Back in the game after a non-traumatic brain injury

For most of her life, sports loomed large in Andee Poulos’ life. She was an avid softball player and swimmer.

But just four days into 2011 Poulos was suddenly sidelined.

An arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection she was born with between arteries and veins in her brain, ruptured and at 9 p.m. one January night, doctors announced Andee was bleeding in her brain.

“I knew it was bad when I walked into the operating room,” her father John Poulos remembered recently. “Being in that OR room with Andee being ventilated and all really hit me hard and I just walked out of the hospital into the cold night. While outside I looked at myself and knew that I had to remain strong for Andee and our family”.

Andee had no choice but to stay and fight. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” she would say later, quoting one of her favorite Scriptures.

Prayers, planning

That night Andee Poulos was a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, where she’d been since pre-kindergarten.

She was an honor student who loved the Georgia Bulldogs, singing in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation’s youth choir, and like most girls, shopping.

Always friendly, she was the first to greet new arrivals to Holy Innocents’.

That’s how she became best friends with Erin Kennedy.

The two of them were in the midst of practicing for tryouts, hoping to play on the school’s lacrosse team.

News of her sick friend hit Erin and her mother, Lisa Kennedy, hard.

“Mom, we have to do something,” Erin told Lisa.

That first God-awful night they prayed. The next day, Lisa and Erin were at Andee’s bedside.

While Andee fought for her life, they worked to make sure her suffering wasn’t for naught. They began planning a fun run.

“We wanted it to be Andee’s coming out celebration” for the day she got to go home, Lisa Kennedy said.

Friends mobilize; finally, a breakthrough

John Poulos said doctors monitored the pressure on Andee’s brain throughout the night. Two days later, they transferred her from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite to Emory, where she endured six hours of surgery and 39 days in intensive care.

On Feb. 14, she returned to Scottish Rite for rehabilitation. By April, she was breathing on her own and learning to walk again. Doctors sent her home to complete rehab but 30 days later she was back again.

By then an army of friends was busy providing the family meals, helping care for Andee’s younger brother George, raising money to help defray medical costs, and praying for the Poulos family’s strength and Andee’s full recovery. They began laying the groundwork for Andee’s Army, a nonprofit that provides services and financial assistance to families of children receiving medical treatment for non-traumatic brain injuries.

Meanwhile, John Poulos researched ways to help his daughter cope emotionally. Because she couldn’t talk, she’d become extremely agitated.

HealthBridge Children’s Hospital in Houston promised hope. Lyn and John flew there with Andee on Aug. 1. They returned Dec. 8. Andee had made little progress.

They found another doctor and in January 2012, flew to Boston, hoping for more concrete results.

There Andee started to improve some, communicating by nodding and shaking her head. By June, she was eating solid foods again.

“Right around there God touched her,” John Poulos said. “There’s no question, and through (Andee) He’s going to help more children around the world.”

After a long hard fight, Andee Poulos seemed to turn the corner last summer, when she spoke her brother’s name: George.

As they coached her to say more, the words seemed to come easier. She still must use a walker to help steady her gait but she can eat and drink on her own now. In August, Andee enrolled into Riverwood International Charter School as a freshman.

Brain dangers common

According to Dr. Andrew Reisner, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, non-traumatic brain injury is fairly common and encompasses a wide variety of diseases that affect the brain and can show up at any age.

These include cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes, infections such as meningitis and congenital defects that are often first seen in childhood such as hydrocephalus.

Incidence varies by age, Reisner said.

“For example, strokes are more common in the elderly, whereas congenital defects such as hydrocephalus are seen more frequently in the pediatric age group,” he said. “Infections of the brain can occur at any age, but extremes of age (the very young and the elderly) are more prone to acquiring an infection, resulting in meningitis or encephalitis.”

Thanks to widespread immunizations, Reisner said he has seen a decrease in meningitis and other types of non-traumatic brain injury over the last decade.

“Newer technologies have allowed smaller and younger prematurely born babies to survive,” he said, for instance. “But because of the increase in this population, bleeding in the brain that is specific to prematurity is now seen more commonly.”

Grateful, ‘honored’

The other day as her nurse sat nearby, Andee, who is still undergoing outpatient therapy at Shepherd Center, recalled the day her journey started. She said she is thankful for the army of friends and family who helped lead her back.

Earlier this year, Andee’s Army held its second annual fun run, one of four annual events it hosts to raise awareness about acquired brain injury and to provide financial help to those impacted by the condition. To date, they have raised nearly $100,000.

And Andee is getting back into the thick of things again. In just the past few weeks, she did the coin toss for the opening game between Riverwood and Holy Innocents’; threw the first pitch at the Holy Innocents vs. Pace Academy’s softball game; and was the star attraction at a day held in her honor. Riverwood recently welcomed her on their softball team as manager.

“I feel honored,” she said.

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