of three children, he has also undergone physiotherapy originating in the U.S. that also lies outside provincial health-care coverage.
Officials with Alberta Health, which sets coverage policies, have not responded to several requests for comment.
The stem cell treatment, said Kitzul, has delivered observable results, usually within one to three months. Following a procedure last April, “he was lifting his legs, not dragging them.”
Those efforts of family members and medical professionals have extended to the 13-year-old being able to walk with the aid of a US $3,400 walker, a whole body brace only available in Florida.
“We’ve retaught him to eat, he can say a few words, do simple math, answers simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions… he can grab things with his right hand and he loves music — he actually kicks his legs to the beat,” said Kitzul.
“Cognitively, he understands everything.”
Some of that growing awareness can be heartbreaking, said Nicholas’s mom.
“He has sad moments where he knows his status, where he starts crying,” she said of the son, who now attends Capitol Hill School.
“He loves jokes, he’s got a great little personality, but he can’t ski down a hill like he used to or play soccer with his friends.
“But we’ll get there.”
Nicholas’s parents were also initially told their son would be blind, but the boy has vision, albeit unfocused.
Getting to this point has cost the family “well over” $100,000, with five or six more years of treatments — including stem cell procedures — and therapies to come, said Kitzul.
To help pay those bills, friends are organizing a fundraiser Nov. 25 at 6 pm at the Bearspaw Lions Club Hall at 25240 Nagway Rd. NW. that’ll feature a silent auction, live music, games and appetizers. For tickets to the Music and Miracles night or to make donations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, the family’s been locked in financial settlement litigation with Rockyview Schools for the past four years.
On the advice of her lawyer, Kitzul said she couldn’t comment on the case, except to say a court date has been set for June 1, 2020 — nearly 7½ years after Nicholas’s accident.
“The legal system is very slow in Canada,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the school district also refused comment, saying the matter is before the courts.
Another long-range uncertainty is just how far her son’s recovery will extend, said Kitzul.
“I’m going to have him walking one day on his own,” she said, adding her message to others faced with what seem like insurmountable odds is to never give up.
“You go until you basically run out of money and energy… I’m a very positive person.”
At that, Kitzul said her task for the day is acquiring upgrades for Nicholas’s walker.
“He’s outgrown the frame, he’s a growing boy,” she said.