On a healing mission to end Shaken Baby Syndrome
Auburn mother and children’s health advocate Tara Mitchell regularly talks about the time she nearly lost her son.
Not because she enjoys doing so. In the telling, she is engaging and factual, but by story’s end, tears and shaking have crept in to steal her composure. Again. Nearly 15 years after the event.
And she doesn’t talk about what happened because it’s something people like to hear. The topic is ugly, the kind that makes the listener squirm and look away, maybe because, in an uncontrolled moment, Tara’s fate could be anyone’s.
She talks about the time she nearly lost her son because she must.
“If sharing our story saves just one child, then that’s why I do what I do,” Tara says.
Tara was at work in 2000 when she received the phone call every parent dreads: Something was wrong with her 6-month-old baby boy.
“I rushed home to find Kyle already in an ambulance and being rushed to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. On the way, they had to pull over and resuscitate him and put a breathing tube in his throat,” she says.
Tests revealed Kyle had internal head bleeding and swelling. He needed immediate brain surgery or would die. Still not knowing what had happened to her son, Tara consented. It was only after the surgery that she began to grasp the full extent of the situation.
“That’s when I was told, very graphically, that it wasn’t an accident, that someone had taken Kyle and shaken him very hard and thrown him into a hard surface,” Tara says.
“The result was subdural hematoma, retinal bleeding, and blunt force trauma to the head. It was the first time I really heard about Shaken Baby Syndrome.”
Medically referred to as Abusive Head Trauma, Shaken Baby Syndrome is a serious form of child abuse that afflicts up to 1,400 babies and young children and kills about 300 a year in the United States. It’s thought that thousands more cases go undetected.
One in four children who are violently shaken dies from their injuries. Most survivors suffer permanent and severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, mental retardation or impaired motor and cognitive skills.
In Kyle’s case, the perpetrator was his biological father, who had been his son’s daytime caregiver since Tara had returned to work three months earlier.
During Kyle’s hospitalization, Mary Bridge doctors identified scarring from additional, previous assaults. The father was prosecuted and ultimately served 10 years imprisonment for his crimes.
For Kyle, now 15, the effects will last a lifetime. Tara explains her son is a “high-functioning” survivor of the awful abuse inflicted on him as an infant.
“His challenges are more social and academic; he’s a little behind his peers,” she says. “In severe cases like his, most don’t live, and 80 percent that do are very, very disabled. I was lucky.”
Knowing her son is not the same teenager he could have been has driven Tara to advocacy. She sits on a Washington state Abusive Head Trauma Prevention Task Force, convened after the recession of 2008, when a staggering local and national spike in Abusive Head Trauma cases was reported. And she speaks at public events, with a heartbreaking openness about what can happen when someone, in a moment of anger or frustration, violently shakes a young child.
This month, Tara was delighted to hear that MultiCare Auburn Medical Center — the hospital where she gave birth to Kyle and where she and her mother also were born — had adopted a national campaign to formally educate new parents and caregivers about Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The Period of Purple Crying is an educational campaign about the first few months of life, when intense crying — the most common trigger for shaking abuse — is common. New parents and caregivers receive a DVD that normalizes this crying period and provides coping mechanisms. The campaign has been underway at other MultiCare hospitals since about 2011. Now Auburn Family Birth Center nurses have introduced the DVD and are available for follow-up discussions.
“[Kyle’s father] had a lot of stresses in his life,” recalls Tara. “It was a point of frustration and he snapped. Hopefully he has come to terms with what he’s done and is able to move on from that.”
“Tara’s story has taught us you can’t pick and choose who you give this education to,” says Debi Csonka, one of the Auburn Family Birth Center nurses who initiated the PURPLE Crying campaign. “It’s important to see that this is a ‘normal’ family. You can’t tell who will or won’t abuse their child.”
Meantime, Tara says she will do whatever it takes to help inform families about the dangers.
“It’s my hope that if [Kyle's] biological father had known about this program, or had known that the baby’s going to cry and it’s ok … That if he’d known all that, then maybe Kyle’s life would be different,” she says.
If you feel you might lose control when caring for a baby, the organization Healthy Children recommends the following steps:
- Take a deep breath and count to 10
- Put the baby in her crib or another safe place, leave the room and let her cry alone
- Call a friend or relative for emotional support
- Call your pediatrician; perhaps there’s a medical reason why your baby is crying.
If you suspect a child has been shaken, seek medical attention right away. Symptoms are not always immediately detectable and action could be the difference between life and death.