Gabriel Scheel is spunky. The youngest of five boys, the Assumption School preschooler is tough enough to lay some hurt on his brothers when the Scheel boys roughhouse.
He likes sports, being silly, dancing around the house. His scooter and his bike. Loves the Lord and loves life.
And Gabe, as he is mostly called, has been blessed with extraordinary swimming skills. No stranger to a wide variety of bodies of water, the youngster was recently invited to join a swim team at an age most kids are just beginning lessons at the pool.
As the 5-year-old Walla Walla boy now lies in a hospital bed day after day, unable to respond to those around him, these are the facts his parents cling to.
It was May 13 when his son was sent home from school with a fever, DeSales High School teacher and coach Michael Scheel recalled last week. “And a really bad headache.”
Tonya Scheel wanted to gather her little boy into her arms and cuddle on the couch as they waited out whatever was going on. Gabe, though, begged for a bath, Michael said. Perhaps to cool his hot skin or dampen sensory input into his aching head.
I know from having six children of my own, a bath can be magic medicine in many cases.
Tonya ran the water into the tub and Gabe climbed in to begin a soothing soak.
This looked like it might be a flu that was going around at school and elsewhere, Tonya thought, and she decided to call her husband.
Having just started a new job at Whitman College, there was a meeting scheduled for the next morning. Tonya needed to be there if possible, so she stepped outside the bathroom into the hall to punch in the number.
“She wanted to tell me I might need to take time off for Gabe,” Michael explained. “To tell me he might need to stay home a couple of days.” It took, literally, 90 seconds to have that conversation, he added.
As I listened to Michael, a movie played in my head of the countless times my own kids played in the tub while laundry was folded, a phone answered, a kettle on the stove pulled off.
But when Tonya returned to the bathroom, her little boy was underwater. “They don’t know for sure what happened, but it was probably a seizure,” Michael said.
The mother of five pulled her youngest out of the water, administered CPR and called paramedics. Gabe coughed up the water, Michael said, and was rushed out the door to be transported to Providence St. Mary Medical Center.
Almost immediately their son was life-flighted from Walla Walla to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, where doctors put the boy on a ventilator system. As well, they sunk Gabe into a medically induced coma to keep tubes and wires in place.
“His lungs were pretty damaged,” Michael said, while my own ached at the thought.
As of this writing, it’s been five weeks of emotional and decisional roulette. Gabe weaned off the ventilator after two weeks but little else has changed, his parents report. “He is kind of looking at us, but not much more,” Tonya said.
There’s the hyperbaric chamber, for one. While Gabe’s pediatric neurologist is a cheerleader for the oxygenated treatments — the theory is that the brain responds to being surrounded by pure oxygen — the Scheels’ health insurance doesn’t cover the procedures, which run about $300 a session. Just getting Gabe to those requires ambulance rides at $360 each way, Michael said. “They want us to try 40 appointments.”
And who among us would flinch away from any hope at all, whatever the cost?
Dealing with hospital staff is luck of the day’s draw, Michael noted. Some providers are frank, abrupt, shooting down the Scheels’ hopes. “They shake their heads, they say we don’t know how moderately or severely handicapped he will be.”
Others tell the family that kids are resilient and they’ve seen other cases like this where children bounce back.
The next hurdle is to get Gabe strong enough to go to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, where experts will work with the boy for hours on end, Michael said. “But he has to be able to look at someone when they say his name, or move a limb when asked to. He can’t do that yet.”
At four weeks into this minute-by-minute journey, tests showed brain damage, Tonya said in a June 10 post at online journal CaringBridge.org. “We knew that, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks. That is why we are doing treatments. To hopefully reawaken those brain cells and create new blood pathways. I know we are looking for a miracle. But Gabriel needs it. He wants it. And he deserves it!”
As any mom would, Tonya misses her sunny boy, she writes. “His voice. His hugs. His kisses. His nonstop motion. His love for us. His run. His walk. His little dancing. His bedtime routine. His asking to snuggle. His laughter. His yelling at his brothers. His begging. His complaining about dinner. His everything!”
In the meantime, the Scheel family of Walla Walla waits. On God, on medicine, on the strength of friends and power of community. There is nothing left in their own power to do.
Because we are who we are, the community is giving legs to prayers. A donation account is set up at U.S. Bank, cars have been washed, chocolates sold. More will be done, but mostly we, too, will wait. For a native son to come back home.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 509-526-8322.