Recovery is a long road for teen who nearly drowned

EVERETT — This summer, 16-year-old Colten Gifford was supposed to learn to drive.

He was supposed to go camping, ride his bike and visit his great-grandmother for her 100th birthday.

Instead, he spent 55 days at the hospital, 32 of them in intensive care. Now, back at home, Colten Gifford is learning to live a life he almost lost.

On July 7, Colten went swimming with family friends at Lake Goodwin near Stanwood. He and a friend swam out to the dock. They turned around to swim back. Colten went under. No one knows why.

Somehow, he was pulled to shore and people started CPR. He was rushed to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, then Seattle Children’s Hospital.

He spent weeks on sedatives. He was hooked to machines that breathed for him and added oxygen to his blood. His kidneys failed. He couldn’t talk.

His parents, Sheri and Barry Gifford, waited at his side. They took turns watching him and took turns trying to sleep. They waited for the news that their child was OK.

It was impossible to think of much else, Sheri Gifford said.

At times, the doctors would bring Colten to consciousness to see if his brain was functioning. He’d open his eyes and wiggle his toes and fingers.

“His eyes, you could tell, I just knew he was still in there,” Sheri Gifford said. “I just knew he was there. I didn’t want to give up hope on that.”

At times, it felt like as many as 30 medical professionals were in the room, talking to them about Colten, Sheri Gifford said. Days passed. She’d look at the clock. It’d be morning, then night.

“I just sat there and stared and watched and prayed,” she said.

The most important sign came in Colten’s first day or two at the hospital, said Tom Brogan, a pediatric intensive care doctor who treated Colten at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Colten reached for his breathing tube, trying to pull it out. That meant his brain was working, Brogan said. Next, Colten had to battle an infection from bacteria in the lake water that filled his lungs. The infection spread to his blood.

In near-drowning cases involving children, everything depends on how long the brain is deprived of oxygen, Brogan said. The quick, high-quality CPR performed on Colten helped him immensely.

Most children either make a complete recovery, or they suffer organ damage so severe that they never wake up. The hospital sees dozens of near-drowning cases a year, beginning each spring as the weather warms up.

Colten came home Aug. 30. The first things he wanted were his chocolate Labrador, Skita, and his Xbox, he said.

He wants to get back to riding his BMX bike. He wants to resume plans to enroll in a vocational program while in high school, so he can become a police officer.

He can’t go back to Cascade High School for weeks, until he’s stronger. For now, he’ll have a tutor. He’s a junior this year.

Colten made a “bucket list” when he was younger, and it’s recaptured his interest, he said. The list includes skydiving, riding in a hot-air balloon, swimming with dolphins and visiting various football stadiums. The family are big Seahawks fans, and some Sea Gals visited Colten in the hospital.

He wants to go to a game and point them out to his friends, he said.

Colten’s body continues to heal, especially his lungs. He lost 50 pounds he needs to gain back. He gets to eat whatever he wants — at least, as much as he can manage. In the hospital, half a Dick’s Drive-In hamburger was the perfect meal.

Last week, at the Giffords’ house near Silver Lake, the feeding tube taped to Colten’s face dangled at his side. His elbow is bandaged from the use of intravenous antibiotics his parents have been trained to administer. His neck shows scars from the life-support machines, the red slashes just now starting to fade.

The family’s kitchen table was covered in medical supplies.

It takes Colten a little longer now to process his speech, to form questions and answers. There was no serious brain damage, but he needs time to come back, Sheri Gifford said. He has some hearing loss. He plays video games, and his smartphone buzzes at his side. The house phone rings with well wishes.

Sheri Gifford has thanked the doctors and others who’ve helped. She’s not sure she could ever really say in words what the people who saved her only child mean to her, she said.

The doctors told her, “We just had the tools, and it was mostly Colten being strong and fighting all the way back.”

Now, Sheri Gifford can’t help but think about how her son’s story might have ended — what could have happened if he hadn’t received CPR from passersby, one of whom happened to be a soldier. The soldier later told Sheri Gifford he was just doing his job, she said. To her, he’s a hero.

The Gifford family wants to thank all of their relatives, friends and everyone else who offered thoughts and prayers while they were at the hospital. Others’ kindness helped during a dark time.

“I do believe that was one of the lights that shined so bright there,” Barry Gifford said.

Other families aren’t always so lucky.

At least 10 people have drowned in Snohomish County so far this year, including children and teens. They drowned in boating, rafting and swimming accidents, in rivers, lakes and Puget Sound. There were other close calls, like Colten’s.

While the Giffords were at the hospital, relatives flew in from around the country. The neighbors walked the dog and watered the tomato plants. Cards and gift cards, goodie bags and food arrived, in bulk.

Colten remembers his sight being blurry. He remembers feeling weird because everyone kept looking at him, like a fish in a fishbowl, he said. His friends visited him at the hospital and at home.

Before the accident, Colten had undergone training to volunteer at a local summer camp for children with disabilities. As part of the training, he’d been learning basic sign language.

When he couldn’t talk in the hospital, he’d use some of those signs to communicate.

The signs he remembers using most were those for “more,” “a lot” and “a little.”

When his mother rubbed his back and stopped too soon, he’d sign “more,” curving his hands into circles and bringing them together at the fingertips.

When she told him that she loved him, he’d sign again:

“More.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449, rking@heraldnet.com.

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