They are simple images on cue cards: a dolphin, a turtle, a star, a sun, a basketball and an elephant.
Bailey Foley recognizes only the elephant.
“The cards I have are for toddlers,” Foley’s mom, Tara Johnson, said of the exercises she does to jog her son’s memory. “Some things he just doesn’t know.”
Foley, a senior and football and baseball player at Fortuna High School in Humboldt County, was grievously injured Aug. 25 in a football game against Cardinal Newman in Santa Rosa. Near the end of the game, Foley, a 5-foot-11 linebacker and running back, went to the sideline complaining of cramps before he began having seizures.
He was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial by ambulance, where he was put into a medically induced coma. A portion of his skull was removed to help take pressure off of his swollen brain. He suffered a stroke. He dealt with pneumonia and infections before being moved Sept. 25 to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
It was more than a month before Foley could fully speak and even now his voice is soft and raspy. In hours of therapy a day, he’s relearning simple motor skills: how to brush his teeth, how to put on a shirt, how to walk.
Johnson and her partner, Foley’s dad Sage Foley, have kept vigil at their son’s bedside for more than two months. Johnson has been home just once, on Sept. 14, when she drove a borrowed car the 200 miles to Fortuna. She stayed there for two hours before driving back to be with her son.
“How could I not be here for this?” Johnson said. “I could not leave his side right now. It’s a hard time for him. He’s learning all kinds of things. He doesn’t know the simplest things, like what a basketball is.”
And Johnson doesn’t know why. Sure, she knows her strong, athletic son collapsed during a football game, that he suffered a stroke. But she doesn’t know why all of that happened.
“When (we) first got here, they ran some bloodwork to see if it was hereditary or pre-existing” or blood vessel-related, she said. “He’s never had anything wrong with him or random nose bleeds or anything. They are stumped. They really think if it was a hard-impact kind of thing, it would have happened sooner.”
Foley made it to the sideline under his own power before he complained of cramps and collapsed. Dehydration? A hit to the liver? They’ve all been discussed, she said.
“I do want to know,” she said. “It kind of sounds like it may be an unknown. They can’t say, ‘Yes, this is exactly what happened.’”
Despite the unknowns and despite mounting evidence about the dangers of the sport, Johnson said she doesn’t blame football for what happened to her son.
“No, not at all,” she said. “We still watch football. We continue to listen to his team on an app on my phone.”
And despite seeing her son having to relearn some of the most basic skills, Johnson sees reason to be encouraged every day. Like when Bailey’s cousin Max visited recently.
“The last time he was here, he did this old handshake and he remembered that,” she said. “At the end he snapped his fingers and we were like, ‘Yay.’”
He can’t identify a dolphin but he remembers certain songs. Those are the things that both mystify Johnson and give her hope. They are daily reminders that the human brain and body are miraculous, wonderful, bewildering things.
“It is hard. I am glad that he’s alive and seeing him go from not moving to totally standing up now? It’s day by day,” she said. “There are some things that might not come back ... and it hurts. But just knowing he’s not brain-dead and not dead … ”
Johnson said she doesn’t know if she and Sage Foley should prepare the house for a wheelchair or make other tangible changes to their lives because she doesn’t know when or in what shape Bailey will be in when he returns home. That, too, has been hard.
Foley, who should have been preparing for Senior Night with his fellow Huskies Friday before the Del Norte game, is instead relearning how to put on a shirt.
“He can barely push his arms through his shirt and pull it down,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson seeks the positive.
“We have heard the therapist say if he wasn’t an athlete, this would be a whole different story,” she said.
She tries to find the bright side wherever and whenever possible.
“I try not to think of the bad and the scary,” she said. “I don’t want to freak out and not be a good support person.”
And she’s enormously grateful that Bailey remains positive as well.
“He’s been great. His mood has been perfect,” she said. “Every once in a while, he will say, ‘This is annoying.’ But he doesn’t cry and doesn’t yell. He’s always in good spirits and that has helped.”
His room is filled with cards and signs, most in Fortuna’s Husky blue. His hometown has rallied for him; so too, has Santa Rosa. A kind of bond has been forged, she said, noting that Fortuna and its surrounding communities hosted a donation drive after a significant portion of the Cardinal Newman campus was destroyed in the North Bay wildfires.
The support has given the family strength, Johnson said.
So, too, has Foley’s positivity.
“He seriously laughs at everything, like if I mess up or say something wrong,” she said.
And he’s talking again. After having a tracheotomy tube for more than a month, Johnson said her son’s first meaningful verbal communication was on Oct. 6.
“It was 11:30 at night, we were up in his room. The only light in the room was from the TV,” she said. She watched as he tried to adjust his own pillow.
“He said, ‘I’m drying meat.’ And Sage is like, ‘What kind? Is it venison?’”
Yes, she knows it sounds weird, but it was a golden moment for Foley’s parents.
“It was the best thing ever. It was so cool,” she said.
Foley is talking more, but it’s still not a lot.
“He does a lot of head nodding. Anything he is happy about he gives you a thumbs up,” she said. “He’ll answer questions. We’ll say, ‘Do you feel good?’ and he’ll say ‘Yes, my back itches.’ He doesn’t spontaneously say anything. We are working on that.”
“His voice is so soft and kind of raspy,” she said. “It’s like he’s not opening his mouth to talk; you kind of have to mute the TV — otherwise I can’t hear him.”
His voice may be soft, but his body is getting stronger, Johnson said.
“He is holding up his neck a lot more than before,” she said. “His whole core is getting stronger.”
Therapists are helping him rise from a seated position. He can move his legs and is working on his balance and strength. He’s working on using a walker.
Good news came this week when the neurosurgeon said Foley’s latest MRI showed his brain fluid moving properly after doctors replaced the portion of his skull that was removed to alleviate the initial pressure.
Johnson sees these things as small victories on a long road ahead.
“I know it’s going to be slow,” she said. But it’s forward progress.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”