Teen makes big strides in battle against brain disease
Published Tuesday, June 26, 2012 3:28PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 27, 2012 1:03PM EDT
For 13-year-old Aidan Munn, playing hockey again is both a miracle and a risk.
Two-and-a-half years ago, on the day Canada beat the U.S. to win hockey gold at the Vancouver Olympics, the Ottawa boy fell ill. Instead of watching the game, his parents rushed him to hospital. He was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, fell into a coma, and doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of survival.
His parents taped a "lucky loonie" to his bed -- the same coin that proved a charm for the Canada's Olympic team -- but they weren't encouraged. Doctors advised them to call in relatives to say goodbye and warned that even if Aiden did survive, he might suffer severe brain damage.
"We decided," says Aidan's mom, Stephanie, "we had to mourn the son we had previously and get ready to embrace whoever wakes up."
Aidan did come out of it, albeit with damage to his brain. He had to relearn how to walk, how to count, how to read, even how to flush a toilet and how to find his way to his bed-room.
"It was like we had a new-born infant," says his dad, Rob.
But the one thing Aidan didn't lose was his passion for hockey. His bedroom is almost a shrine, decorated with sticks and sweaters including the one he wore for the Ottawa Sting competitive atom team before he got sick. From the moment he left hospital, he hounded his parents to let him play again. The answer was always the same.
"They said no, because I had a brain injury," says Aiden.
Adds Rob: "The hospital told us and his doctors told us he would never play hockey again."
It's been a long, slow rehabilitation. Aidan still has cognitive problems. His peripheral vision on his left side is bad. He cannot remember faces; he recognizes friends by their voices. And he sometimes gets confused. But he's in Grade 7, normal for his age. And he's back up to speed physically. His parents let him skate on a rink last winter, and Aiden kept up his campaign to play hockey. Though his doctors say there is an increased danger of another brain injury if he gets hit in the head, they also agreed there's a need to balance risk with lifestyle. And that finally persuaded the Munns to relent.
"There is mental well-being for Aidan to be able to play this game," says Rob. "Life's too short."
Stephanie was harder to convince: "Putting my son on the ice goes against every mother instinct I have."
But she realizes Aiden could hurt his head slipping on ice or running into something, so agreed he could try hockey under controlled circumstances.
"We can't put him in a bubble," she says. "He's got to live. He survived to carry on and live, and for him, this is huge part of his life."
So the Munns put together a group of Aidan's old teammates, bought sweaters, paid for ice time every other Friday night this spring, and gave Aidan a yellow helmet outfitted with an impact monitor. The rules are simple: no body-checking, watch out for the kid in the yellow helmet.
Aidan can still skate and shoot almost as well as he did before, but he's sometimes confused about where to go on the ice. His buddies are teaching him and are learning something about helping others in the process.
"It's just a great experience, "says Adam Ferguson, "to be able to go out with our friend who can't be the same as he was."
"I just want to get him playing hockey again," says Kyle Fleming. "That's what he wants to do."
"It's great," adds Gabriel Casey, "helping a friend come back and learn the game we all love."
And the trial this spring has produced a positive verdict. With a supporting letter from Aidan's doctor, Hockey Canada has cleared him to play in a local bantam house league this winter. No contact, of course, not the competitive body-checking league that he was headed for before he got sick. But Aidan isn't complaining -- he's just happy to be back on the ice.