Of all the college dangers I thought I knew about when I sent my son Clark off to college, it turned out to be something not even on my helicopter mom radar that almost took his life. After having a daughter go through four years of college, I thought I knew all of the challenges and pitfalls awaiting my son. I was wrong.
As the son of an aerospace engineer, Clark knew from a young age that he wanted to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology in our hometown of Atlanta. After graduating near the top of his senior class, we proudly sent him off to Georgia Tech in the fall of 2013. He lived in the dormitory his freshman year. His sophomore year, he pledged Kappa Sigma fraternity and in the fall he moved into the fraternity house.
The beautiful new fraternity house featured 49 beds lofted about 7 feet off the ground. The beds were built into the wall, leaving space beneath for a desk and storage.
I remember looking up at the bed and asking if there should be a safety rail.
My husband, my daughter Kelsey, and Clark all laughed. Since he had just spent a year on the top bunk in his residence hall room, I let the subject drop. I wish I hadn’t.
Sometime during the night on January 10, 2015, Clark rolled out of bed and plunged head-first to the floor. When he came to, he had no memory of the fall and vomited several times into a trash can. He thought he might have the flu. The nausea, coupled with a massive headache and inability to turn his head, motivated him to call us.
We took him to the emergency room the next morning and a CT scan showed a significant fracture to the back of his head, confirming our fear that he had fallen. In the hours after our arrival at the hospital, Clark developed a brain bleed that required emergency brain surgery.
The surgeon’s words as he spoke to us in the waiting room were surreal. “Your son’s brain is hemorrhaging. If we don’t operate, he will die,” he told us. “Even if we do, he may not make it. But we have to try to save your son.”
Clark survived brain surgery. The next 72 critical hours were spent in the ICU with him barely conscious and on a ventilator. He had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke on his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls motor movement, balance, and speech. He was transferred from the ICU to Shepherd Center, a renowned rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, where he spent over two months in a near-comatose state.
As the days and weeks stretched on with no improvement, we began to wonder if our son was ever coming back to us. The thought of living life without my baby boy was one I couldn’t even fathom. And the thought of him returning to college seemed like a cruel joke.
Every Loft Bed Needs a Safety Rail
Sitting by Clark’s bed day after day, I tried to understand what had happened to my son. I researched the frequency of bunk and loft bed accidents and discovered they’re not as rare as we had thought. Each year, 71,000 kids under the age of 21 go to the ER as a result of lofted bed injuries. Which made me wonder: how many parents and students were naively making college residence decisions like we had, without any idea of the potential danger?
The thought of another family going through this nightmare convinced me that I needed to do something. Rail Against the Danger (RAD) is the grassroots campaign I started as a result, with the purpose of changing perception and policy regarding safety rails in college residences. No other family should have to go through what we went through when, for the price of around $40, a safety rail could prevent a fall.
Clark was able to return to Georgia Tech in August 2016 and plans to graduate in 2019. But he will have challenges for the rest of his life. If learning about the tragedy we experienced prevents one family from suffering, then maybe I will sleep a little better.