Kaylin’s New Spin On Life


Nobody in the ice rink saw Kaylin Chaffee’s fall.


They heard it. Her head hit the ice with an alarming noise later described to her mother as “very, very loud.”


Barbra Chaffee, Kaylin’s mom, is still thankful she wasn’t there to hear it.


“She was doing a 'sit-spin' — close to the ground with one foot out. It’s not even considered a particularly dangerous spin,” says Barbra, remembering that February day when she got the call. “We live ten minutes away from the rink. I think I was there in eight.”


The sound of the impact made Kaylin’s coach turn. He rushed to her aid and discovered that she couldn’t see to get off the ice. She was conscious but Kaylin recalls seeing blackness and a “kaleidoscope of colors.” Plus she had a “crazy headache.”


That was 4:00 p.m. on February 22, 2012. It was the beginning of the Chaffee family’s journey — what Barbra calls their brain injury journey.


Kaylin Chaffee

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They received emergency care near their home in Camarillo, where Kaylin was diagnosed. She’d hit her head on the right side, causing her brain to slam back into the left side of her skull. The result: subdural hematoma — bleeding outside the brain.


Blood had collected on the surface of her brain, in the layers of tissue between her brain and skull, causing a dangerous amount of pressure and the severe headache that Kaylin was feeling. Her mom was encouraged that during the evening Kaylin’s vision had cleared and she was talking normally. But her brain injury was serious.


At 1:00 a.m. she was transported to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s Trauma Center where she underwent a full evaluation and was admitted to the Cottage Children’s Hospital pediatric ICU under the care of pediatric intensivist Dr. Curt Pickert. Specialized neurosurgeon Dr. Alois Zauner arrived to discuss Kaylin’s brain scans with the family.


“The team was just awesome,” remembers Barbra. “They converged when the ambulance arrived and a whole team went to work caring for her. They kept her comfortable with talk about the different colors in her bright toenail polish. That cheerfulness made a difference.”


“One of the EMTs we met told us that he’d once suffered a concussion surfing. He described some of the symptoms he experienced afterward, and I remember thinking, ‘Here he is now — a bright young man, healthy and strong and doing well in the world. Kaylin can get better too.’ That helped, but Kaylin’s injury wasn’t a concussion. It was even worse,” says Barbra.


With a skating exhibition approaching in just two days, Kaylin wanted to know when she’d be able to go back to the ice. Her doctors warned her not to even think about it for two weeks — that it would probably be closer to two months — and that it would be a slow return to the ice. No jumping, no spinning — just skating in circles.


But she would be able to skate again. With the proper care and rest, Kaylin was expected to make a full recovery. Still, the 13-year-old figure skater felt devastated to miss her event.


“Here she was with a big huge brain injury and her only worry was skating in the exhibition,” Barbra recalls. “It’s hard to see your child cry. And she couldn’t even really cry because that made her head hurt worse. I had to be strong for her so she wouldn’t see how worried I was.”


For a time, Barbra says, everything would cause Kaylin head pain: when she was too warm, too cold, too hungry, too tired…when she thought too much. Her brain would actually hurt.


During her first week home, despite rest, Kaylin’s symptoms actually got worse. Fortunately, one of the medical caregivers had warned the family that this might happen before she started improving.


That offered some solace to Barbra, though it still frightened her that Kaylin was suffering from double vision, dizziness and shortness of breath. She made another trip to an emergency room to ensure that the bleeding had stopped, and she continued followup care, visiting the Trauma Clinic at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital two weeks after her accident. Her balance was off, she was dizzy and had twinges of pain.


Kaylin still couldn’t do schoolwork or read for more than 20 minutes at a time. She couldn’t remember things. And her mom held firm that Kaylin had to spend time in the middle of the day resting with her eyes closed in complete silence — away from her brothers and the family’s dog. It was very difficult


and caused a lot of sadness for this bright teenager. In the beginning her brain was extremely vulnerable. She faced a hard road ahead. But she would get better.


During Kaylin’s recovery, the family's routine — their whole life — had to slow down. They canceled family events. It would be four weeks before she could resume school, and three months before Kaylin was cleared to slowly resume all of her normal activities. In that time, managing Kaylin’s care and constant symptoms became a full-time occupation for her family.


“The hardest part was constantly causing her more sadness by telling her she couldn’t skate yet,” says Barbra. “But nobody else is going to be the parent. I had to take care of my child.”


Today Kaylin is skating better than ever, and even making better grades than she did before her injury.


“If Kaylin’s story offers comfort to another family going through this journey, then I’d feel thankful. I tried to hold on to the positive stories and encouragement people would offer,” reflects Barbra. “Having a child with a brain injury is hard and scary. But there is hope, and recovery is possible.”


Barbra (left) and Kaylin Chaffee are thankful to return to the rink.


“Nobody else is going to be the parent. I had to take care of my child.”


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