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January 30, 2020
When Mason Harris’s mom Ashley got a call telling her that her son had been in a bike wreck and had a neck injury, she calmly put on her shoes and said, “We’re going to Arkansas Children’s Northwest.”
Ashley was concerned, but not inclined to panic. Mason, at 13, was no stranger to sports injuries. He had experienced enough bone fractures in the past to be referred to Arkansas Children's for a bone density test, where they found no explanation other than being "a rough-and-tumble boy."
Mason had been riding his mountain bike on an obstacle track when he lost control of the bicycle and fell on his head. His helmet did its job, but he says he knew immediately he'd hurt his neck. "I knew neck injuries could be pretty serious, so I didn't run, just walked really fast to my dad and we went home."
When Ashley arrived to pick up Mason, the Fayetteville teen was standing in front of his dad's house with an ice pack on his neck. "My neck was really stiff but I didn't think it was a major injury.
His mom thought it was probably a sprain, but she took her son to the Emergency Department at ACNW to be safe.
Mason says he was "a little surprised" when the ER nurse told him his neck was broken. Ashley, too. She says it was a "twilight-zone moment" when the nurse explained Mason had compression fractures in C3 and C4 and would have to go to Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock as quickly as possible for probable surgery.
Bad weather in Little Rock ruled out helicopter transport, so Mason was taken by ambulance, with his mom accompanying him. The rest of the family soon followed.
“We arrived at 4:30 in the morning,” recalls Ashley, “and were greeted by the most amazing people, from the security guard to the nurses to the neurologist, Dr. Gregory Albert, who met us in his scrubs.”
Mason was fitted with a pediatric collar to stabilize his injury while waiting for Dr. Albert to determine whether or not surgery would be required. Ashley says Mason was dreading the possibility, until the overnight nurse, Stacey, heard mother and son talking about it late at night.
"Stacey shared with us her husband once had a nearly identical injury, which did require surgery, and that he was doing fine," says Ashley, who was instantly comforted. "I believe Stacey was placed on that floor, in that hospital, at that time, for my kid to hear he was going to be okay, even if he had to have the surgery. She left the room and Mason went to sleep for the first time in days. It calmed his fears so much."
In the morning, Dr. Albert had good news: Mason could go home to heal wearing the collar—he did not need surgery after all.
As glad as they were to avoid surgery, says Ashley, “it was a rough road” ahead for someone as active as Mason. Dr. Albert and his nurse Angela tracked their patient’s progress by seeing him at ACNW, and he was cleared to remove the collar after 13 weeks and began physical therapy.
Mason was highly motivated and worked hard, says Ashley, with 90-minute physical therapy sessions two or three times a week that left him dripping in sweat. He also had to exercise restraint to keep from doing ordinary things like boogie boarding at the beach or playing tag with his younger brother. Some activities, like tackle football and other contact sports, are permanently off-limits.
Through it all, his mom says, "his attitude has been so positive." She says Dr. Albert inspired Mason to believe he could recover fully if he was willing to put in the effort, and was always forthcoming with answers when Mason had questions. As a result, she says, the eighth-grader has developed a fascination with medicine as a possible career choice.
"Mason has always wanted to channel his experiences for the good of others. He saw the call for Arkansas Children's Ambassadors on Instagram and told me about it. I told him to go ahead and apply."
She says she hopes Mason's experience will encourage parents of other active kids to get head and neck injuries checked out, even if they seem minor. "Arkansas Children's has been a gift to our family. They were with us every step of the way."