Back in the Saddle Again
July 03, 2017 - Promise Magazine
Following a devastating head injury seven years ago, Baylee Neal is riding high
By Patrick McGee
Few sights are more Texan than an expert rider on horseback galloping through the Texas countryside, so it was impressive to see 18-year-old Baylee Neal take the reins – especially impressive because a riding accident seven years ago nearly cost Baylee her life.
On hand to watch her ride recently was Dr. Darryl Miles, a critical care doctor at Children’s Medical Center Dallas and an assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, who guided Baylee from being completely unresponsive – unable to even breathe on her own – to making a recovery that enabled her to get back in the saddle and go on to college. Dr. Miles took a day from work to drive out to rural East Texas to reunite with the family with whom he had spent many difficult days to see his patient ride again after a hard-fought recovery.
When Baylee returned to her normal routine after her injury, she had to overcome learning difficulties caused by the accident, but nevertheless wanted to give back to others by participating in Dr. Miles’ research study on head injuries.
She was 11 years old when she suffered one of the worst concussions imaginable. Baylee was barrel racing when the saddle slipped, and her foot came out of the stirrup. She lost her balance and leaned too far over the side. When her horse ran past a metal post, Baylee’s head smashed into it – hard. She was knocked unconscious.
She was transported to Children’s Medical Center Dallas, which has the state’s first pediatric Level 1 Trauma Center. In the emergency room, Baylee’s father, Jeff Neal, turned her mother, Jennifer, away so she would not see doctors insert a breathing tube. Baylee was then sent to the ICU, where Dr. Miles found her completely unresponsive. He had to deliver the terrible news to Baylee’s parents that she might never open her eyes again.
“He’s a great explainer, but it was not really the things that you want to hear,” Mrs. Neal said. “It was serious. It was a very serious time.”
Pediatric neurosurgeons inserted an external ventricular drain (EVD) to the center of her brain to drain fluid and monitor brain pressure.
“Her first scan showed there was already some mild swelling. Within 12 hours we repeated the scan, and it showed that swelling was significant. Her clinical picture also seemed to be deteriorating,” Dr. Miles recalled. “She didn’t have room to get worse.”
The medical team temporarily put her in a coma, and the EVD was left in for eight days.
Finally, she made a comeback. She opened her eyes. She responded with nods, smiles and hand squeezing. Then one day she spoke asking, “Where’s Mom?” By the time she left the ICU, she was, incredibly, speaking more than patients with less severe head injuries.
It was an encouraging comeback, but returning to schoolwork was a huge challenge.
“I could only make it through a couple of class periods at a time before having to go home due to exhaustion,” Baylee said. “This pushed me to the point of almost completely giving up.”
No one she spoke to could fully understand what she was going through – but she sought to help others who would suffer injuries similar to hers by participating in Dr. Miles’ study for five years. The study, funded by the Perot Center for Brain and Nerve Injury at Children's Health, required Baylee and other patients in the study to undergo neuropsychological testing of IQ, memory, how quickly one can process information and other measures. To Dr. Miles, it is valuable information that he hopes can be used to design better therapies for children who suffer severe concussions and traumatic brain injuries. To Baylee, it was testing that gets to the core of her struggles.
“The hardest thing about having short-term memory loss is figuring out strategies to memorize important facts,” Baylee said. “I was able to take the strategies I had learned from Our Children’s House and speech therapy and apply them to learning the skills I use today.”
Physical, occupational and speech therapy at Our Children’s House taught her simple but effective memory techniques of writing things down and repeating them out loud over and over again. By her senior year, she had a 3.7 GPA. She’s currently studying animal science at Oklahoma State University, and she is back to her favorite activity, riding horses.
“My fear of barrel racing has yet to be let go, but I still believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Because of this, I will continue to race, and I will continue to fight.”
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