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Shyness and Smiles

A crisp, clear fall Sunday in Devils Lake, N.D. Perfect for barrel racing and Beth Nicholls was in the district finals.

Before leaving home that morning to round up her horses, Beth took one last look around. Everybody was fine -- 3-year-old Laine, 14-year-old Tanner and husband Jeremy.

She loaded the horses and headed back. Four miles from home she got a call on her cell phone from Tanner. She could hear Laine screaming in the background.

“I knew something was terribly wrong,” says Beth, recalling the events of Sept. 26, 2010. “Tanner told me a gun had fallen and Laine was shot. I couldn’t believe it. But Tanner did everything right. He’d already called the ambulance.”

Heart pounding, Beth sped home. “I was scared of what I might see,” she says. “I just kept telling myself at least he’s crying. He’s alive.”

When she arrived, Laine was on the living room floor, a towel pressed against his hip. When the ambulance pulled in the yard, Beth took Laine in her arms and carried him out.

The 12-gauge shotgun used for bird-hunting had been leaning against the corner by the door. When it fell, Laine was in the line of fire just 15 feet away.

Jeremy was out doing chores when he got the call from Beth. He raced to Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake.

Rapid transport to high-level care

An assessment and X-rays showed the shot had torn through Laine’s right hip, leaving one pellet behind. The Devils Lake emergency staff called Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, activating Sanford LifeFlight.

Beth accompanied Laine on the flight to Fargo. He was stable, but Beth knew if anything happened, the well-trained flight team could handle it. Jeremy and Tanner traveled on the ground, a 180-mile trip.

“It was a quiet drive,” says Jeremy. “All the what-ifs. What if we’d put the gun away where it belonged -- this accident never would’ve happened. What if Laine had been shot somewhere else instead of his hip? What if Tanner hadn’t been right there? We were so fortunate Laine was still alive.”

Jeremy will never forget how his little 3-year-old looked. “Like a shark had taken a bite out of him,” he says. “The opening was the size of a tennis ball.”

Surgery and a hospital stay

In emergency surgery, Dr. Gary Kubalak, Sanford trauma surgeon, removed the pellet and set the stage for best possible healing. The wound was extensive and serious, but the gunshot didn’t hit bone.

For the next week, Laine stayed at Sanford Children’s Hospital, where specialized wound care helped prevent infection. Beth thought the experience might be scary for Laine. The play room, child life specialists, caring nurses -- all made the difference. “He healed well,” says Beth.

Beth and Jeremy needed healing, too. “We felt so guilty about what happened,” she says. “Why was I with the horses when I should have been home with the kids? Why didn’t we put that gun away? So many whys.” Family support, a visit with a social worker and comforting words from nurses helped.

“We definitely made changes in our home as far as gun safety,” she says.

Months of treatment

Laine’s treatment went beyond the hospital. For two months he had a wound vac -- a portable machine that provided gentle suction to help the wound heal. It stayed with him 24/7 and required twice-a-week trips to Fargo for wound cleaning and dressing change. The process could have been very painful, especially the tape removal, but it wasn’t.

“Laine was never fearful because of the people at Sanford Children’s,” says Beth. “We had the routine down. Laine would pull his little wagon into surgery, a child life specialist and I would go with him, she’d place the nitrous oxide mask on his face and he’d fall asleep. He’d wake up in his hospital room, have crackers and apple juice, then head to the playroom. He loved that.”

The Nicholls family discovered firsthand the dramatic difference Children's Miracle Network makes! CMN donations help fund child life specialists, the nitrous oxide program, the playroom and more.

In early November, one final step: a successful skin grafting procedure at Sanford Same Day Surgery.

Time to shine

Today Laine jumps and plays like any 3-year-old. “He’s all shyness and smiles,” says Jeremy. He navigates an indoor playground, moving through tunnels and climbing ropes. And when he heads down the slide? “Look out below!” he yells.

And look out North Dakota: Here comes your 2011 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Champion!

Posted Date: March 2011