What began as a fun family bike ride last week for Rhett and Kayelyn McDonald turned into life-saving surgery for the couple’s oldest son.
Seven-year-old Ganon McDonald suffered a traumatic brain injury Friday after a spill on the Willard Munger State Trail, an accident that required immediate surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain.
While the kindergartner from St. James Catholic School is back home recovering and in good spirits, the incident has left an indelible impression on his parents.
“The larger lesson is that life is incredible and to enjoy life and get the most out of moments,” Rhett McDonald, the boys basketball coach at Duluth East, recounted Wednesday. “In 20 years or 20 seconds, life can change. We’re unbelievably fortunate.”
After being pent-up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rhett says he thought an afternoon bike ride would do the family good. So he and his wife, Kayelyn, Ganon, their youngest son, 3-year-old Dekker, and Rhett’s sister, Kailee McDonald, decided to trek down the nearby Munger Trail.
However, the McDonalds were in the process of moving from their West Duluth home to the Kenwood neighborhood so they had boxes of stuff piled high in their garage. Included among those boxes were the children’s bicycle helmets.
“Obviously there’s a lot of regret from me because I could have dug through stuff and found the helmets. They were back there in a box somewhere,” Rhett said.
As they approached the Willard Munger Inn, only a few hundred feet onto the trail, Ganon went headfirst over his handlebars and onto the concrete surface.
“Ganon was really shook up,” Rhett said. “Initially, at the moment, the only thing we were concerned about were the scrapes. He was scared about the scrapes on his hands and his elbows. He didn’t see the scrapes on his eye. That indicated to my wife and I that he hit his head.”
Ganon rode his bike back across Grand Avenue near the Lake Superior Zoo but needed to walk his bike up a hill, the first indication that something was amiss.
“When we got to the top of the hill, he said he wanted to sit down,” Kayelyn said. “At that point, I was thinking that something was wrong.”
Rhett looked at Ganon’s pupils and saw signs of a concussion.
“They were as small as I’ve ever seen anyone’s pupils,” he said.
Like her husband, Kayelyn, who works at an eye clinic and is Duluth Denfeld’s boys and girls tennis coach, has had training to notice symptoms of concussion.
“One of the main things you look for is confusion and if your pupils are different sizes,” she said. “Seeing his pupils were really small wasn’t a big concern to me.”
Dekker had suffered a concussion in 2019 at an area tennis court while his mother was teaching lessons. His parents brought him to an emergency room, but personnel there informed the McDonalds to just watch the child and make sure no further warning signs emerged. They initially used those same guidelines with Ganon.
Rhett biked home and returned with his vehicle to pick up the family. Soon the 7-year-old was vomiting multiple times, a clear symptom of head trauma. By 4 p.m. — just 2 1/2 hours after the accident — he was having trouble communicating and had delayed reactions.
Kayelyn took him to the Essentia St. Mary’s Medical Center emergency room. She parked a block and a half away and by that time Ganon was struggling to put one foot in front of the other.
“I had to tell him to physically pick his legs up,” his mother said. “He would mentally go through the process that he needed to pick his knees up to walk. Then I realized that this was nothing like the previous summer (with Dekker).”
A CT scan showed a 4-centimeter blood clot across the frontal portion of his brain, which required immediate surgery.
“That was a very surreal feeling,” Rhett recalled. “There were at least a dozen or more nurses and doctors there moving very quickly. It’s like life flashes in front of your eyes when it’s your kid.”
Dr. Albert Meric, an on-site neurosurgeon, performed the approximate 45-minute surgery.
“To be in that situation and have the medical personnel needed is a miracle,” Rhett said. “The neurosurgeon was brutally honest with us and said that this was the most dangerous type of blood clot that a kid that age could have. He said he couldn’t promise any outcomes.”
The surgery began around 5:45 p.m. and when the McDonalds met the hospital’s chaplain, their thoughts turned to the worst.
That’s when Mike Van Scoy, a family friend and longtime Essentia worker, joined the parents to provide a calming influence and give them strength. Van Scoy’s son, Will, plays basketball for Rhett at East.
“It was a godsend to have such a close family friend there,” Rhett said. “To have him up there was so important and special.”
Following the surgery, another scan showed Ganon’s brain had not returned to its normal position inside the skull. The doctors told the McDonalds the following three days could determine the rest of their son’s life.
“I remember him saying, ‘The next 72 hours will predict, potentially, what the rest of Ganon’s life will be like,’ ” Rhett said.
Ganon was hooked up to a ventilator along with several intravenous lines.
“It was a very painful night of uncertainty with a lot of tears, frustration and a lot of regret,” Rhett said. “When you see your son hooked up to a ventilator, it’s unbelievably maddening.”
By 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Rhett noticed his son’s eyes were open despite being heavily sedated. They began asking Ganon whether he could squeeze their hands and he did. Eventually he responded to other commands, gave a thumbs-up signal and was able to whisper once the ventilator was removed.
Another CT scan showed his brain was back into position and by Monday afternoon — less than 72 hours after surgery — Ganon was back home playing and laughing with his younger brother.
“It’s such a relief,” Kayelyn said. “They told us that the next 72 hours were critical, and we were home within those 72 hours so you realize how lucky you are and how big of a miracle it was.”
Ganon has 60 staples in his forehead but hasn’t complained of any pain, his father says.
"I am feeling better and doing good," Ganon said in a video posted to his father's Twitter account. "Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers."
His father says Ganon needs to avoid watching TV and computer imagery.
“Since he’s been home, he’s wanted to do the things that he normally does and that’s frustrating to him because we don’t allow that,” Rhett said.
Especially no bike riding.