• A brain-damaged Fresno therapist who gave birth while in a coma is making progress a year after a seizure.
• In three months of being home, progress outstrips the family’s expectations.
• A smile, a mouthed word, a kiss, a hand brushing a cheek are cherished achievements.
Melissa Carleton wants to to talk but only a soft, barely audible sound escapes her lips for the speech therapist, who leans close and encourages her to try again.
In the next room, Carleton’s son, West Lande, laughs and babbles as only a 9 ½-month-old can.
The sounds of the baby learning to speak and the silence of his mother who is re-learning speech are reminders of the best and worst time that Carleton and her family have known this past year.
A year ago Wednesday, Carleton, six months pregnant with West, had a brain seizure the night before surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. The seizure and operation left Carleton, a Fresno marriage and family therapist, barely conscious. If she lived it would be a miracle — and to deliver a healthy baby, beyond fathomable.
But doctors at the University of California at San Francisco medical center kept Carleton, 39, alive and stable. In May, she delivered West, healthy and weighing more than 5 pounds.
The elation of West’s birth, however, faded as knowledge of Carleton’s brain damage became clear. She would need months — likely years — of speech, occupational and physical therapy. Only after spending months in the hospital and at a Bay Area rehabilitation hospital was she well enough to come home to live in Fresno with her parents, John and Lawanna Farrell.
Looking back at the year, the Farrells say it’s been a roller-coaster ride.
“We started last year not knowing how Melissa was going to do after her surgery,” Lawanna Farrell says. “By fall, we were more encouraged. And she’s now speaking some words occasionally and she appears to understand what we’re saying.”
The family figured Carleton would do better at home than in a hospital setting, and they were right.
“In the three months of being home, the improvements have outstripped everything we expected,” John Farrell says.
Carleton’s sister, Sarah Marshall, has seen the progress. Marshall lives in Missouri, but she and daughter, Grace Marshall, 14, make frequent trips to Fresno and were visiting Carleton on Tuesday. “She seems much better and just all around more awake,” Marshall said.
Being home with her baby is her sister’s best therapy, Marshall says.
Lawanna Farrell agrees. It’s good for Melissa to be around him — and for him to be around her. “He senses that she is his mom and will lay his head down on her shoulder. He’s kissed her on several occasions.”
Carleton also perks up when taken to familiar settings, such as the Fig Garden Swim and Racquet Club, where she used to be on the masters swim team. “We’re planning on getting her into the water,” her mother says.
While Carleton is improving, the family has learned to accept setbacks: She twice has been hospitalized at Community Regional Medical Center for infections since coming home.
Taking care of Carleton takes a cadre of caregivers.
John Farrell is using family medical leave from his job as a Fresno State history lecturer to remain at home to care for her. Lawanna Farrell works as a nurse at Community Regional, but takes over care when she’s home. They also have outside help from eight caregivers provided by Fresno County In-Home Supportive Services.
Carleton’s husband, Brian Lande, comes home on days off from his job as a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy to be with his wife and son and to help with their care.
Lande barely left his wife’s side during the months in the hospital and at the rehabilitation center. He strapped motion sensors on her wrists, using the cutting-edge technology to help chronicle her movements and plot her progress.
He and the Farrells measure achievements in small increments: a smile, a mouthed word, a kiss, a brush of a hand on a cheek.
“Melissa works really hard,” Lande says.
Once in awhile, she takes her family’s breath away. Lawanna Farrell noticed Carleton mouthing the words “I want my” but could not understand what her daughter was asking. Last week, she figured it out by reading Carleton’s lips: “She wanted her phone — she wanted to get messages off of her phone because she was worried about her clients.”
Carleton, a 1993 Edison High School graduate, had private therapy practices in Fresno and Berkeley and ran the breast cancer support group at Saint Agnes Medical Center. Her clients, friends and strangers have rallied to support the family with fundraising, food and supplies. A gofundme site has raised more than $130,000. About a third of that amount has been used for Carleton’s care, John Farrell said.
Her recovery could take years.
For now, her family has settled into a new routine: wheelchair transfers, doctor visits and therapy sessions with Carleton and bottles, diaper changes and early mornings with West.
“All of our lives have been so changed by this,” Lawanna Farrell says. “But Melissa’s life has been the most dramatically changed.”