Weekend Highlights

Published February 4, 2014
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Congratulations Unsung Hero: Tara Mitchell

by Seattle's Child Staff

February is Parent Recognition Month. Strengthening Families Washington, of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State, believes there is no better way to recognize a parent, grandparent, foster or adoptive parent than by acknowledging the numerous and impressive things they do to strengthen their family and those around them in their community.

Seattle’s Child is proud to sponsor the Washington Unsung Hero Awards, recognizing our everyday heroes and honoring the important role caregivers play in children’s lives. There are 28 nominees for the 28 days of February, and Seattle’s Child will highlight each and every one.

Congratulations to the Unsung Hero for February 4: 

Tara Mitchell - Auburn 

Tara Mitchell defines parental resilience. Her life as a mother changed forever the day her infant son was violently shaken while she was at work. Tara has been a fierce advocate for her son’s recovery, health and well-being. She has further taken this tragic incident in their lives and translated adversity into advocacy. She is an active member of the Abusive Head Trauma Prevention (AHTP) Task Force of Washington, and works tirelessly through public speaking, advocacy and fundraising on projects to prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome.  

In the words of Tara Mitchell:

Our story begins not unlike most people ... I was in my early 30s, had graduated college, had a good job, had been married for several years and we were finally having a baby. I planned the whole time I was expecting, to make everything perfect, be fully prepared to do everything right, decorated and fixed up the house, read all the books, and couldn't wait to bring my son home.

When my son was born, it was the happiest day of my life. He was so beautiful, a healthy 9 pounds 12 ounces, plump and beautiful boy with beautiful blue eyes and blond hair. I never fully understood the love of a parent until that moment.

I returned to work full time when he was 3 months old. I hated going back to work, but my husband and I had made it work so that he would be with one of us at all times. He would always be safe, always be safe with one of his parents.

A short 3 months later I got the call at my work that changed my life forever. I rushed home to my son already in an ambulance and being rushed to Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. They had to pull over on I-5 because he stopped breathing, and they had to resuscitate him and put a breathing tube down his throat. It seemed like an eternity until I could even see him. That first night is a blur.

When I did finally get to see my son, after authorizing emergency brain surgery to relieve the pressure inside his skull from hemorrhaging, all I saw was him in his diaper; multiple tubes coming out his mouth, his head, his arms; and machines all around him. His head was completely bandaged, and between all of the tubing and gauze, all I could see was his closed eyes. I kept talking to him, kissing and rubbing his hand, watching and waiting for him to open his eyes.

I don't think I really heard much of what the doctors were telling me; I was in such a state of shock. All I remember hearing was bleeding in the brain, and that he may not live through the night. At that point, when I wasn't holding my son's hand, I was dry heaving over the garbage can.

Would I ever see my baby's little blue eyes again?

At my son's bedside, which I WOULD NOT leave once I was able to see him after surgery, the man I was married to was taken in for questioning. I was numb. I sat at my son's bedside, praying and hoping I could hold him and make everything alright. But I could not hold him. The pressure inside his skull was still dangerously high and he could have very limited stimulation, not even being held.

Sometime late into that first night, after multiple doctors had seen and treated my son, I was told for the first time, very forcefully and graphically, that someone had taken my son, shook him hard, and threw him into a hard surface. He had blunt force trauma to the head. While saying this they demonstrated with a doll exactly what happened to my son.

I ran out of the room, threw up and then collapsed onto the floor in hysterics screaming, and then I couldn't breathe.

This is how I learned about Shaken Baby Syndrome (also known now as Abusive Head Trauma). This was also how I came to know of the Mary Bridge Child Intervention Department. My son had become a victim of child abuse, of a horrible act, all at the hands of a person who should have loved and protected him with his life. My son lived through that first night, thanks to the fast medical attention he received, and the emergency surgery to relieve the bleeding in his brain. I was told by the neurosurgeon that my son was within two hours of dying ... all because he cried.

I am one of the lucky ones. My son survived his assault and is now considered a high functioning survivor, even though he still has some developmental and behavioral challenges.

An estimated 1,500 children are injured or killed by shaking every year in the United States. We know that in the last few years, there has been a 55 percent increase in the Seattle area alone. More than 300 babies a year die from being shaken in the United States. And all because they cry. Approximately 25 percent of those shaken die as a result of their injuries. Of those who survive, 80 percent suffer permanent disability such as severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, behavioral disorders and impaired motor and cognitive skills.

Many survivors require constant medical or personal attention, which places tremendous emotional and financial strain on families. Medical costs associated with initial and long term care for these children can easily reach into the millions.

I have met many other children and families affected by SBS. Whether they are angels, or survivors, it has ruined any kind of what people call a "normal" life. But this is now our reality. Due to the work of the Child Intervention Department (MultiCare Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital) and their coordination with doctors and detectives, my son’s assaulter was convicted of two counts of child abuse and served 10 years in prison.

I became an advocate against child abuse after that night, and have been ever since. Many members of the Child Intervention Department (MultiCare Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital) are involved with multiple child abuse prevention programs, and work tirelessly to protect kids, provide education, and be of help to those who are assaulted.

Specifically related to this form of assault, they are involved with the Washington State Task Force on Abusive Head Trauma and provide education in the community. They were instrumental in the education called “The Period of Purple Crying” to all parents before they are discharged from the hospital, in the hopes of preventing this form of assault.

Nominator:  Mary Quinlan

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More About This Story...

Read the stories about the other inspiring Unsung Hero award winners:

February 1: Miranda Fort

February 2: Mike and Elaine Quantrell

February 3: Ginelle Nault