Location: Cheltenham, Pennsylvania
Date: October 9, 1989
On the afternoon of October 9, 1989, eight-year-old Vicki Swift of Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, and her eleven-year-old brother, Stephen Jr., were at play, chasing each other in and out of the house. When Stephen Jr. took off running down the sidewalk, Vicki jumped on her bicycle and pedaled in pursuit.
Stephen Jr. dashed across the street. Vicki, anxious to catch up, didn't look before she rode off the sidewalk and into the street--into the path of an oncoming van. Stephen Jr. heard the crash. He whipped around and saw Vicki being hurled into the air by the van that had just struck her. Vicki's head hit the curb as she landed on the pavement and her bike skidded under a parked car and ruptured the gas tank. Terrified, Stephen Jr. ran home screaming.
Off-duty firefighter John Hopper heard Stephen Jr.'s cries for help and rushed out of his house to find Vicki lying unconscious in a pool of gasoline, which was gushing from the broken gas tank. Hopper and another neighbor immobilized Vicki's neck and moved her to safety. Stephen Sr. and his wife, Kathy, alerted by their son's screams, ran to the scene, but a neighbor, afraid for Kathy to see her daughter in such a state, intercepted her before she could reach Vicki.
Fire and rescue units from the Cheltenham Fire Department rushed Vicki to Abington Memorial Hospital, where she was put on a ventilator for her breathing difficulties and was given a CAT scan ro determine the extent of her injuries. Doctors told the Swifts that Vicki had a skull fracture, but that she was doing well. Boy, we lucked out, thought Kathy. But the Swifts' elation was short-lived. In less than an hour, Vicki slipped into a coma, and the CAT scan revealed that she had suffered a critical head injury. "We were jubilant about the good news," recalls Stephen Sr., "then all of the sudden they drop a bomb on you."
Vicki was tranferred to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where Trauma Director Dr. John Templeton learned that Vicki had not been wearing a helmet when the accident occurred. This told him that the entire force of the blow transmitted directly against Vicki's skull and therefore against her brain. Of greatest concern to neurosurgeon Dr. Ann Christine Duhaime was to control the pressure inside Vicki's head caused by the swelling of her brain. Only time would tell if Vicki would survive, and if she did, whether she would ever lead a normal, healthy life. "I felt like everything just disappeared," recalls Kathy. "And I didn't know, is she going to be normal? Is she going to be all right? It just takes the breath out of you."
After two and a half weeks, Vicki began to emerge from her coma and show signs of improvement. Says Dr. Duhaime, "Recovery from coma is not like it is in the movies, where suddenly the child sits up and recognizes everybody and asks for a pizza. Recovery is a long, arduous process."
Vicki underwent one year of rehabilitation therapy for speech and motor skills that had been affected by her brain injury. Remarkably, today she shows no side effects from the accident. "I was happy Vicki came out all better," says Stephen Jr. "Well, she's still not the perfect sister. If I had to rate her from one to ten, I'd probably say she's about a nine. There's still things she has to work on to be a ten."
In 1992, Vicki was selected to the poster child for the American Trauma Society which, along with the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, promotes the importance of bicycle safety. Kathy has seen a tremendous change in her small community, where just a few years ago, it was rare to see a child wearing a helmet while bike riding. Today it's commonplace, thanks to bike safety education. "The only really good treatment for a brain injury," says Dr. Duhaime, "is to prevent it from happening in the first place." Prevention means wearing a bicycle helmet that meets safety standards whenever riding a bike. "Kids balk at helmets, there's no question about that," says Kathy. "But as a parent, that's your responsibility to teach your children and protect your children. No helmet, no bike."