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A Rescue in Bethesda
Comments () | Published August 1, 2009

“You’ve always been a fighter,” she said. “You wouldn’t ever have been born if you weren’t, and Mommy knows you’re going to get through this.”

Ami Susan always sang to the boys, and they loved one song in particular. She leaned over, held Aiden’s hand, and sang softly:

“I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. So God bless the moon and God bless me, God bless somebody I want to see. It seems like God from heaven above, created you for me to love . . . .”

She went next to Bricen’s room, and he seemed to respond when she sang to him, but he didn’t open his eyes. Coleson gave no response at all.

Night had fallen by the time Michael left Washington Hospital Center. By then, both Warfield and Klavon had been treated for their burns and released. Dressed in scrubs and hospital slippers and surrounded by friends, Michael began the short walk to Children’s. Doctors had been wary about his leaving the hospital. His lungs had taken in a lot of toxic soot, and his carboxyhemoglobin level was 15.1 percent—higher than Bricen’s.

Ami Susan knew that the only person who could make her feel better was Michael. After Michael arrived at Children's, the couple met in a small private room, where they embraced and wept and did not speak for several moments.

“I still can’t believed all this happened,” she said softly.

“I know, I know,” he replied. “The fire was just so hot and so fast, so black and choking. I tried over and over to get to the boys, but I could not get them out.”

Worried about his state of mind and the burden he carried, she reassured him that she had seen the children and they were alive and getting the best care.

“I think we should pray,” Ami Susan said as she held Michael’s hand.

As she prayed for the “healing hands of God,” she could feel Michael’s hand squeezing hers tight, and she squeezed back. Afterward, Michael visited each of the children and lingered over them, thinking it might be the last time he’d see the three of them alive.

Firefighters remained at the Petrucelli home and conducted a “hot wash”—a kind of instant oral history of what everyone had done and when they’d done it.

Rick Merck, a senior fire-protection engineer for Montgomery County, had arrived at the scene after the fire was out. Merck works with fire investigators and engineers and conducts computerized “fire modeling” to determine how and why a fire acted the way it did. The goal is to develop better fire-prevention-and-containment strategies.

After going through the house, Merck sought out Oglesby and told him that if he hadn’t done what he did to prevent flashover, the upstairs could have become an incinerator, taking the lives of the triplets as well as firefighters Warfield and Klavon.

He told Oglesby, “You saved the day.”

Children’s Hospital offered Michael and Ami Susan the use of a nearby apartment that the hospital makes available to patients’ families who are a long way from home or no longer have one. Their friends bought clothing and food.

Ami Susan spoke by phone to Sandy Arbuckle, a friend since their days at Butler University in Indianapolis. Arbuckle said she was flying out to be with her.

Ami Susan and Michael didn’t get to bed until early morning. Michael continued coughing, and they slept fitfully.

The ICU doctors had warned the Petrucellis that the body’s natural inflammatory response to injuries would make things worse before they got better—if they were to get better. The doctors worried most about the boys’ brains. They were very concerned about Coleson’s seizure; he remained attached to an electroencephalogram to monitor his brain waves. His brain had been injured by smoke inhalation, and seizure activity could aggravate the injury.

Two of the boys had come into the hospital with common childhood bacterial infections that normally would cause little concern. But because of their injuries and highly stressed conditions, fevers posed dangers to their brains. To minimize that complication, doctors put them on broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Low blood-pressure levels posed the threat of decreased blood supply to their brains, so doctors monitored second by second their blood-pressure readouts and gave them dopamine and other medications when needed to maintain normal pressure. Doctors also had to maintain the right sodium balance in their blood.

The lungs posed the second-greatest worry because inflammation, which all three boys suffered from, impairs the lungs’ ability to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The boys’ lower lung lobes already had collapsed, and the ventilator had to be manipulated to reinflate them.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the boys’ lungs was the very thing saving their lives—the oxygen pumped in by the ventilator. Christiane Corriveau and Nathan Dean, the ICU physicians, had initially set the ventilator’s oxygen level at 100 percent to drive out the carbon monoxide and nourish the body’s tissues with oxygen. But after a time, very high oxygen levels can become toxic. The pressure with which the ventilator pumped in oxygen had to be monitored carefully—if set too high, it could stretch the lungs and cause further damage. The doctors had to walk a fine line to be sure the ventilator’s oxygen and pressure levels were set high enough to help the boys recover but not so high as to cause additional harm.

The morning after the fire, the Petrucellis met with Dr. Corriveau to get a better understanding of the boys’ condition. The doctor related the obstacles the children faced and the dangers that lay ahead.

Corriveau couldn’t say what impact the smoke inhalation and oxygen deprivation might have had on their brains. In her experience, there was no reliable way to tell from their carbon-monoxide levels. She had seen kids with relatively low carbon-monoxide levels who suffered serious brain damage and others with higher levels who suffered no serious damage.

Although all three boys remained in critical condition, she said, Coleson’s status was the most worrisome. He still showed no sign of consciousness. “Coleson,” Corriveau said, “is one sick kid.”

“Is this bad enough that we should call our relatives to come here so they can say their goodbyes?” Ami Susan asked.

Corriveau said softly, “I would if I were you.”

When they left the meeting, Ami Susan prepared to make the call to her 80-year-old mother, Jeannie, who split her time between Indianapolis and Naples, Florida. Ami Susan had talked with her on the drive from Philadelphia and later from the hospital but had been unable to tell her the boys’ medical status. Now she knew. Ami Susan was close to her mother; they had shared the pain of losing her father and, more recently, her older brother, Andy, who died of a heart attack at age 39. 

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles