Hyperbaric therapy a miracle for brain-injured toddler
hen 2017 was not yet a month old, Tiffany Arata and Anthony De Monte found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe no parent wants to contemplate. A year later, miracles are beginning to appear on the horizon for their young daughter.
On Jan. 22, 2017, Thea De Monte, then 17 months, was found unresponsive in shallow water in the aboveground pool at a family member’s home, where a gate had been left ajar.
Paramedics worked on the toddler for 40 minutes before there was any sign of life, Tiffany Arata said.
Thea’s blood-oxygen level had plummeted to 6.4 percent, her mother said. Normal is between 95 and 100 percent.
Thea was taken to Florida Hospital South in Orlando, where she spent three months in intensive care.
Sustained by breathing and feeding tubes, the child experienced neuro storms — a stress response that can occur after a traumatic brain injury. Her muscles were drawing her body inward.
“She started contracting herself in the hospital,” Arata said. “They did a pupil test and thought she was blind. There was no response, and we thought she was in a vegetative state.”
An MRI showed damage to Thea’s frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls cognitive and motor skills and coordination.
At the end of March, she was transferred to Children First Pediatric Pavilion, a medical group home in Orlando, where Thea can get the 24-hour-a-day care she needs.
Hope was not abundant. Fortunately, it’s renewable.
“She was there for a couple of months when I came upon an interview of a little girl with a similar situation,” Arata said.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy had turned around that child’s circumstances.
“The little girl was doing the same things — the neuro storms. … She was wheelchair-bound,” Arata explained. “After 200 and something treatments, she was able to say a couple words. The little girl, after therapy, uses a walker, but she’s able to walk.”
It was a thin thread of hope for Thea.
As fate would have it, Central Florida Hyperbaric in Winter Park is not far from the group home where Thea lives. She began a 40-treatment regimen in fall, and completed the sessions in November.
The results have been remarkable, Arata said.
“Within 10 treatments, she could move her arms and kick her feet up in the air,” she said. “She smiles now. She makes eye contact. Her pupils are showing reaction, so doctors don’t feel like she’s blind. … She tries to sit herself up in bed.”
A hyperbaric chamber delivers oxygen to the body at a level higher than atmospheric pressure. The patient is required only to lie down and breathe.
Nurses who monitored Thea’s condition initially are amazed.
“They say she’s a completely different child,” Arata said.
According to Central Florida Hyperbaric’s website, “Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy uses 100-percent medical grade oxygen at increased atmospheric pressure to nourish all tissues and allow the body to heal itself naturally.”
Arata and De Monte are hopeful the treatments can return their daughter to the fast-developing youngster they once knew.
Before the accident, Thea had begun to say a few words, including “mama” and “dada.”
“She knew where her nose and mouth were,” Arata said. “She was a very smart little girl, very full of energy.”
And of independence.
At younger than 2 years old, Thea insisted upon feeding herself, Arata said.
Thea has yet to regain her voice, but Arata is hopeful that more treatments will lead to more progress.
The experimental treatments are not covered under Thea’s basic Medicaid insurance policy, which Arata hopes to be able to upgrade.
“She can start treatments toward the end of January, but the full eight weeks, with the money I have saved, I don’t know if I’m gonna have the whole $5,400 for all 40 treatments,” Arata said. “Medicaid pays for Pavilion, but the primary wouldn’t cover the treatments.”
Arata works full time as a certified nursing assistant at DeBary Health and Rehabilitation Center. Recently, she took a second job as a CNA at John Knox Village.
An online fundraiser has garnered only $475 of a $20,000 goal.
Since starting the second job to earn money for more hyperbaric treatments, Arata has been forced to scale back her visits with Thea from at least five to three times weekly.
Those less-frequent visits, however, have become more rewarding.
“I feel like she recognizes me,” Arata said. “When I go in and say hi, she puts on this big smile. She follows you with her eyes.”
Arata and Thea’s sister, Aria, 4, live with Arata’s parents, Clifford and Becky Arata, in Orange City.
She and De Monte had separated before the accident. Caring for their older daughter and meeting Thea’s special needs have taken a significant financial toll.
De Monte, who introduces himself on Facebook as “a father first,” responded graciously to The Beacon’s request to help tell the family’s story.
Between his comments, a deep sorrow lurked.
But asked how the hyperbaric therapy has helped, De Monte responded without hesitation.
“Oh, they’ve just done wonders for her!” he said, emotion flooding his words.
Mary Adamson, risk manager at DeBary Health and Rehabilitation Center, marvels at Arata’s strength, perseverance and outlook.
“She comes to work every day, always so upbeat and positive,” Adamson said.
“I don’t really sleep, and I’m exhausted,” Arata said, laughing. “But I gotta do, unfortunately, what I gotta do.”
“My parents help a lot, thankfully,” she added.
A perpetual smile lightens the heavy words describing her reality.
It sounds like hope.
— Erika Webb, Beacononlinenews