GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Tom Dane woke up in the dead of night last month to go to the bathroom.
“Old man’s syndrome,” he explained.
“God was talking to you,” his ex-wife, Amy Severson, corrected him.
Then he heard something else.
Their daughter, Karsen Dane, an athletic 12-year-old seventh-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, who had stayed home from school with the sniffles, cough and sore throat that week, was struggling to breathe.
“If he didn’t have to go to the bathroom, I don’t think she’d be here,” said Amy, her eyes brimming with tears and her voice choked with emotion.
“Which no parent wants to think about,” Tomsaid, nodding his head in agreement.
It has been a long haul these past weeks, but Tom and Amy are so thankful on this Thanksgiving week for excellent medical care, the outpouring from an incredibly generous community, middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks and, most of all, for their youngest child’s life.
It got really scary, really fast.
Tom sat Karsen up in bed and asked her how she was doing.
He asked again.
He woke up their two older children and commanded them to start his vehicle and hold open the doors while he threw on some clothes because he was going to have to carry Karsen out and get her to the hospital. On the double.
But Karsen walked to the rig on her own power. She was able to process the information but unable to respond.
At the emergency room, things went really sideways.
“It was like a TV show: Doctors were screaming and nurses running and machines and alarms were beeping,” Tom remembered.
Karsen’s pulse was 225 and her fever 105, he said.
Tom called Amy.
“(Before), it was an ER visit, (and) I wasn’t going to bother her with it,” Tom said. “Until things went south, and then I called and said, ‘You need to get here.’ So, she got to come in at the worst part of it.”
When Amy saw Karsen, she was obviously struggling.
“I went in, and I let her know I was there,” Amy said, again choking back tears. “I grabbed her feet, rubbed her toes, but she didn’t know I was there.”
“I didn’t know if she was going to make it, to be perfectly honest with you,” Tom said.
It was Thursday, Oct. 13, and Karsen does not remember anything until that Sunday.
“When the machines started beeping, they told us, ‘You got to go,’ and they brought us to a little waiting room and did what they had to do,” Tom said.
What the folks at Benefis Health System did, according to Tom, was “save her life.”
A simple sinus infection had spread to Karsen’s brain. Now, more than a month later, she still has a tube feeding her antibiotics and is taking anti-seizure medications three times a day, but she is on the mend.
That was very much in doubt for a while.
“The ER doctor comes in and tells you, ‘We got her stabilized, but she had a seizure, and it was bad and it was long, and there’s a chance of permanent damage,’” Tom said. “And that’s when your brain goes where you don’t want it to go.”
The medical team at first thought Karsen had meningitis. The team needed to do a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to find out, but Karsen was undergoing a massive seizure that made that impossible. They figured she also was having a smaller one when Tom woke her up and she didn’t respond to him at the beginning of the ordeal.
So the medical team “basically paralyzed her,” Tom said. “They gave her a drug where basically the only thing that works is your heart.”
“And your eyes,” Amy said.
When the test ruled out meningitis, “They said, ‘She needs more resources than we can give her,’” Tom said.
By 10:30 a.m., Karsen and Amy were on a Mercy Flight plane to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver after first arriving at Benefis around 4 a.m.
“It was the longest flight of my life,” said Amy, recounting that Karsen received anti-seizure medication four times while up in the air.
In actuality, the flight lasted just an hour and 20 minutes — a half an hour quicker than anticipated.
When the pilot first saw Karsen on the gurney, he looked at Amy and said, “Does she go to Our Lady of Lourdes?”
“And I told him, ‘She’s Karsen Dane,” Amy said. “And he went white and said, ‘She’s my daughter’s best friend.’”
The pilot’s daughter was new to school, so Karsen had taken her under her wing.
Later, Tom said they learned that the pilot sent out word that Karsen was extremely critical.
Amy later received a Facebook message from the pilot that said, “Just so you know, the minute the wheels were off the ground, we were at full thrust until we were on the ground,” Tom said. “They waited for no one.”
Tom waited a day to get things “buttoned up” with their older two children, Kyla, a senior at C.M. Russell High, and Casey, a sophomore at Great Falls Central Catholic, before he went down to be with Karsen.
But Amy and teleconference calls with the doctors kept him in the loop.
Once Karsen was in Denver, it was “go, go, go,” Tom said.
An MRI eventually revealed the cause as a simple sinus infection, requiring immediate surgery to clean out her sinuses by going in through her nose.
“I’m like everybody else, ‘A sinus infection?” Tom said.
But not really a simple sinus infection. Tom said they were told there are millions of bacteria that can cause sinus infections, and Karsen had two of the nastiest. One was in the staph family and another in the strep family.
Karsen had a team of doctors for each of her ailments: an infectious disease team for the bacteria, an ear, nose and throat team for her sinuses, a respiratory team because she was intubated, a neurology team and neurosurgeons, and the intensive care unit doctors.
Later, she’d have physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and a dietitian.
“No stone was left unturned,” Tom said, laughing and shaking his head at the memory. “We saw, what: 15 to 20 doctors a day?”
Karsen didn’t wake up until that Sunday, and she was paralyzed on the right side of her body.
“I kind of looked around the room,” she said, looking over at her dad. “He asked me what day it was, and I said ‘Thursday.’ And he said, ‘Nope, it’s Sunday,’ and I was, like, ‘Whoa.’”
It’s funny now, but it was nothing short of terrifying at the time.
“The way the doctors put it, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t make a full recovery, but we can’t guarantee it, so, there again, your mind goes right where you don’t want it to go,” Tom said.
Tom and Amy still don’t know the reason for the paralysis, but a condition called Todd’s paralysis frequently follows seizures, plus there was the drug used to incapacitate her for the spinal tap and the fact the infection affected the left side of her brain, which controls her right side.
They do know they are thankful that Karsen now has full control of her right side.
Karsen even laughs at the time when she tried to scratch an itch with her right hand and the hand just kind of splatted across her face in the general area of the itch as she was just regaining some control of her extremities.
Tom and Amy laugh along with her.
“It’s still surreal,” Amy said. “I don’t get on the plane with my child. That can’t be.”
Karsen was released from the hospital Oct. 21, gathered her strength for a few days for the flight home and returned to Great Falls Oct. 24.
“And on Halloween, I was trick or treating,” said Karsen. Her friend, Jayden Raaen, took Karsen, dressed as a panda bear, around in a motorized cart he drove because she still was weak.
“You know you have some good friends,” Amy said, looking at Karsen.
Karsen and Jayden have gone to school together at Lourdes since kindergarten.
Karsen remembers her first return visit to the school she has attended since preschool. “I was standing out in the hall, and they were praying to go to lunch, and (my friend) Emma just looked at me and got wide-eyed and all the girls ran out into the hall and gave me a big, ole hug,” Karsen said.
Jayden said it was a powerful moment.
“It was a tsunami of people crowded around her, hugging, thanking,” he said. “I can imagine it was overwhelming for her.”
“There were a lot of tears,” said Lourdes’ teacher Tammy Madill.
This time, the tears were from joy, but they were quite different just a few days earlier.
“The first couple days … they were saying that she wasn’t going to make it,” Jayden said. “We were really worried about it.”
He said there were four prayer services for Karsen.
“It was a shocking moment,” Jayden said, shaking his head. “Anything can happen at any moment. That a tiny, little sinus infection could escalate like that. I was thinking it easily could have been me or anybody else I know. It was just an eye-opener.”
Madill said it was that much harder since Karsen has been such a vital part of the school for so long — and is such a great kid.
“Not that you want this to happen to a kid who isn’t so awesome, but when it happens to someone like Karsen, it just kind of spreads that much further,” she said.
Tom and Amy said the support has come from everywhere.
“It’s been humbling,” Tom said. “People we don’t even know have helped out.”
Word got out on social media, and there have been fundraising campaigns and more offers to help.
“My phone just went, ‘Boom,’” Tom said of the hours after Karsen first got on the plane.
There are still more doctors’ visits and a return trip to the Denver hospital after the Thanksgiving weekend, but life is returning to normal.
“Physically? She’s fine,” Tom said.
“Mentally? She’s fine,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Karsen asked, a mischievous grin spreading across her face.
Karsen will turn 13 on Black Friday, which hardly seems dark at all after everything she and her family have gone through.
She recently spent some time making gingerbread cookies with Jayden.
“I just told her that if you can make gingerbread houses, you can do the dishes,” Tom told Amy, before turning his attention to Karsen. “It’s time to get back to it.”
And she had that most typical of teenagers’ answers.
And they all shared a laugh.