Thursday, July 8, 2004

Medical ordeal makes family
appreciate time spent together

By John Johnston
Enquirer staff writer

Everybody has a story worth telling. That's the theory, anyway. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed. Stories appear weekly.

When they were firefighters and emergency medical technicians in Mason some years back, Chris and Christina Houser learned that life is fragile and never should be taken for granted.

The Miami Township couple didn't need a reminder. But late last year they got one anyway.

Christina is a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom. Chris, 33, is a tax accountant who left his volunteer firefighting job for a couple of reasons. First, he didn't like being away from his wife and their only child, Rafferty. Also, after his son was born, pediatric fire runs became unbearable, Chris says. He once broke down after carrying an infant to an ambulance.

Rafferty Houser entered the world in January 2002.

All was well until one day last December, a month before his second birthday, when Rafferty awoke with a high fever and began vomiting. He was diagnosed with a severe ear infection and the flu, which was making the rounds in Greater Cincinnati. The doctor prescribed antibiotics.

When Rafferty's condition worsened two days later, Christina called the doctor's office and asked to speak to a nurse. But she says she never got past the receptionist. The worried mother's message apparently was never relayed.

In hindsight, Christina says, she should have called back and demanded to speak with a nurse.

The next day, Chris took a grumpy Rafferty into the shower. With the boy's head wet, his father discovered a golf ball-sized lump on the back of his head, behind his right ear.

The Housers would soon learn that Rafferty's ear infection had spread to the mastoid bone of his skull. Mastoiditis occurs when the bone fills with infected materials, which can cause the mastoid's honeycomb-like structure to deteriorate.

In Rafferty's case, the golf ball-sized lump was a hematoma, a collection of blood that the infection-filled mastoid had forced through a small crevice where plates of the skull had not yet fused together.

Four hours after Rafferty arrived at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, he was in surgery to have tubes inserted into the eardrum to drain fluid and relieve pressure.

"I felt like I was running a marathon," Christina says, "and yet I was just sitting really still and quiet and waiting for the doctor to come out."

She distinctly remembers what the doctor said after surgery: "He's not out of the woods yet."

Indeed, a day later Rafferty was back in surgery. An incision was made behind the ear so doctors could drain the mastoid. The boy spent the next three days in intensive care.

In the room next door, doctors and nurses tried unsuccessfully to save the life of a baby who had tested positive for influenza.

"A reality check," Chris says.

In the nine days Rafferty was hospitalized, Chris and Christina heard screams and cries from their son like they had never heard before. Rafferty developed a blood clot in a vein behind his ear, and was placed on blood thinners, which led to diarrhea.

Despite it all, "We can't say enough nice things about Children's," says Chris, who credits the people there with saving their boy's life.

At home, the Housers continued administering heavy-duty antibiotics through an IV until late February. In mid March, Rafferty stopping taking blood thinners.

To see him today, you'd never know anything was ever wrong. He's a typical rambunctious 2-year-old.

His parents, meanwhile, have a new appreciation for the power of maternal and paternal instinct. From now on, Christina says, when something's wrong, she won't let someone else dictate how she responds.

"Go ahead, tell me I'm being overprotective. We can live with that," she says. But it would be unfathomable to live without her little boy.


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